Monday musings on Australian literature: On the making of a classic
Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but everyone to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading. They gave no reason for this extraordinary opinion, but it was sufficient for them, and they laughed to scorn the idea that any good could come out of Nazareth – i.e. the Colonies. (Fergus Hume in the Preface to the 1898 revised edition of his The mystery of a hansom cab)
Rather coincidentally, I finished reading Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab a few days after I wrote last week’s Monday Musings on nurturing Australian classics. The quote above doesn’t exactly relate to today’s topic on the creation of a classic but to the difficult business of getting published in the first place. However, it does lead nicely into today’s discussion, partly because a book must be published before it can hope to be a classic (duh!), but mainly because today’s topic was inspired by the new introduction to Sydney University Press’s 2010 edition of Hume’s novel.
In this introduction, Robert Dixon of Sydney University commences by stating that when people are asked to nominate the most popular Australian writers of the late nineteenth century they tend to name Marcus Clarke (The term of his natural life), Rolf Boldrewood (Robbery under arms), Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. They do not, in other words, mention Fergus Hume whose book achieved “impressive sales”. Nor do they mention writers like Ada Cambridge (whom I’ve featured in a past Monday musings). Why?
Dixon has some suggestions. One is commercial, that is availability. He quotes another academic in the field, Paul Eggert, as saying that a “consensus about the nineteenth-century classics emerged quite suddenly among reviewers around the Centenary year of 1888, which hardened into an orthodoxy” in early histories of literature. This resulted in Clarke’s, Boldrewood’s and Kinsley’s (The recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn) novels becoming available cheaply and in quantity. But why these particular works? Well, Dixon says that there was a growing interest in the colonial past, an “emerging literary nationalism”, which
not only displaced a generation of female authors of domestic realism, such as Catherine Spence, Ada Cambridge and Catherine Martin, but also male writers of urban-based popular fiction, including Fergus Hume and Nat Gould.
By the time the first critical evaluations of Australian literature came to be written in the early decades of the new century, Eggert notes, ‘the die had been cast’. The mystery of a hansom cab was urban, not pastoral, international rather than national in outlook, and ‘neither a detective story nor a turf tale* was going to compete seriously with the Kingsley-Clarke-Boldrewood trio’.
Interesting, eh? The logical outcome, of course, is that if a book is overlooked early in its life (due to “fashion” or the “fickle finger of fate”) it has a hard road back to serious recognition. But then, feminist studies over the last half century have already shown us how books (art, music, or whatever endeavour you care to mention) by women have regularly been overlooked by the creators of “the canon”.
It would be nice to think that “quality” (I’m not going to get into definitions of that now) will rise to the top but, while we probably agree in general that those books currently labelled “classics” are so, it’s pretty clear that there are many more works out there equally deserving of the label – if only we knew about them. That’s the real pity of it … so I’d like to thank all those publishers who, over recent years, have sussed out “quality” older works and re-introduced them to us. I hope they keep doing so.
All that said, it begs the question about today’s authors and books, doesn’t it? Will the swag of awards we have now be the arbiter of what become future classics? Or will best-selling status be the go? Will future publishers suss out the overlooked – and what will they be? Oh for a crystal ball.
Addendum to last week
In last week’s post I reported that Melbourne University did not teach one Australian literature course in 2011. Here is student Stephanie Guest’s take on the situation as she reported in the Australian Book Review (undated):
… at the University of Melbourne, there was only one subject on Australian literature, ‘The Australian Imaginary’. To my chagrin, the handbook reported that it was not available in 2011. There may be specialised branches of Australian literature taught in Croatia and Texas, but at Melbourne there was not even a general course on offer. The carelessness towards Australian literary studies was clear from the listing in the course curriculum of Murray Bail as ‘Murray Bird’.
The head of the English department told me that staff shortages, reduced funding for the Arts Faculty, and low student interest in the subject were responsible for the absence of Australian Literature in 2011.
* Nat Gould’s milieu