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Monday musings on Australian literature: More on nurturing Australian literary classics

March 17, 2014

In early 2012, I wrote a post on nurturing Australian classics in which I mentioned, among other things, some publishing initiatives such as Text Classics and Sydney University’s Australian Classics Library. Text Publishing has continued since then to publish more and more titles, with over 70 titles now being available. Presumably this means that sales are good enough to support the project continuing. What’s particularly special about this series is that Text has commissioned new introductions for these books.

Around the same time I believe, Australian publisher Angus and Robertson also started publishing an Australian Classics series which they sell for similar prices to those by Text, that is in the $12-14 price range. The series doesn’t seem to have been promoted as well as the Text series, but there are some good books here. And, like Text’s series, they include non-fiction as well as fiction, and again like Text, the books can be purchased in print and e-versions.

I’ve been meaning to write about Angus and Robertson’s (A&R) series for some time, but what finally spurred me into action was seeing, recently, that they have republished Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful book, Exiles at home: Australian writers abroad 1925-1945. I have dipped into this book many times, but always at the library. I didn’t buy it when it was first released in 1981, and have never organised myself to pick up a second-hand version. But now, now I have it – and I purchased the e-version so I could have it straight away. Somehow, and perhaps it’s obvious really, I’m more comfortable buying non-fiction in e-versions than fiction.

Exiles at home is an excellent book if you are interested in Australian classics, specifically Australian women’s classics, because Modjeska discusses in some depth, the women who led an impressive flowering of Australian literature in that period leading up to and including the Second World War. They include Dymphna Cusack, Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark, Marjorie Barnard and Kylie Tennant. Some I’ve reviewed here, while others I’ve read way before blogging existed and certainly before I started blogging. When Modjeska wrote her book, many of these authors would not have been in-print – but fortunately they were held in the library of the Australian National University where she started her research.

Now, though, many of those authors are published by A&R (and the other companies republishing classics). We can now buy the likes of Eleanor Dark’s The timeless land, Kylie Tennant’s The battlers, and Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’ Come in spinner from A&R, just as we can buy works by Henry Handel Richardson, Miles Franklin and Elizabeth Harrower from Text. We can also read the men, of course, such as George Johnston, Martin Boyd, Xavier Herbert and Kevin Gilbert via these publishers. (Patrick White, of course, has always been available – to some degree.)

I will, though, finish with the women since it was buying Modjeska’s book that inspired this post. She talks about two major flowerings of women writers in Australia – the period she was writing about and, in her introduction to later editions, the 1980s (when we saw Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Olga Masters, Glenda Adams among others, appear on the scene.). Modjeska refers to this uneven visibility of women’s writing. Given the recent discussions about this issue, in the light of various publishing and reviewing statistics, I thought I’d finish with this comment by Modjeska:

Writing the history of women’s writing is not simply a matter of filling the gaps, slotting people and works into existing literary traditions. Rather, it should be an attempt to unearth new, dialectically related history. The relationship of women writers to cultural history is, however, highly complex and is mediated by ideology, by class and by the ways in which women become social beings in the first place.

This is why, even though women seem to have been featuring well in recent Australian literary awards, we need to keep watching – and why we so appreciate publishers keeping our (male and female) literary traditions alive.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2014 11:36 pm

    I got a couple of A & R Classics to review last year – the two reviews were among my least-viewed posts 😦 One was actually ‘The Timeless Land’:

    Obviously, my audience didn’t appreciate the classic Oz-Lit among my usual fiction-in-translation fare!

    • March 18, 2014 8:12 am

      At least you read and reviewed it, so it’s out there, Tony! That’s a good thing!

  2. Jim KABLE permalink
    March 17, 2014 11:43 pm

    WG: Every time you write there is yet another classic you lead me to – and immediately I download! Thank-you! This time Exiles. Drusilla MODJESKA’s recent award-winner – The Mountain – was one of the best things I have read on PNG – Trevor SHEARSTON’s books of three decades ago informed me of much of a former era – (I’d grown up as a child informed by missionaries returned on furlough from that region – slide shows/8mm film nights – then pen-friends, later a National friend school principal of the Highlands – whom my wife and I visited there – over 30 years ago).

    • March 18, 2014 8:15 am

      Oh good, that’s what I like to hear, Jim! I’ve still to read The mountain, but am keen to. I visited PNG for work twice in the 1970s, but never really got beyond Port Moresby.

    • March 18, 2014 8:07 pm

      I agree wholeheartedly, I thought that The Mountain was a first-class book and I enjoyed it especially because it was doing something so different to the usual. I reviewed it here, if you are interested:
      I hope Modjeska is working on something new:)

      • March 18, 2014 9:53 pm

        Yes, I remember your review Lisa. One day I’ll get it. I can’t imagine she’s not working on something else as she seems to “pop” something out every few years though “pop” is not the right word given the depth of her writing and thinking is it?

        • March 18, 2014 10:29 pm

          Yes, and I like the way she ranges across different types of writing. I have her Stravinsky’s Lunch still to read, I bought it when it first came out and I can’t believe it’s sat on my shelves so long…not for lack of interest, it’s just I have bought so many books, I really must tackle some of the ones I’ve had on the shelf for too long because they keep getting displaced by more and more new ones.
          *blush* I am incorrigible when it comes to buying books!

  3. March 18, 2014 6:32 am

    Sounds like a really wonderful book. And it’s great there are now two publishers doing Australian classics!

    • March 18, 2014 8:21 am

      Thanks Stefanie … Yes those two plus others less obviously but bringing the odd older book out, which is great.

  4. March 18, 2014 9:22 am

    They must’ve had publishers worth a pinch of marketing shit, then …

    • March 18, 2014 9:41 am

      Interesting point, MR. It would be interesting to look back to the 1930s to see what the story was. I think in the 80s there were a few independent publishers really giving it a go … McPhee Gribble for example in Melbourne published Helen Garner, UQP did Olga Masters; Fremantle Press did early Elizabeth Jolley. They all did other women and fellas as well but I remember being very aware of those wonderful publishers. UQP and Fremantle are still going. McPhee Gribble unfortunately had to sell up in the end.

      Gribble, eventually I believe, was behind Text Publishing but died a couple of years ago. If you are interested in independent publishers, Hilary McPhee’s memoir of those times, Other people’s words, is a wonderful read.

  5. Lithe lianas permalink
    March 18, 2014 5:31 pm

    I look forward to hearing ‘A House is Built’ has been republished. I read it as a teenager many, many years ago and still remember it as a fine novel explicating the restricted lives of women and their largely unrecognised contribution to Australian society.

    Isn’t it funny though how larger, more powerful publishers get in on the act when newcomers pave the way? More power to Text.

    • March 18, 2014 9:50 pm

      It sure is LL. And yes, I agree re A house is built. I’m not sure I’ve seen it appear yet.

  6. March 18, 2014 7:19 pm

    The Modjeska book goes straight on my wishlist — that sounds perfect for dipping into, as you say.

    • March 18, 2014 9:51 pm

      Oh good Vicki … it’s an interesting read … and I like her introduction in which she discusses changes since she wrote the book, but why she decided to let it stand as it is.

  7. March 18, 2014 10:43 pm

    I agree, Lisa, re her writing. I have The orchard here and haven’t read it though did start it once at a time I couldn’t give it the right attention. As for buying books, I go through phases. Sometimes I feel I mustn’t buy more – I have so much to read – and other times I think “to hell with it”!

  8. meg permalink
    March 19, 2014 11:40 am

    Fortunately I have read most of the “Australian Classics” you mention and it is good to know they will be back in book shops. I do hope they get read. As to Druisial Modjeska, I have her book Stravinsky’s Lunch. I bought it on a whim, mainly I think because I was attracted by its heaviness (felt like a real book), and its beautiful illustrations of the paintings of Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington. I must read her Exiles at Home. I went to the David Malouf interview at the Wheeler Centre on Monday Night. He is such an interesting man. He recognized the influence of other cultures on Australia and our own history. However, he did say some Australian writers think that they had to write only about Australia.

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