Monday musings on Australian literature: On the making of a classic

Having completed the book, I tried to get it published, but everyone to whom I offered it refused even to look at the manuscript on the ground that no Colonial could write anything worth reading. They gave no reason for this extraordinary opinion, but it was sufficient for them, and they laughed to scorn the idea that any good could come out of Nazareth – i.e. the Colonies. (Fergus Hume in the Preface to the 1898 revised edition of his The mystery of a hansom cab)

Rather coincidentally, I finished reading Fergus Hume’s The mystery of a hansom cab a few days after I wrote last week’s Monday Musings on nurturing Australian classics. The quote above doesn’t exactly relate to today’s topic on the creation of a classic but to the difficult business of getting published in the first place. However, it does lead nicely into today’s discussion, partly because a book must be published before it can hope to be a classic (duh!), but mainly because today’s topic was inspired by the new introduction to Sydney University Press’s 2010 edition of Hume’s novel.

In this introduction, Robert Dixon of Sydney University commences by stating that when people are asked to nominate the most popular Australian writers of the late nineteenth century they tend to name Marcus Clarke (The term of his natural life), Rolf Boldrewood (Robbery under arms), Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. They do not, in other words, mention Fergus Hume whose book achieved “impressive sales”. Nor do they mention writers like Ada Cambridge (whom I’ve featured in a past Monday musings). Why?

Dixon has some suggestions. One is commercial, that is availability. He quotes another academic in the field, Paul Eggert, as saying that a “consensus about the nineteenth-century classics emerged quite suddenly among reviewers around the Centenary year of 1888, which hardened into an orthodoxy” in early histories of literature. This resulted in Clarke’s, Boldrewood’s and Kinsley’s (The recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn) novels becoming available cheaply and in quantity. But why these particular works? Well, Dixon says that there was a growing interest in the colonial past, an “emerging literary nationalism”, which

not only displaced a generation of female authors of domestic realism, such as Catherine Spence, Ada Cambridge and Catherine Martin, but also male writers of urban-based popular fiction, including Fergus Hume and Nat Gould.

He continues:

By the time the first critical evaluations of Australian literature came to be written in the early decades of the new century, Eggert notes, ‘the die had been cast’. The mystery of a hansom cab was urban, not pastoral, international rather than national in outlook, and ‘neither a detective story nor a turf tale* was going to compete seriously with the Kingsley-Clarke-Boldrewood trio’.

Interesting, eh? The logical outcome, of course, is that if a book is overlooked early in its life (due to “fashion” or the “fickle finger of fate”) it has a hard road back to serious recognition. But then, feminist studies over the last half century have already shown us how books (art, music, or whatever endeavour you care to mention) by women have regularly been overlooked by the creators of “the canon”.

It would be nice to think that “quality” (I’m not going to get into definitions of that now) will rise to the top but, while we probably agree in general that those books currently labelled “classics” are so, it’s pretty clear that there are many more works out there equally deserving of the label – if only we knew about them. That’s the real pity of it … so I’d like to thank all those publishers who, over recent years, have sussed out “quality” older works and re-introduced them to us. I hope they keep doing so.

All that said, it begs the question about today’s authors and books, doesn’t it? Will the swag of awards we have now be the arbiter of what become future classics? Or will best-selling status be the go? Will future publishers suss out the overlooked – and what will they be? Oh for a crystal ball.

Addendum to last week

In last week’s post I reported that Melbourne University did not teach one Australian literature course in 2011. Here is student Stephanie Guest’s take on the situation as she reported in the Australian Book Review (undated):

… at the University of Melbourne, there was only one subject on Australian literature, ‘The Australian Imaginary’. To my chagrin, the handbook reported that it was not available in 2011. There may be specialised branches of Australian literature taught in Croatia and Texas, but at Melbourne there was not even a general course on offer. The carelessness towards Australian literary studies was clear from the listing in the course curriculum of Murray Bail as ‘Murray Bird’.

The head of the English department told me that staff shortages, reduced funding for the Arts Faculty, and low student interest in the subject were responsible for the absence of Australian Literature in 2011.

* Nat Gould’s milieu

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: On the making of a classic

  1. The ANU offers five Aust Lit courses, which means more than half your major can be focused on it. I took three of them, and they were at least as well attended as all the other English courses I did.;courses.html

    And while it pains me to say this, USyd offers even more Aust Lit courses, many of which look excellent.

    Re the other stuff: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the timing of classics. To resurrect a novel in an already crowded marketplace, to encourage people to read it over the latest Miles Franklin winner, or Man Booker winner, is hard work. Just trying to sell people classics at work, even though they’re often cheaper than new releases, is a mission.

    • Thanks Matthew. University rivalry is alive and well, eh? Anyhow, that’s great to hear … ANU should race ahead of Uni of Melbourne again in the rankings don’t you think?!

      Just the word “classics” puts some people off doesn’t it – while for others of us it’s a magnet. What do you reckon is the easiest to sell “classic” in your experience?

      • I just don’t tell people when it was published. 🙂

        Of course, this works as long as things aren’t branded as “classics.”

        • Ha! That’s exactly what I was thinking : Penguin Modern Classics, Text Classics, The Australian Classics Library. Perhaps they should follow Penguin’s other lead and do something like their Popular Penguins at Perfect Prices model. I see the Penguin brand and think (in my readerly snobbish way that it’s likely to be good, while those wary of classics might like the idea of “popular”)

        • I don’t mind them being called “popular,” I just wish they looked more pretty on my shelf. And were proper B-format size, so I didn’t have to put them on their own shelf.

          Not that I’m OCD about my books or anything.

  2. From my perspective Gummie, used Aussie books can be outrageously expensive–old or new. I recently went looking for one and it was going for about $40. That’s a tough sell for me (I read 19 books this month and it’s hard for me to justify 40 for one unless it’s something really special). 40 is bad enough if you can find a review somewhere and get an idea if you’d like the book and what’s it’s about but if there are no reviews out there (ie it’s old and forgotten), then it’s an even harder sell.

    University of Melbourne offering no Aussie Lit classes? What are they thunking?

    • Well you might ask Guy re Uni of Melbourne. As Matt says, two other major Aussie unis manage a few courses. As for second hand prices, surely they must be special eg first editions? $40 is more than I could justify too, even given our generally higher prices here!

  3. Very interesting to consider what goes into the making of a classic, Australian or otherwise. I like to think quality rises to the top like cream but there is so much that gets in the way. I hope bestsellerdom doesn’t constitute a future classic. It is too painful to imagine students in 2112 studying The Da Vinci Code!

  4. Oh, I was about to start shouting about the lack of women in that first list, but thankfully you drew attention to that yourself. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less 🙂

  5. I often think about this. (Not that I think I will ever write anything approaching a ‘canonic work’.) But which of today’s millions of books might ever be as well-read as Jane Austen? As the technological age encourages us to write and read in spurts, the ‘classics’ begin to seem a handful. My sons haven’t read any Russian authors yet, and neither of them have opened the Patrick Whites I gave them for Christmas!

    That other element – fashion – also has a lot to answer for. When living as struggling artists in Ghana, I remember the French Cultural people making a selection of my ex’s photographs, which in fact branded his work and conditioned his future subject matter. I too used to think that the cream rose to the top but there are markets, budgets and buyers who take art from our hands and make it business.

    • Thanks Catherine … but who knows what you might produce! As for your sons, they have time yet and your giving them those books is passing on to them something that you think is important. There’s value in that I think even if they haven’t fully taken it in now.

      Fashion has way more to do with it than we’d like to think, I think! And it’s a shame. Some of it has to do with the prevailing cultural values/attitudes that mean works don’t get far off first base, and then some has to do with notions of datedness which results in books/authors falling off their pedestal. Datedness is a whole other topic to talk about I think.

  6. S.A.J. Bradley writes intelligently about this kind of selective literary history pick-and-choose in the introduction to his anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry — he points out that the written documents we can still read, from that old time, have survived because they are religious, because religious people were in charge of writing them, and religious people in charge of preserving them, and, that, therefore, whatever purely secular ideas might have existed at that time, in that country, have disappeared from record. (Riddles excepted.) They’re not just ignored, they’re gone. They came into the world, there was no velcro of written language to adhere them there, and they vanished. Though you can see them crossbred with Christianity, in Beowulf, for example, and in the spells and charms that Bradley puts in his book, like the one “For Unfruitful Land,” which tells the farmer to dig up four clods, name them after the four saints, and pray over them. “Then turn yourself round three times sunwise, then stretch yourself prostrate and recite the litanies there, and then say “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus” to its ending.” Then you make a mixture of spices and insert them “into the plough-tree. Then take the seed and set it on the body of the plough, then say: ‘Erce! Erce! Erce! Mother of earth! May ruler of all, the everlasting Lord, grant you fields sprouting and shooting …'” Then you give your field a loaf of bread to eat and pray at it some more so that it likes it. Etc.

    • Thanks DKS … you do read some very interesting stuff. Religion certainly had a strong influencing factor on what was created, for a start, didn’t it, churches being the main commissioner or patron of creators – and then played a role in survival.

      BTW When I stretch myself prostrate to say my Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, should I be face up or face down? I do like the notion of turning myself sunwise …

      • Face-down, I think, because “prostrate” is more of a face-down word than a face-up word, but you could argue it. “How am I supposed to say all this with my lips in the mud? It’s wet down here. I’m in a puddle. This is stupid. I’m going to roll over.” And when the next sentence starts by telling you to, “Then sing the Benedicite with outstretched arms, and the Magnificat and the Paternoster three times,” are you still prostrate (lying horizontal with your wings out like an aeroplane), or are you supposed to stand up, then sing? Did people ever hang around out in the fields watching their friends sing Benedicite and the Magnificat and Sanctus sanctus sanctus, and interrupt them, “Nuh, mate, stop, that’s not going to work, you have to get on your feet,” and then did the person on the ground say, “Shut up, this is how they told me to do it,” and the friend say, “Well you do it how you like, but I was standing up by now when I did this last year, and it worked for me, that’s all I’m saying,” and then was there a massive argument in the middle of the Paternoster? There’s no reason to believe that people wouldn’t develop definite opinions about this kind of thing.

        • Ah yes, the old literal versus read-between-the-lines nexus. There could of course be the fear of excommunication hanging over you if you stray too far from the “rules”.

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