Monday musings on Australian literature: Who is Colin Roderick?
Regular readers here will know that a couple of recent Monday musings were based on two books written in the late 1940s surveying Australian literature. At the time of writing those posts, I’d never heard of the man behind those books, one Colin Roderick. I soon learnt, though, that he was a somewhat significant figure in 20th century Australian literature. In fact, according to Peter Pierce*, in his obituary for Roderick in 2000, “no other figure has been more influential in giving intellectual rigour and self-belief to Australian literature”. Wow … this is clearly someone I should know at least something about I thought. And so I did a little research and discovered some interesting things.
I didn’t know, for example, that there is a Colin Roderick Award. It was established in 1967 by James Cook University’s Foundation for Australian Literary Studies which Roderick founded. The award is presented annually, and has been won by many writers I’ve reviewed here, such as Deborah Robertson, Peter Temple, Tim Winton, Ruth Park, Peter Carey, Alan Gould and Thea Astley. It is not limited to fiction, so, for example, Don Watson has also won for his book on Paul Keating, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, and Peter Rose for his memoir, Rose boys.
This is great – I’m a believer in literary awards – but, what struck me was the award’s criterion: “the best book published in Australia which deals with any aspect of Australian life”. Now, if you are an Australian literary award watcher, this will ring a bell – and the bell is the criterion for our premier award, the Miles Franklin Award. Its criterion is “the best Australian published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases”. It’s not totally surprising, I suppose, that awards created in Australia be targeted to Australian published books about Australia. But there is something particularly interesting about this case, because …
Colin Roderick was one of the original judges for the Miles Franklin Award. In fact, the terms of Miles Franklin’s will set out the first judging panel for the Award. According to the Miles Franklin Award website, the panel was to include “the then Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of New South Wales; two representatives of Angus & Robertson publishers, Beatrice Davis and Colin Roderick; the poet Ian Mudie and George Williams, Miles’ accountant.” Colin Roderick remained a judge from the first award in 1957 to 1991 when, according to Peter Pierce, “he resigned in acrimonious circumstances over the definition of what constituted a work of Australian fiction”. Ah, awards controversies! Don’t you love them? Patrick Allington wrote an article about the award, including a discussion of this affair, in the Australian Book Reviewof June 2011. I won’t go into details – you can find Allington’s article (a pdf) online – but apparently Roderick felt that Nicholas Jose’s The avenue of eternal peace, that was on the 1990 shortlist, should not have been eligible (though he apparently felt it was a better book than the winner).
This controversy aside, Roderick played a significant role during his life in promoting Australian literature through much of the mid to late 20th century. Allington describes his “career long commitment to Australian literature”, a commitment that can be demonstrated through his:
- work as an editor (and later director) of Australia’s then premier publisher of Australian literature, Angus & Robertson, for around 20 years
- role in the movement to establish a chair in Australian literature at Sydney University
- creation of the Foundation of Australian Literary Studies (and the associated annual Colin Roderick Award and Colin Roderick Lecture) in 1966
- role as a Miles Franklin judge
- prolific, wide-ranging writings on Australian literature including critical and biographical works on Rosa Praed, Miles Franklin (whom he knew), and Henry Lawson.
This is not to say he was universally revered. Even Miles Franklin, who chose him for her first judging panel, wrote to Angus & Robertson’s most famous editor, Beatrice Davis:
You can measure how much I miss you when I say that Roderick seems the flower of the flock to me there now, and I’m glad of his friendly welcome till he spoils it by some literary obtusity.
Oh well, we all have our feet of clay. I’ll be returning to Colin Roderick’s books on Australian literature in future – and when I do, at least we’ll all know a bit about him.
* The obituary was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 2000.