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Monday musings on Australian literature: Twenty Australian novelists in 1947

June 4, 2012

My Monday Musings of two weeks ago was about the first book in a series of four books on Australian fiction. The books were written by Colin Roderick and published by Angus and Robertson. The second book, which is today’s topic, was published in 1947, two years after the first, and was titled Twenty Australian novelists.

The novelists Roderick chose for this volume are:

Wow! While there were only two or three authors I didn’t know in the first post’s list, there are several I’ve never heard of in this one. Interestingly, the writer in the West Australian on 12 July 1947 commented that “perhaps Katherine Susannah Pritchard (sic), Henrietta Drake-Brockman and other well-known writers have been selected for discussion in one or other of the two remaining volumes which are to complete the series”. Certainly, these two writers, particularly Prichard, are better known today than many in the above list. They must be … They have Wikipedia links and I’m sure most of you have heard of Wikipedia’s notability requirement!

Despite my ignorance, I enjoy seeing which authors a previous generation deems important … and I did learn something interesting. Seaforth Mackenzie apparently died by downing in Goulburn, which is about an hour’s drive from where I live. I knew his name but not that he had a connection to my region. And I haven’t, I’m ashamed to say, read him.

Geoffrey Hutton, writing in the Argus in September 1947, critiqued the book. He started by arguing that Australia had yet to produce:

a figure of the type of Hemingway or Falkner*. You may say God forbid, but the point I want to make about these two writers is that they built a literary style out of the speech-habits and speech-rhythms of the American people, which is as distinct from the metropolitan English style as it is from Hardy’s slow-moving Wessex dialect. Even when they are not talking local slang or describing canyons or skyscrapers, their writing has an un-English, a specifically American taste.

I do love that “You may say God forbid”? It speaks volumes. Anyhow, he went on to state that “Australian-ness” was conveyed primarily through subject matter rather than in “style or method”, and, while he agreed that Colin Roderick was undertaking a job worth doing”, he concluded that:

Mr Roderick’s study of the trees has little reference to the wood, and although you may say that the wood is only the sum total of what grows in it, there is a great difference between a tree that grows on its own and one that grows in company. Specifically, Mr Roderick gives little or no indication of the development of the Australian novel out of the colonial novel; he does not place his novelists or satisfactorily estimate their relative significance. He has done useful work, but the growth of the Australian novel is another story.

I haven’t read Roderick’s book, but my reading of the various newspaper reports and reviews suggests it is more survey (or “panoramic view” as one journalist put it) and anthology than an analysis. Hutton clearly wanted more … I will explore this mid-twentieth century issue of the developing Australian novel a little more in coming weeks.

* What’s that they say about learning something new every day? Today, about to leap in with my proofreading pen, I discovered that William Faulkner was born Falkner. However, the name change was apparently made in 1918, so perhaps I should have used my red pen anyhow!

Acknowledgement: National Library of Australia’s Trove and Newspaper Digitisation Project.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2012 8:47 pm

    What about Geoff Page in The Scarring! I think there’s a style, a voice in that that conveys/evokes “Australian-ness”, or Australian-ness of the time, at the least.

    • June 4, 2012 9:06 pm

      Oh yes, I agree Hannah … of course he wrote it later than this period (though it was set in this period), if that makes sense.

  2. June 4, 2012 10:49 pm

    How fascinating! As you say, a window on what was considered significant at the time. I wonder which authors would make it into a comparable list of 20 today?

    • June 4, 2012 11:06 pm

      Glad you found it interesting too, Lisa … and I wonder which ones of this time’s 20 (whoever they are!) will have disappeared from view in 50 or so years time. That’s the interesting thing isn’t it?

  3. June 5, 2012 1:24 am

    How so very interesting. Do you think it is still the case that the “Australian-ness” of novels is in the subject and not the style? And if that is the case, what would an Australian style be like do you think?

    • June 5, 2012 6:01 pm

      Oh, I’m sorry I reported that now, Stefanie. I guess for all national literatures the subject matter has to be part of it, but I suspect we have developed a bit more of our own style. Part of that would of course be the imagery which draws on the heat, sun, dryness, brownness of the country and the spikiness and strangeness of the flora and fauna. I think Australian style would also be characterised by realism and down-to-earth-ness with less inclination to flights of fancy, and by a tendency to the spare or condensed end of the spectrum. (Even Bail’s Eucalyptus which is part myth/fairy tale is “real” rather than “fanciful” if that makes sense.) Hmmm … I wonder what other Aussies think.

      • June 6, 2012 3:45 am

        Thanks for your thoughts on this. From the bit of Australian literature I have read, it does seem to apply :)

        • June 6, 2012 8:29 am

          Thanks Stefanie … I’d love it a few other Aussies gave answering your question a go.

  4. June 9, 2012 5:55 am

    Anyone who tries to define a national voice aims at a moving target, so I’m hesitant, but shortwindedness (that “spare or condensed end of the spectrum”) should be in there somewhere; perhaps the author wonders if they’ve said too much, or if they’re gushing (WG: I’m thinking of Olga Masters’ compressive style, and Jessica Anderson, and Thea Astley), perhaps nostalgia, perhaps reticence, a feeling of large bare places that can’t be understood or encompassed, perhaps a kind of helplessness in front of that, hence reticence, which might be a mix of despair, habit, and awe. But this is off the top of my head.

    • June 9, 2012 8:34 am

      Oh, thanks so much for engaging DKS. I certainly felt the spare or short windedness. I like your notion of the feeling of large bare places that can’t be understood and a resultant helplessness and even despair. The top of your head is very good! And of course you’ve named some of my favourite writers!

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