Monday musings on Australian literature: the Great Australian Novel, or?

Henry Handel Richardson in 1945, a year before...

Henry Handel Richardson, 1945 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

First, a confession. I am not one who believes we need to define such a beast as “The Great [name your country] Novel”. However, just to be perverse, I thought that for this week’s Monday musings it would be interesting to look at what might qualify for such a label – and, in doing so, consider what might constitute an Australian canon.

A canon gets us away from having to define the “Great Australian Novel”*, from having to decide whether it must be written by an Australian, must reflect “Australia” in some sort of specific way. In fact, on the latter, Professor Gelder, a literature professor from Melbourne argued in 2009 that globalisation and transnationalism make “the great Australian novel” “almost impossible”. This is because he defines the GAN in terms of being “a nationalist project”. And, perhaps, that’s the only way you can define a GAN. A canon, on the other hand, can be more diverse, can reflect the variety – in space, time, theme, and so on – that makes up our – and, any, really – national literature.

Without getting into the pros and cons, rights and wrongs, of polls, I thought I’d list the top ten Australian books (mostly novels) from  three different and reasonably recent polls to see what they tell us.

Poll 1: The Australian Society of Authors Top 10 as voted by their members in 2003:

  1. Cloudstreet (1991), Tim Winton
  2. The man who loved children (1940), Christina Stead
  3. The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), Henry Handel Richardson
  4. Dirt music (2001) Tim Winton
  5. Voss (1957) Patrick White
  6. The tree of man (1955), Patrick White
  7. The magic pudding (1918), Norman Lindsay (children’s)
  8. An imaginary life (1978), David Malouf
  9. Tirra lirra by the river (1978), Jessica Anderson
  10. My brother Jack (1964), George Johnston

Poll 2: The Australian Broadcasting Corporations’s Top 10, as voted by Australians via ABC promotions in 2003:

  1. Cloudstreet (1991), Tim Winton
  2. A fortunate life (1981), AB Facey (memoir)
  3. Dirt music (2001),Tim Winton
  4. My brother Jack (1964), George Johnston
  5. The magic pudding (1918), Norman Lindsay (children’s)
  6. The tree of man (1955), Patrick White
  7. Seven little Australians (1894), Ethel Turner (children’s)
  8. The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), Henry Handel Richardson
  9. Tomorrow when the war began (1993), John Marsden (young adult)
  10. My place (1987), Sally Morgan (memoir)

Poll 3: The Australian Book Review’s (ABR) Top 10, as voted by Australians via ABR promotions, 0ver 2009/10 (and reported by me last March)

  1. Cloudstreet (1991), Tim Winton
  2. The fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930), Henry Handel Richardson
  3. Voss (1957), by Patrick White
  4. Breath (2008) Tim Winton
  5. Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Peter Carey
  6. My brother Jack (1964), George Johnston
  7. The secret river (2005), by Kate Grenville
  8. Eucalyptus (1998), by Murray Bail
  9. The man who loved children (1940), by Christina Stead
  10. The tree of man (1955), Patrick White

Hmm … accounting for the fact that the third poll was taken several years after the first two and so includes a couple more recent books, the noticeable thing is the remarkable congruence between the three. You would have to say that, in the early twenty-first century, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet would get the GAN gong, though Professor Gelder would disagree. He argued that only Patrick White would qualify. He said that

Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’ got close to being a ‘great Australian novel’, but at a cost. It was nostalgic, homely, remote from reality, and conservative.

Oh dear, maybe these are the very reasons the novel is popular with readers (though authors, too, liked it!)!

Anyhow, the appealing thing to me is that, despite the to-be-expected inclusion of recent authors, these lists do also take a relatively (given the youth of our country) long view. It’s good to see the inclusion of Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and George Johnston, alongside the also to-be-expected inclusion of our only literary Nobel Laureate, Patrick White. And, it’s satisfying to see a goodly number of women writers recognised – not only Richardson and Stead, but also Jessica Anderson, Ethel Turner, Kate Grenville and the artist/memoirst Sally Morgan.

You might think that such agreement might be reflected in what is being taught in Australian universities but you’d be wrong, at least according to the Teaching Australian Literature website. Its Top Ten texts (that is, those appearing on most reading lists) are:

  1. The secret river (2005), Kate Grenville
  2. My brilliant career (1901), Miles Franklin
  3. Remembering Babylon (1993), David Malouf
  4. Loaded (1995), Christos Tsiolkas
  5. Carpentaria (2006), Alexis Wright
  6. True history of the Kelly Gang (2000), Peter Carey
  7. Summer of the seventeenth doll (1953), Ray Lawler (play)
  8. The monkey’s mask (1994), Dorothy Porter
  9. My place (1987), Sally Morgan (memoir)
  10. Swallow the air (2006), Tara June Winch
    True country (1993), Kim Scott

A (generally) more “edgy” list and, in its own way, rather encouraging. But, where does that leave the canon? Perhaps as a work-in-progress … to which we might (or might not!) return to in Monday musings.  Meanwhile, talking about works-in-progress, Lisa at ANZLitLovers is working on a somewhat different tack. She is developing a List of Australian/New Zealand Books You Must Read. Go check it out – and if you’d like to make a suggestion, please do …

Do you think there is value to the idea of a canon? Or does it discourage wide and open-minded reading and coincidentally encourage a too narrow view of the culture it refers to?

* the GAN, not to be confused with another GAN, the “Great American Novel”.

46 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: the Great Australian Novel, or?

  1. I think a canon is quite a good thing, in that it provides some kind of indication of what might be valuable to someone wanting to put their foot in the water. I’m sad to see no Martin Boyd on anyone’s list and surprised there is no mention of Richard Flanagan (is that his name – Gould’s Book of Fish?) How many people have read the Fortunes of Richard Mahony recently, I wonder. It’s fairly hard going, I thought, last time I looked. But then I find Patrick White exceptionally hard going – the unrelenting, unforgiving attitude of the narrator grinds me down after a while. Or perhaps that was a wrong impression. I shall go and pull out the Tree of Man and try again (all the time wondering if AD Hope got it right).

    • I’m inclined to think a canon – as long as not followed too slavishly, or allowed to be set in concrete – can be a useful thing. I’m pretty sure that Boyd and Flanagan appear on the lists I’ve included, just not in the Top 10. As for Fortunes — I do have it on my TBR but haven’t actually read it yet.

      White is hard going but I like him. Voss is one of my all time favourite novels — and I liked The tree of man, AD Hope notwithstanding! Is the narrator unforgiving? I can’t recollect that, but he is rather unrelenting, I agree. Still, I also liked The solid mandala. But, it all depends I suppose on what you look for in reading?

      • A canon is a kind of kaleidoscopic GAN, the Great Work as an assemblage that shifts and changes character depending on the person or group doing the canonising, and a yearning for a solitary GAN feels to me like a yearning for simplicity above anything else — you read this one book and then lo, presto, your job is done, you’ve covered the One Greatest Great, you understand everything, there is no higher place to go, no deeper depth to plumb, and you can whistle off and eat cake in the sunshine with a clear conscience.

        But I’m posting here to say that I like White without liking The Tree of Man in much the same way that I like Dickens without liking A Tale of Two Cities. Too much straitlacing in both cases, too much reverence, and not enough wickedness.

        • That’s sort of what I was thinking ie GAN re Canon but you said it so much better. A kaleidoscope is a great image, or a shape-shifter perhaps.

          And I agree with you re Dickens. I don’t not like A tale of two cities, but it’s not really Dickens.

    • Martin Boy’s *is* on our list, though only with The Cardboard Crown, an omission I’m on my way now to rectify. Can I recommend Jane Gleeson White’s Australian Classics as a good place to start? It’s a lovely book:)

  2. I think in general a canon gives the inexperienced reader a place to start as long as they realise that it isn’t set in stone and it’s all right to move away from it once you have more experience and a set of criteria by which to make your own informed choices. Just working through the lists from the point of view of an English reader my first reaction was surprise that Carey and Grenville weren’t there until I reached list three, especially as Winton (whose work I love) was there. My greatest pleasure, however, was seeing ‘The Magic Pudding’ there. I think that book is wonderful.

    • Thanks Annie. I totally agree with your comment re the value of a canon. And I love the fact that you checked out the lists as “an English reader”. But, now I’m REALLY embarrassed to admit that I haven’t actually read The magic pudding. I know I should … perhaps this will be the year.

      What are your favourite Wintons?

        • That’s interesting. What was your PhD thesis, and how did The riders fit in. I enjoyed The riders – and in fact I remember its story more than I do a lot of the books I’ve read years ago. However, it’s not talked about as much over here as his other books. I suspect that’s because it’s a good read but doesn’t feel as though it has anything special/different about it.

  3. I like the middle two lists. Because I’ve read more books than just Cloudstreat on them 😉 I like the idea of a canon instead of just One Great Novel, though I don’t think I’m ever heard anyone speak of The Great Australian Novel but in jest!

  4. The Great American Novel is a similarly befuddling beast, and the lack of a clear answer to what the great American Novel is seems to cause some consternation. But does any country have a relatively agreed-upon Great {nationality} Novel?

    Perhaps my own experience as a non-Australian reader might be interesting here: I was looking to read some Australian lit and saw CLOUDSTREET mentioned as a contender for the GAN, so I picked it up, found it really interesting, and proceeded to read the entire Winton backlist. So the appellation provided me with a point of entry, even more than a list of 20 or 25 canonical works might.

    • Ah, thanks Ape. That’s a good justification for discussing a GAN even if we realise we can never – and don’t really want to – settle on one. As for Winton, did you have a favourite one or two of all you read. You’ve read more Winton than I have — though I have read a goodly percentage (which tells you something about what I think of him!)

        • Good summation. Breath was beautiful, I agree (and I did a brief review of it here when it won the Miles Franklin. Some I know found the description of surfing boring. I’m not a surfer by any stretch but I thought the writing was gorgeous … and the angle he took on the coming-of-age theme was fascinating.

          Cloudstreet – I agree, but feel I must read it again as it’s been some time now.

          Of his earlier works, I rather liked In the winter dark, and That eye the sky.

  5. I really have to get onto Cloudstreet but I remember being rather disappointed by Tim Winton after I read Dirt Music after all the hype. I did love his ‘The Bum Thief’ as a child though!

    A canon would make more sense and would ensure that it covers the vast ideas of what it ‘Australia’ means and what constitutes as the GAN. I suppose in the more contemporary lists, Tsolkis’ ‘The Slap’ would be included. Much less ‘removed from reality’ as that professor would say…

    • LOL Mae, re The bum thief. I haven’t read any of his kid’s books – after my time. I hope you get to Cloudstreet some time – it’s almost de rigueur now after all! Why didn’t you like Dirt Music?

      I like the way you think of a canon as collectively “defining” Australia, as capturing the diversity that a GAN can’t.

      BTW I’m not sure all would agree with you that “The slap” is much less removed from reality. Some think it’s far removed! But, I’m with you – I think it does reflect some part of Australia’s reality, albeit being rather unpalatable.

  6. As usual a thought-provoking post, Whispering Gums.
    They are interesting lists though I have read only six from each of them. I wonder why M Barnard Eldershaw is seldom mentioned in such lists – maybe 10 is too limiting -‘A House is Built’ was a great novel I remember reading and admiring in my teen years and Rolf Boldrewood’s ‘Robbery Under Arms’- a very Australian story.

    • Thanks LL. I’m sure Robbery under arms is in the lists (as some of the lists I gave here are longer than 10) – just not top 10. I think A house is built is in some lists too. I still must read it!

  7. I have realized that an oddly high proportion of the sites I follow are from Australian bloggers. An as I told Antipodean Owl, I am ashamed to say I know next to nothing about ANZ literature. I think On the Beach by Nevil Shute is standing alone in that pile for me, although it looks like Coetzee would count? (I thought he was South African, for some reason…)

    I did go to Amazon this weekend and purchase The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville for the sole purpose of rounding out some of my world literature gaps. The lists you posted give me more options as well!

    • I’m glad we Aussie bloggers have a bit of a presence! On the beach is a good story – I was a huge Nevil Shute fan in my teens but now his writing feels dated. Coetzee is a bit of a cheat – he has immigrated here but was South African and most of his books were written there. I love claiming him as Aussie but I feel a bit guilty doing so! I haven’t read The lieutenant, but I’ve read quite a bit of Kate Grenville and like her a lot. I’m glad that the lists here have given you more options. They can be hard to find overseas but hopefully with online ordering these things are getting better.

  8. Its a nice idea to have a canon, but for myself I probably don’t take too much notice of them. I know what I like and some of my choices are so obscure I don’t expect them to feature in the lists of anyone else. The problem is that there is such a vast range of books its hard to whittle them down to one list.

    Your Australian canon seems to consist of fairly modern books. Do Australians tend to think of their literary heritage of beginning with the founding of Australia, or do they look back to the classics from their ancestors’ country of origin?

    • Ah, now that’s a leading question. I believe that when we think of Australian literature we go back to our founding. (We would probably go back earlier if our indigenous people had a written culture but they didn’t). If we were thinking, like Bloom did, of a Western canon, we’d then look wider. Does that make sense?

      I find canons, where they exist, a useful frame of reference but not something I would slavishly follow.

  9. Oh please do blog about Boyd, Sue, I loved The Langton Quartet and Lucinda Brayford, and have not long re-read The Cardboard Crown in companion with Brenda Niall’s wonderful biography of The Boyds. She wrote a bio of Martin Boyd too, but that was a while ago and I haven’t come across a copy of it yet.

    • Has anyone ever published the Langton Quartet as a single volume? It would be a wise and good move. They’re shilling Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time anew overseas, and when I read Boyd I think, “Those fans of Dance, they’d enjoy this.” Anyway, I did a totally daft thing — I brought the third book with me to the US in a suitcase and left the fourth book in storage, which means that I’m currently hanging around in greyish reader-limbo just as the winter sun gleams on the hock bottle and tinges with pale gold the far purple forests of Gippsland. Meanwhile Miss Rockingham’s establishments in Belgrave Square and Derbyshire are reputed quite considerable.

        • Tempting, tempting, yow, and thank you, but no. With luck we’ll be able to fly our storage crate over in the next couple of months. Until then I’ll distract myself with — something. I’ve got Murnane’s Inland on a shelf away to my right, and Macedonio Fernandez’s Museum of Eterna and some unread Woolf, and other things, so I’m pretty much extraordinarily fine. If I run out I can go back to Dorothy Wordsworth and learn about the starling nests again.

    • Oops, I wasn’t clear Lisa … I meant the Jennifer Gleeson-White book (for Monday musings). I have reviewed here (back when we did those Sydney University classics) Boyd’s A difficult young man, and I have A cardboard crown in the TBR but it’ll be a while before I get to it I suspect.

  10. Are there no GANs written before 1900? As to a canon, coming from an English major in an American university in the late 80s I am opposed to any sort of official canon. Too many important and insightful works get left out because of power and identity politics. But maybe things in your neck of the woods are different?

    • Good question … I can’t help thinking a GAN would have to move with the times somewhat (lag a little behind now but not too much) which makes the whole thing rather contradictory eh!

      As for Canon – are you talking people like Bloom and responses pro and con him? I suspect if it were taken up seriously here politics would probably come into play, but while we just fiddle around the edges with polls and lists which we concatenate into something vaguely useful I think we’re safe-ish!! How’s that for beating around the bush.

      • Definitely Bloom but not just him. He is not the first to bemoan the end of the canon, he’s just the loudest 🙂 I think in U.S. universities in the early part of the 1900s there was established a definite literary canon at the elite universities like Harvard. And then there was the whole Great Books movement which strengthend it and brought it to “the masses” but the civil rights and feminist movements had to go and mess it all up by pointing out that the canon was made up of dead white men and Bloom has never gotten over it and doesn’t see why that’s a problem. I think Bloom sees it as a matter of being well read and well educated and creating a common cultural frame of reference but he (and those like him) refuse to recognize that their idea of a common culture is exclusionary and limited to a western white male tradition.

        • Thanks Stefanie … that certainly makes a lot of sense. Hopefully in our modern era we are a bit more open to diversity, we recognise that good and interesting literature can come from a wide variety of pens. I think there’s a reasonable appreciation of that here — though I’m not close to academia these days so I may be wearing rose-coloured glasses!

    • Re. Are there no GANs written before 1900?

      Australia didn’t become a desirable destination until gold was discovered in the 1850s, and the nation wasn’t federated until 1901, so not really, no, because there hadn’t been a lot of time to write one. Henry Lawson’s short story collection While The Billy Boils might qualify, and that only just squeaks in with a publication date of 1896. Marcus Clarke’s For The Term Of His Natural Life (1874) could be included in a general AusLit canon, but calling it a GAN would be going too far.

      • Thanks for your response to Stefanie, too. There are a few interesting turn of the century works – including some women writers – but probably not quite GAN contenders.

        Great, re Boyd … but just know you can always ask me if you become desperate for some tricky to get Australiana.

        • There was Baynton in 1902 with Bush Studies. Who else, womanwise? George Williams reviewed Catharine Helen Spence in the Australian last week, and she was publishing in 1889, but his description didn’t make her sound either GANnish or canonworthy. Skip a decade and there’s May Gibbs in 1913 with Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. I can’t think of anyone else. Pritchard came a little later in — 1916, wasn’t it?

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  13. I’m not opposed to the idea of canons. However, I also feel that readers must be encouraged to look beyond a canon; there are often gems that are off the beaten path.

    • I think that’s fair enough Kinna. A canon can be a useful frame of reference but I’d hate to see them set in concrete and followed slavishly. As Stefanie says there is usually some – more in some cases, less in otehrs – politics behind the framing of canons AND certainly they really can’t totally escape the ideas/cultural veiwpoints of the time in which the canon is “decided”.

  14. DKS, there were a few … not GAN contenders but well worth reading for their perspectives on turn of the century Australia. I’ve read a few and really should read more and/or read them again. They include Ada Cambridge (I’ve read two of hers: A woman’s friendship, 1889, and Sisters, 1904), Rosa Praed (I’ve read The bond of wedlock, 1887), Tasma (or Jessie Couvreur) (I have A Sydney Sovereign and other tales, 1890). There are others too such as Marie Bjelke Petersen (more 1910s plus) but I think hers are somewhat moralistic while also being feminist. I haven’t read her. I became interested in these early overlooked women writers in the late 1980s.

    • Thanks for that. I should have remembered Ada Cambridge; I’ve known a few people who’ve entered their work for the Ada Cambridge Prize.

      (Now I’m looking at Praed’s Lady Bridget on Project Gutenberg and, lo, violent rain, swollen rivers, and thunderstorms.

      “Next evening there came up a terrific thunderstorm, and a hurricane such as had not visited the district for years. It broke in the direction of the gidia scrub, and razed many trees. It passed over the head-station and travelled at a furious rate along the plain. Hailstones fell, as large as a pigeon’s egg, and stripped off such leafage as the drought had left. Thunder volleyed and lightning blazed. Part of the roof of the Old Humpey was torn off. The hide-house was practically blown away. The great white cedar by the lagoon was struck by lightning, and lay, a chaos of dry branches and splintered limbs, one side of the trunk standing up jagged and charred where it had been riven in two.

      Upon the hurricane followed a steady deluge. For a night and a day, the heavens were opened, and poured waterspouts as though the pent rain of nine months were being discharged. The river ‘came down’ from the heads and filled the gully with a roaring flood. The lagoon was again almost level with its banks. The dry water-course on the plain sparkled in the distance, like a mirage—only that it was no mirage. No one who has not seen the extraordinary rapidity with which a dry river out West can be changed into a flooded one, could credit the swiftness of the transformation. ”

      Then all the cars were washed away and they filmed it and put it on youtube.)

      • Ha, well spotted DKS. A 1 in 100 year flood perhaps?

        Praed had a pretty interesting life (a tricky marriage if I recollect) – lived most of her adult life in England I think but focused her writing on her experience here.

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