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:
- Sydney University Press‘s Australian Classics Library, of which I reviewed six here, and will be posting a new one in the next few days or so.
- Text Publishing’s Text Classics (starting with 32 classics, all priced at $12.95. A deal for we Australians used to paying well over AUD32 for a paperback).
- Penguin’s Popular Penguins at a Perfect Price includes a few Australian classics (by such as Randolph Stowe, Henry Handel Richardson and Ruth Park) as well as more contemporary works.
- Project Gutenberg Australia which provides access to a wide range of public domain classics, Aussie and otherwise, as I reported in a previous Monday Musings.
- And, a search, albeit not straightforward, of the various SPUNC publishers will find scattered Australian classics being published, such as Giramondo’s rerelease of Gerald Murnane’s 1976 novel, Tamarisk Row.
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?