Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Living Treasures

English: Kate Grenville, Australian author.

Grenville, 2011 (Courtesy: Kathleen Smith, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Over the weekend, the list of Australian Living Treasures was updated. This has to happen every now then because, you know, our living treasures have a habit of dying eventually, which rather disqualifies them from the list!

I’ve chosen to write this post this week for two reasons. The most obvious one is the updating of the list over the weekend, but the other reason is that this week that contains International Women’s Day, which is a good week to highlight the place of women in our culture. And for me a good place to start is our women writers.

Well, now, how many Australian women writers – and by writers I mean novelists and poets, those people who use their imagination to hold a mirror up to humanity – do you think appear in the current list? ONE*! Yep, Colleen McCullough is the ONLY female novelist included in the list. FOUR men are included, novelists Thomas Keneally, David Malouf and Tim Winton, and poet Les Murray. (I won’t discuss here the other significant fact, that only around 30 of the 100 treasures are women.)

I have no problems, of course, with the inclusion of Keneally, Malouf and Winton. Good writers all, who have excellent track records not only with their writing but with their wider contribution to public thought on significant political, ethical and environmental issues. But, only one woman? And that, a woman who, though popular, would not be the first to spring to our lips when we think of significant Australian women novelists. Moreover, she’s had her share of controversy that may suggest her contribution to our society is not of the ilk of Keneally et al. But that’s something you can check out yourselves to make up your own minds. She is though, to use a word commonly applied to women, feisty, and that is not a bad thing.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

But where, for example, is Helen Garner? Her body of fiction and non-fiction has, from the time she first hit the bookstands a few decades ago, made us think and argue about literature, values and ethics. And what about Kate Grenville? Or, Marion Halligan? Or … well there are many other Australian women writers with significant bodies of work but they are JUST NOT WELL KNOWN and there’s the rub … because this list is a popularly voted list coordinated by the National Trust of Australia. And so the story continues … if you don’t get the airplay, you don’t get well-known and if you don’t get well-known, you don’t get the airplay …

This is, I know, a simplistic post on a complex issue … but sometimes simple does the job.

* Two excellent women writers have been removed from the list due to their deaths, Elizabeth Jolley and Judith Wright. Thea Astley, though, has not been removed – because she was never there. Why!

13 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Living Treasures

  1. Pingback: Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 7 March 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

  2. When voting takes place does the National Trust provide a list or do people get to vote for any writer they want to? And who gets to vote? These things also matter. It is sad that only one woman is on the list. As you note, there are plenty of women writers but they just don’t get the airplay that the men do. You probably say the VIDA numbers last week in the Guardian about just what a sad state the “big” review papers continue to be in regarding both women reviews and women authors. Maybe it’s time we start our own big review paper 🙂

    • We do, Stefanie! I saw and blogged about last year’s VIDA report and vaguely something again recently. Is it a new report? Do they do one every year?

      As for voting for the treasures. I didn’t see the recent “ad” for people to vote but as I understand it, it’s free-for-all. People nominate a person and their nomination is their vote. (If that makes sense). Hence, there are quite a lot of sportspeople and popular performers (many of whom do, I know, make humanitarian contributions) in the list … but those who work more quietly of course tend not to be “nominated”. It’s a complicated business … being visible in your contribution to society does of course provide a great role model for others but how you get to be visible is part of the problem!

  3. And the two, count ’em, two women who WERE included in this year’s updates are both blonde canaries. Which sort of tells you everything you need to know about what this august body values in womankind.

    • Yes, I did count them … 2 out of 7 was’t it? I think that at least Newton-John does do some humanitarian stuff with breast cancer but still, I know exactly what you mean.

    • Oh yes, Catherine, I thought of her too but decided not to mention her because she has spent so little time in Australia. I can understand people not thinking of her, much as I’ve loved the three books of hers that I’ve read.

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