‘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.
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?
“The future of Australian literature”
First published in The Age, February 9, 1935