Monday musings on Australian literature: Making a start

Whispering Gums is now 15 months old and I’m still playing with what I am doing here – but one thing I haven’t played with is my desire to help promote Australian literature. And so I’ve decided to formalise this a bit through a weekly post titled “Monday musings on Australian literature”. This is somewhat of an experiment for me. I haven’t fully worked out how I’ll proceed – or where I’ll ramble – but I do hope to entice the occasional guest blogger to share some aspect of their experience of Australian literature. Watch this space.

Dry creek bed, Kata Tjuta

From the dry (creek bed, Kata Tjuta in Central Australia)

How to start things going though? How about this?

5 random, and possibly little-known, facts about Australian literature

  1. Australia has only one Nobel Laureate in Literature: Patrick White in 1973
  2. Melbourne was the world’s second UNESCO City of Literature
  3. The first Australian-born woman to publish a novel in Australia was probably the pioneering botanist and  journalist, Louisa Atkinson, with her Gertrude: the emigrant (1857)
  4. David Unaipon (1872-1967) is generally regarded to be the first indigenous Australian writer and is commemorated on the Australian $50 note and by the the David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writers
  5. The most taught Australian text in 2010 (in Australia), according to the Teaching Australian Literature website, is Kate Grenville’s The secret river.
Thredbo River, Kosciuszko National Park

To the wet (Thredbo River, Kosciuszko National Park)

Well, there’s the start – brief though it is. I hope in future weeks to explore in more depth all sorts of writers, works and issues relating to literature in Australia. It will be rather serendipitous. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you about your favourite Aussie writers…

40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Making a start

  1. Thank you for the summary to the novice of Australian literature. I really enjoyed this little summary. We may be visiting Melbourne in January and I am wondering if I may be lucky enough to run into the blogger of Whisperinggums :)! (Well, not sure where you live but I love the work here you do even though most of it is very new to me, Sue)!

    • Thanks Farnoosh — I’m not in Melbourne but if you end up this way let me know as you never know… My son lives in Melbourne. January though is a tricky month as my son is a teacher and will be in the US on holidays (probably!). Will you be here for work?

  2. I’m afraid I don’t read Australian literature at all, though I was spoon fed the stuff in my childhood, so I don’t have any favourites. I have of course read Garner, Carey and one Tim Winton book which failed to thrill me.

    I was so annoyed by the Government’s decision regarding book prices, I refuse to support the Australian book industry and buy my books mostly from Amazon. They’re cheaper, even with shipping costs thrown in.

    My favourite writers tend to be American or British anyway.

    • Oh Erato 30!! “Spoon fed the stuff”! What were you spoon fed? I love Australian literature – am just reading some great Kate Jennings poetry set in the Murrumbidge Irrigation Area – but I do love English, American, Canadian and other writers as well.

      BTW have you tried Book Depository. Even cheaper than Amazon, mostly, though range a bit smaller. NO delivery charges.

  3. Very excited to learn more about Australian literature! I came here from Desert Book Chick. I live in the US and have very little experience reading Australian literature … perhaps you could suggest 5 of your favorite Australian novels for us newbies?

  4. Great idea! I’m looking forward to it. I’m not reading any Australian lit right now. But I plan on reading at least 10 books by Aussie writers in the coming year. And I think your series and indeed this blog in general will be most helpful as I come up with a reading list. Thank you.

  5. Lisa: LOL, and you could be the quiz mistress! Still, it’s an idea…

    Guy: You’ve mentioned him before, and I still have not read him. In fact, if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t have heard of him. As for Adrian McKinty. Another new one for me . You’re not playing fair – you’re showing me up!!

    Ingrid: Welcome, and thanks, now I know what my next Monday Musings will be. Great idea. I may go with 5 to get you started, rather than 5 favourite … this time around. How does that sound?

    • Now that’s a thorny (sorry, couldn’t help myself) question! I read it around the time it came out but, really, have completely forgotten it.

      Funnily enough, was looking at some list of world bestsellers just yesterday. It is quite high up there in terms of all time bestsellers. Colleen McCullough sells well to a certain market, but I’m not sure that this has quite achieved the same pervasive fame as Gone with the wind. It probably doesn’t have quite the same epic nature even though it spans a long period.

      If I had to choose a “classic” (in its general meaning) popular Australian romance/drama novel it would probably be Nevil Shute’s A town like Alice. But that’s just me!

      However, I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this.

  6. I think this would be a fantastic weekly/monthly/twice-monthly (is that even a term?) column. Maybe you could rotate the authors/texts discussed with popular and little known and also with classic and contemporary texts.

    I was surprised to hear that The Secret River was the book taught most in Australian schools. I would have thought something by one of the more popular young adult writers like John Marsden or Isobelle Carmody would be most taught.

    I’ve not read Thorn Birds but I have heard very…dismal criticisms of it. I agree A Town Like Alice is a great aussie classic. I love how it connected with the ‘motherland’ of Britain, immigration to Australia, the quintessential aussie bush and country and also our Asian neighbours. Other great aussie classics would be Picnic at Hanging Rock and Mary Poppins is the talk of the town right now.

    • Thanks Mae. I plan to do it weekly but will see how I go. Maybe twice monthly is fortnightly?

      I think I should have qualified “most taught”. Firstly it is “most taught” as recorded by the Teaching Australian Literature site, and I think that site is mostly tertiary studies. I suspect you’re right about secondary schools.

      Finally, I like your justification of A town like Alice…it also has the War story as well. Mary Poppins – well, talk of Melbourne town anyhow!

  7. Hi, I am really pleased to stumbled upon your blog this evening. I am an Australian blogger as well, and I try to prioritise reading and reviewing Australian literature as much as possible. I try to alternate my reading between Australian and international authors to increase the number of Australian books that I read. So I will definitely be coming back for this Monday post again!

    I have a confession to make – I haven’t read any of Patrick White’s books. I have The Cockatoos sitting on my book shelf but haven’t picked it up. Have you read any of his books?

    I was also surprised to hear that The Secret River was the most taught Australian book. I read it earlier this year and I enjoyed it a lot, but I felt like it might have been a little bit better if it was a bit shorter or a bit longer. If that makes sense.

    Anyway, I will be coming to you blog again!

    • Welcome Becky – and glad to meet another Aussie blogger. As you will see from my blog, I also alternate Aussie with other books.

      Yes, I’ve read Patrick White. I did Voss at high school and fell head over heels with him. Loved it. But I haven’t read as much as I would like. I’ve also read The burnt ones (short stories), The tree of man, and The solid mandala. They are all great and I want to reread Voss, but should really read one I haven’t read.

      Yes, that makes sense although like the story of The three bears, I thought it was just about right!

      Anyhow, I look forward to getting to know you and to hearing more of your ideas and views.

  8. Looking forward to your new feature. The Secret River was part of a three-way bookswap I was involved in last week at an event (The Book Swap at the LRB shop in London). I didn’t end up with it in the end though (ended up with a signed copy of Then We Came To the End inscribed to Patrick Neate) – I had no idea it was such an Australian classic!

    • What a shame. Lija…I hope you get to read it some time in the future. I hesitate quite to call it a classic because it is less than 10 years old and I think a classic has to stand the test of time a bit longer than that but it is certainly looking like it will go that way!

    • It’s pretty sad really isn’t it Tony. Australia, in terms of white settlement and therefore written literacy (not in terms of human occupation) is still pretty young but nonetheless I felt the same as you.

  9. Very interesting. I know little other than through reading Kate Grenville and Peter Carey. I am however currently reading The Slap by Christo Tsiolkas which is showing me another side of Australia – hopefully fictional!

  10. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Elizabeth Jolley. Even if she was born in England all her writing was done in Australia but, to me, she is universal.

    • Thanks lithe lianas – she’s just way too little know isn’t she? BUT rest assured she will be mentioned in future (and is already mentioned in my draft for next week’s Musings but you’ll have to wait for that)

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  12. Oh, what fun! Mondays will be a good learning experience for me! If the book is in English I don’t pay much attention where the writer is from. Is that sloppy of me? I have read Eucalyptus by Murray Bail and couldn’t fail to note that he is Australian 🙂 I wouldn’t mind knowing more about him and what else he has done if you feel so inclined. I’ve read Jill Kerr Conway’s nonfiction. Can’t say I like her all that much but she is really popular in the US. Is popular in her own country?

    • Thanks Stefanie. No I don’t think it is wrong at all. I find it interesting to know where writers come from but it shouldn’t affect whether you think it is a good book worth reading. In fact, good for you for not caring, I say. I’m doing this simply because Australian authors just aren’t well-publicised (not often published) overseas so readers don’t even get the option of knowing they exist and to therefore choose them.

      LOL re Eucalyptus. One of my all time favourites. He’s not prolific, but his next one, Pages (which I’ve reviewed in the blog – look under my Authors page if you like), is well worth reading. Not quite as special but an excellent read nonetheless – and pretty Australian. And for a bit of gossip, he was once married to Helen Garner. The novel Cosmo Cosmolino that I recently reviewed, commences with the main character recovering from a failed marriage. It was written around the time of the breakup!

      And oh, I’m so glad to read of another not-total-fan of Jill Ker Conway. I’ve read her two autobiographies. They were fascinating but there are other expats I enjoy much more. (Am reading one now and will review it soon.) She made a splash with those two books but I wouldn’t say she’s particularly popular here. What is it you don’t particularly like?

  13. I’m sitting here turning my mind back to a long ago Aust. Lit. course: I remember Randolph Stowe (Tourmaline); Patrick White (? Eye of the Storm); Martin Boyd (Outbreak of love etc); Henry Handel Richardson (The fortunes of Richard Mahony) and poets Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright amongst others long forgotten.

    On the bookshelves I see Kylie Tennant, Dymphna Cusack/Florence James (Come in Spinner) Miles Franklin, Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner as well as other writers already mentioned.

    Great post.

    • Welcome Sue, and thanks for engaging with my question. You’ve listed some great authors there, many (most?) of which I hope we will talk about in coming weeks and months. I should do one on childhood favourites I reckon – and Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner would certainly feature there! I still have to read Stowe…

  14. Now you’ve gone and put me on the spot with your question on what I don’t like about Jill Ker Conway! I read the books so long ago I can recall not much other than a vague dissatisfaction with them.

    • Well phew, I’m glad I’m not the only one who does that! I always thought it was my advancing age but clearly it isn’t! It’s just the “so many books” syndrome (from a different perspective – ie having read so many!)

    • LOL kimbofo, I wish she did, but I have decided that we can’t (shouldn’t) claim her as our own! We can, though, Flanagan. I like him too. Have you ever heard him interviewed? He can be very funny. What are your favourites? I have yet to read his first couple.

      • I’ve not read his first novel, but have read everything else since. My favourite is probably The Sound of One Hand Clapping. It’s a tough read about a tough subject (immigrants / racism) but it’s so very good. It deserves to be a real Australian classic, but I’m not sure many people know about it.

        Never heard him interviewed, but his brother is a writer on The Age, mainly about football I think, and he’s got quite a good sense of humour, too.

  15. Thanks, kimbofo. The sound of one hand clapping is in fact the one I feel I should (and want to) read. What a great title eh? Ah, I know a little about his brother (Martin?) but didn’t realise he wrote in The age.

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