Monday musings on Australian literature: On nurturing Australian literary classics

Over the weekend an article appeared in The Age describing the parlous situation regarding recognition of classic Australian literature. Written by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, it’s titled “Classics going to waste” and argues that those who have the power

to choose and influence what people might read – publishers, professors, teachers, journalists, commentators, editors – have done a lamentable job of curating the primary materials of our literary history.

Heyward provides some embarrassing arguments to support his case. Here are three of them. In 2011, he says:

  • Melbourne University did not offer one course in Australian literature;
  • not a single (university, I presume) course taught Henry Handel Richardson‘s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, which he equated with not one Russian University teaching Anna Karenina; and
  • David Ireland‘s The glass canoe, which won the Miles Franklin in 1976, was not in print, while new copies can be bought of that year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Saul Bellow‘s Humboldt’s gift.

The good old cultural cringe is with us still. I was very disappointed when in the late 1990s/early 2000s my children were taught little or no Australian literature at high school but were taught, instead, books (albeit worthy) like Steinbeck’s Of mice and men. They read, while growing up, a lot of excellent Australian children’s literature but as soon as they moved into adult literature the situation changed, particularly in terms of their formal studies. Heyward quotes a Melbourne University academic, GH Cowling, saying, admittedly back in 1935, that

The rewards of Australian literature are not good enough to make it attract the best minds … Good Australian novels which are entirely Australian are bound to be few … Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first class novels.

Really! Really? This rather reminds me of VS Naipul’s recent statement that no women writers are his literary match because of their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. Both views are pretty prescriptive, and seem to define good literature more by the importance of its subject matter rather than by the quality of its expression of ideas and experience. It’s why many people still – men more often – discount Jane Austen. But I digress!

Heyward then announces that Text plans to help rectify the accessibility issue by publishing a series of cheap versions of Australian classics – which seems, in publisher jargon, to include books only 20-30 years old, but who’s going to quibble? Good for them, I say. However, there are other publishers working in this arena. Here (excluding libraries and secondhand booksellers) are some current sources of Australian Classics:

For these initiatives to succeed, we need to buy the books. But to buy them we need to know they exist. How do we do that? Well, through reviews (hail litbloggers, for a start), through film and movie adaptations (of which there aren’t enough, says Heyward), through their being taught in schools and universities, and through online initiatives such as those I wrote about earlier this month.

Do you have any other ideas? And what, if any, is your favourite Aussie classic?

31 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: On nurturing Australian literary classics

  1. A thought-provoking post WG. I read a lot of extra-curricular writers at school and ended up reading most of Patrick White while we were studying the English and American classics (also read a lot of Russian authors too). I think it’s valuable to mix and compare, although there are a lot of 1960s and 1970s Australian writers I still haven’t read – I love the 60s and early 70s in Australia, so I would very interested in reading reviews (The Merry Go Round in the Sea was one I did read).

    Having said that I think it is useful to transmit this interest to children and friends who borrow books (even translated versions). My sons received used copies of Voss and The Vivisector from me for Xmas. What a mother!

    • Thanks Catherine. Way to go, mother. Great gifts. Voss is one of my all time favourites. I’ve read three other Whites, but not The vivisector.

      You are right that it’s good to mix and compare. I certainly don’t think our Aussie kids should read only Aussie lit but it would be good if they read a little more than they do. I haven’t read Merry go round in the sea … but have it here in the pile.

  2. My favourite Australian novel is David Ireland’s “The Unknown Industrial Prisoner”. And I wish that there was far more recognition of the depth there is in Australian literature. I love Joseph Furphy’s “Such is life” with what has to be one of the best opening lines of any novel – “Unemployed at last!” And Christina Stead is up there with anyone you care to name from anywhere.

    • Welcome Jude. I guiltily say I have not yet read Ireland though he has been in my TBR pile for a while. Some years ago I did a lot of work to catch up on Australian women writers, but I really need to catch up on some of the men now.

      BTW, That’s a great opening line – should be up there with Call me Ishmael eh?

  3. Reviews online of OOP books (classics or not) help a great deal. I tend to ‘discover’ a writer who’s not on THE LIST and then find no reviews anywhere of his/her work. Most of the reviews online tend towards the more recent stuff or the Great Classics.

    • Oh yes, Guy, finding reviews online of older works is really tricky … unless you have access to some of those paid services, and even those are pretty hit-and-miss. At least it is a bit easier to access some of the works now with the online e-texts and second-hand sellers, but we always want more don’t we!

  4. Ah, the dreaded cultural cringe raises its ugly head once again!

    I’m delighted to hear about the Text Classics series and am hoping they will be available to buy online. It seems to be an interesting mix of titles.

    I have a few of the Popular Penguins, bought on trips back home, and think they’re terrific value for money. The Penguin Modern Classic range has a few Australian authors in its catalogue too.

    As for favourite Oz classics, I’m forever championing George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (which I studied at school). I would also add Randolph Stow’s Merry Go Round in the Sea.

    • It’s terrible really, that it’s still there, isn’t it kimbofo. Sometimes I think it’s getting a bit worse than it was a decade or so ago, as though globalisation has turned people outward again – which has its postives of course – to the detriment of their own culture.

      Penguin does do a pretty good job of trying to keep some sort of access to classics going don’t they … they must be able to make it work commercially somehow. Is it because they are big, their big sellers can subsidise some of their classics publishing? Do publishers work that way or is it each book for itself?

  5. I was just reading about this over on Matilda. I think that publishing those out of print Australian classics is a great idea, and I will definitely try and buy as many as possible (don’t tell the husband though!).

    The year before last I really wanted to buy the Mystery of a Hansome Cab by Fergus Hume and looked everywhere for it before realising it was out of print. Luckily I managed to pick up a second hand copy but I thought it was a real shame.

    And for Aussie classics, far too many to think of, but I would second George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. LOVE that book!

    • My lips are sealed Becky … and anyhow, they’re pretty cheap aren’t they! And funny you should mention Mystery of a Hansom Cab because that’s the SUP book I’m reading now and will review soon. Sydney University Press are doing some good work in this area of Aussie classics, and I think some of their stuff is now available through Amazon.

  6. Interesting post WG. And very interesting that you should mention the David Ireland text. David’s daughter has recently joined our book group and we thought that it would be great to put him on the list for this year. No joy in getting anything new so we’re all trawling second-hand book shops to get at least something and then perhaps compare. I understand that he won the Miles Franklin 3 times so that is indeed a sad indictment.

    • Yes, Magpie, Heyward said that – ie that he won three Miles Franklins – in his article. It’s a terrible indictment really. I think Text will be publishing his The glass canoe in their first lot so your group could schedule him for later in the year perhaps? How exciting to have his daughter in your group!

      (BTW It always bothers me how little recognition Thea Astley gets, and she won the MF four times …though I think some of her books are in print.)

  7. I don’t know whether you read all the comments, but in my recent blog post where I mentioned Enid Blyton, quite a few people excitedly asked me which I’d bought. I was really proud to state that my mother had made sure that I read Australian children’s fiction instead of books like Enid Blyton (although, of course, not in a dictatorial way! Little House and the American Girls attests to that 🙂 ).

    Thank you, Mum. I still adore The Silver Brumby series.

  8. All of those “throughs” sound worthwhile, and there are other ideas that could be tried out too, like public recitations, buskers who read poetry, poems taped to the walls of alleyways waiting for people to come across them, public figures who love to read, bad weather to keep us indoors, excellent libraries, reading gangs swarming through the streets, enthusiastic parents (already mentioned above), arguments and discussions, a few good literary feuds, intense rivalries, possibly a fatwa, playground jingles, literary song lyrics and band names, and excerpts printed on restaurant menus. My favourite Australian classic is The Man Who Loved Children, which I tote around like a security blanket or handbag chihuahua, but Malouf’s Babylon will do too, and Richard M (I came across an ancient hardback Australia Felix in a Vegas Goodwill store last Sunday and expressed surprise inside my head; outside I was imperturbable).

    • A fatwa! Now there’s an idea! Trust you to think outside the box, DKS. I hope the National Year of Reading people are reading this blog and your comments.

      One of my favourite classics is Marjorie Barnard’s The persimmon tree and other stories.

      • Which is not one I’ve read, though I’ve read about it, namely here, and I’m curious enough to take a look if I ever do come across it, which may be tomorrow or never: who knows? Life is fickle, etc. There’s another item to add to the list: “distribute copies of Marjorie Barnard’s The Persimmon Tree” — or have a sports star endorse it — “Shane Warne reveals the secret of his success: ‘I owe it all to The Persimmon Tree, by Marjorie Barnard.'” They’ve tried something like that in posters on the walls of the UNLV library over here — photographs of the university’s sportspeople and news about their literary preferences, for example, a tennis player standing next to her own name and a note that tells you she loves the Twilight books, under the word READ in capitals.

        • Is there a way to answer that? I’m not sure! As people love to say, it’s still reading … Is reading ANYTHING a good thing? I suppose it is … Better than doing drugs for example…

          I saw a photo here recently of a sporting team … Women basketballers I think … each holding a book. Of course I had to see what book each was holding and overall I approved (Ha!) but I wondered how carefully the books had been chosen and whether it was by them, or the people wanting the photo?

          BTW I do love the image of you being imperturbable on finding Australia Felix in the shop.

  9. Replace the word “Australian” with “Canadian”, your post is applicable here too! Not only that, but history. While students learn about European history, little of their country’s own past is studied. Now, the common thing we share is that we’re both in the Commonwealth, past British colonies. Could that be a factor? Is it true that Post-colonial literature doesn’t have deep roots and favorable environment for growth? Just wondering…

    • Thanks for engaging Arti … or is it that we don’t respect “newness”, that we think that older is better? I can’t see why our particular histories and development don’t have “meat” for exploration? After all we are both countries with long (and still living) indigenous traditions that should be nurtured, traditions that the older English and European cultures have long lost. We should have a lot to offer!

  10. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: On nurturing Australian ... | Literature and Literacy in the Primary Classroom |

  11. Melbourne U didn’t offer a class in Australian lit? That’s crazy! American literature used to be disregarded too but not so much anymore. I hope these new initiatives help. I just finished reading My Brilliant Career this afternoon and I loved it! I read it because of you, so know that you are helping to make a difference too 🙂

    • No apparently not, Stefanie .. though they did in 2010. Their explanation was something to do with the loss of the lecturer but that explanation says a lot too doesn’t it! Re My brilliant career, I’m so glad on multiple fronts. It’s nice to be helping the cause but mostly it’s great that you enjoyed it. That’s the best advertisement!

  12. At Spinifex we have a Spinifex Feminist Classics list which includes cartoons (eg Judy Horacek), fiction (eg Finola Moorhead) and non-fiction (eg Sheila Jeffreys and forthcoming Maria Mies). It is both Australian and international and I think has around 25 titles in the list now. You can find them under the category search at

    • Thanks Susan … I couldn’t go around and check all the SPUNC publishers (well, I could, but I need time to read!) so I’m glad you’ve popped in to let us know what you have. I loved Judy Horacek and often buy her books (or, you know, teatowels with her cartoons) to send overseas. Perhaps I should do a post on her one day!

  13. Oh I was stoic. Not a muscle twitched. It was a solid dark blue hardback, dating back to, I’m guessing, somewhere between 1900 and 1950. Possibly the 1930s. I was sorry I already had a copy. On the subject of, “I wondered how carefully the books had been chosen” — that was one thing I liked about these posters at UNLV. You can assume that they let the tennis player choose her own book, and that they let her stick by it. Nobody said, “Let’s make it look as if you read the latest Pulitzer winner instead, that’s more appropriate for a university library,” or, “Make it an American classic, that will be more inspiring; somebody give her The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor.” She wanted Breaking Dawn, delight of her heart, and she got it.

    Re. Better than doing drugs for example…

    There’s the slogan to get Australia reading. “Books. They’re cheaper than meth.”

    • I think you should send that to the National Year of Reading people. I can just see it adorning the foyers of Australia’s public libraries.

      BTW I tried to respond to your comment to my comment on your Murray post and it just wouldn’t take it. Yesterday’s took me several hours, but today I gave up. I’ll try again in future but probably not on that post again!

      • Sorry there. I can’t work out why it’s suddenly being so picky. I’ve taken off all of the screening requirements now, so — fingers crossed — that might let you through. It doesn’t seem to have any problems with my account so if it’s still being a pain, and if you want to, shoot me the comment via email and I’ll put it up. Or tell me here. If Pykk-Blogger isn’t going to cooperate then dang it, let the beast starve.

        Thinking back to the price of a new book in Australia, are they cheaper than meth? Occurs to me that I might have that the wrong way round.

        • Good question … I’ll get back to you on that one! BTW tried your blog again … And another one giving me trouble lately. It says I’ve entered the word verification wrong again and again BUT when I give up OpenId and use the Name/URL option suddenly it likes my word verification. Weird. Anyhow, I’ll use that option in future. A bit more tedious but perfectly manageable?

  14. Studied the fortunes of Richard mahony at Canberra uni 1987 as part of undergraduate degree. The unit was Australian literature.

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