Monday musings on Australian literature: The future of Australian literature

‘If their [Australian writers’] work is so interesting,’ comes the query, ‘why isn’t it known here [London]?’

This query was put to Australian novelist and literary figure, Vance Palmer, in 1935! When I read it, I couldn’t help thinking plus ça change. A few months ago I wrote on Hilary McPhee‘s concern about the continued low profile of Australian literature overseas. She said that, while the situation has improved since the 1980s when she first wrote on the issue, it is uneven because Australian writers are “cherry-picked”. In other words, Tim Winton, Peter Carey and maybe David Malouf are known, but who else?

Anyhow, back to Palmer and 1935. His response to the question was

No use to reply that it [Australian writers’ work] is hardly known on their native heath!

That was probably so … and during the 193os and 1940s, Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, along with writers like Flora Eldershaw, Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davison worked hard to raise awareness in Australia of Australian literature, and to secure good funding support for writers. The Palmers personally mentored writers like Eldershaw, Barnard and Davison. Nettie Palmer, in particular, corresponded regularly with writers, advising and encouraging them. Vance Palmer wrote for newspapers and journals, and lectured widely, on Australian literature.

Why do we need a national literature?

In the article “The future of Australian literature”, Palmer discusses why it’s important to have a national literature. He asks, “Why all this fuss about having a literature of our own? Why waste time writing books when ‘all the best and the latest’ can be imported from overseas?” His answer is not surprising to we readers:

The answer, of course, is that books which are revelations of our own life can’t be imported, and that they are necessary to our full growth. … since the world is divided into nations and societies, it is necessary that these shall find their own forms of expression, each subtly different from the others.

… we have to discover ourselves – our character, the character of the country, the particular kind of society that has developed here – and this can only be done through the searching explorations of literature. It is one of the limitations of the human mind that it can never grasp things fully till they are presented through the medium of art. The ordinary world is a chaos, a kaleidoscope, full of swift, meaningless impressions that efface one another; the world of a well-pondered novel or drama is designed as an orderly microcosm where people and things are shown their true significance. And so, unless a country has its life fully mirrored in books it will not show a very rich intelligence in the business of living.

He goes on to suggest that through literature, we

  • learn to understand and adjust to our surroundings or landscape (the physical, I suppose). In Australia at that time this meant learning “to live with our bonny earth with a spirit of affection. It is not the same haggard landscape our ancestors looked on with loathing” but has its own beauty in its, for example, wattle and gums.
  • discover our roots, find out who we are (what he calls, the social). In Australia at that time, that included exploring themes of exile and immigration, “the theme of the vanishing race, with its wild charm and its tragic doom”, and themes related to Australia-at-war and coping with universal economic conditions.
Katharine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard, by May Moore (Presumed Public Domain, State Library of NSW)

He argues that change was occurring, that a national literature was developing – and gave many examples including works by those mentioned above, as well as writers like Katharine Susannah Prichard and Christina Stead.  He suggests that one of the reasons for improvement was the growth of publishing in Australia. What these publishers produce might be uneven in quantity and literary value, he said, “but at least they have taken the Australian background for granted, and that has marked an advance”. However, he bemoans the lack of “lively and intelligent [literary] criticism” which he believes is essential to writers finding “their proper audience”.

Palmer concludes positively, believing that there has been “a bubbling in our drought-scaled springs”. He says that the new literary pulse will have a significant impact on Australia in the next 50 years and will “quicken its imagination, stimulate its powers of introspection, and make it as interesting to itself as every country should be”.

There’s a lot to think about here – in terms of how Australian literature has progressed (within and without the country) and how we see the role of national literatures in our more globalised world. How important is national literature? My answer is that while nationalism, taken to exclusionist extremes, can be rather scary, we still do need to understand our own little corners of the world, in both their local, unique and their wider, universal meanings and implications.

What do you think? And how important is it, particularly with so many writers on the move, to define nationality?

Vance Palmer
“The future of Australian literature”
First published in The Age, February 9, 1935
Availability: Online

11 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The future of Australian literature

  1. I think a “national literature” is also important for showing us the myths of our country. Not necessarily “myths” in the sense of a negative connotation of falsity, but of the overarching narratives that guide our, or others, sense of “who we are” despite the fact that these narratives may not correlate strongly to how we see ourselves. And, at the same time, although it seems contradictory, these “national literatures” can also show us all that at heart we’re similar across the world. That the strengths novelists convey about their own people can be found across the globe, as can the weaknesses. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that nationality in literature can show us our imagined communities at the same time that the highlight how these imagined communities are just that – imagined?

    • Thanks Hannah … that all makes sense. I particularly like the idea of conveying our “myths” – founded in reality or not they do define our view of ourselves don’t they. These myths are probably largely created through the arts, and once created it’s probably largely the arts that can change them. The way the myth of the “outback” and its part in our psyche has persisted must surely be due to the arts – even though we are and have been for a long time an urban culture. It’s changing now – but the “myth” has persisted for longer than the “reality”. So much is imagined, as you say. Hmmm…what does that say about the role of art in helping us know ourselves?

  2. I wish more authors made that international crossing. Sometimes I’m surprised to learn that a writer of some note cannot get published in another country. I’m thinking of Amanda Craig. Well at least we have the internet and can order from wherever, but even then we still have to hear about that writer or that book.

    I can understand the difficulties involved when translation is in the picture. I read somewhere that fiction in translation represents just a fraction of the overall sales in America. That may change with the popularity of the Stieg Larsson books.

    Finally I am always unnerved when I “hear” of a writer from another country who’s immense in their native land but is unheard of elsewhere. Makes me stop and think….

    • That’s the thing isn’t it? We can order them more easily now but we have to know about them first. Must say that blogs help there. I’ve learnt, through blogs, of quite a few new authors that I may not otherwise have come across – and when they are reviewed by people whose taste I know, all the better.

      Translation is a problem – for me anyhow. I do read translated books – not being fluent in Russian, Japanese or French. Not to mention Hungarian, Chinese or Portuguese. In fact, come to think of it I’m really only fluent in English! So, of course to read Tolstoy, Murakami, Camus and so on, it has to be translations – but I always feel a little sad because there is a very big mediator in there between me and the author’s text.

  3. What an interesting post and interesting questions you ask! In the early days of American literature there was a definite sense of trying to find a way to voice America rather than copy England. It took a long time I think for American literature to establish itself as legitmate. Do you think Australian literature has had a similar experience?

    I think a national literature is important because it speaks to who the nation is as a people and who they want to become.

    • Thanks Stefanie. Yes, I think Australia did have a similar experience, made difficult I think because for a long time Australians themselves did not think our own culture was legitimate but looked to England as “home”. People didn’t feel they’d “made” it until they’d “made” it in England. If you think so little yourself of your own background it’s hard to establish legitimacy for anything coming from that background. It’s only been since the 1950s I think that Australians (speaking generally) stopped talking about going to England as going “home”. Even those who were born here would see it that way. I think that’s a fundamental difference between us and the US. You were established by peopl specifically leaving Europe to escape persecution and establish a new world whilst our first settlers – both the convicts and those sent to care for them – were here under sufferance.

  4. I love Peter Carey’s books, and also David Malouf. Just last week I read Malouf’s The Conversations at Curlow Creek…. FABULOUS book!
    This past year I have discovered a wonderful Australian writer, Margo Lanagan. Her book Tender Morsels was just exquisitely good, and the collection of short stories [Black Juice] was also very good.
    Then there is the pseudo-Australian writer Michel Faber — who, while really being of Scottish origin is [among Australians] often considered an Australian, because of his long residence there, because almost all of his schooling was completed there, and because some of his short stories are set in Australia. His books The Crimson Petal and the White, and Under The Skin are among my favourite novels of all time.

    • Thanks for commenting Cipriano. I am reading Carey’s Parrot and Olivier right now. I generally like him too – but haven’t read all of his works. I love Malouf and agree with you re The conversations at Curlow Creek. Excellent work and is one I’d happily read again. I also love his Fly away Peter.

      I’ve heard of Margo Lanagan and Tender morsels, but haven’t read her. But, must say I’d never heard of Michael Faber as Australian. I had no idea he completely his schooling here. I’ve only read The crimson petal and the white and I liked it a lot too. Dickensian but modern at the same time, eh?

  5. I think a nationalist literature is absolutely important. As a reader, my understanding and experience of other nations and culture is derived entirely from literature.

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