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Monday musings on Australian literature : University of Canberra Book of the Year, 2014

April 7, 2014

Last year I wrote about the University of Canberra’s Book of the Year initiative in which they required each new student to read and be prepared to discuss the chosen book for the year. The book was provided gratis to all beginning students, and teaching staff was expected to incorporate the book somewhere in their programs. Last year’s book was the Western Australian writer Craig Silvey’s novel, Jasper Jones.

I finally got around to checking out whether they decided to continue the initiative this year, and I’m pleased to report that they have. Just to refresh your memory, here is how they describe their aims:

The objective of the UC Book Project is to introduce commencing undergraduate students to intellectual life before their studies officially begin, encouraging early engagement with UC on-line resources, informal learning and sharing among all new students, closer connections between staff and students and greater inclusion of the University’s associations, adjuncts and UC Schools.

This year’s book is Emma Donoghue’s award-winning book, Room. It’s an interesting choice. I haven’t read it but from what I’ve heard of it, it’s a book likely to engage people in discussion. However, I do wonder why an Australian book wasn’t chosen. That might sound a little nationalistic I suppose, but I’d like to think that an Australian university saw the promotion of our own literature as one of its roles. It’s not as though there’s nothing suitable for the purpose – surely.

Room was chosen by the panel from a shortlist of five titles, none of which are Australian. The site doesn’t say how the shortlist was chosen. Here it is:

  • Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka (Commonwealth Book Prize Overall winner, 2012, from Sri Lanka)
  • The dubious salvation of Jack V, by Jacques Strauss (Commonwealth Book Prize African Regional winner, 2012)
  • The memory of love, by Aminatta Forna (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Overall winner, 2011, from Sierra Leone)
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Canadian Regional winner, 2011)
  • The town that drowned, by Riel Nason (Commonwealth Book Prize Canadian Regional winner, 2012)

Do you detect a theme here? I guess it’s a fair strategy to look at this set of awards for a shortlist. But what about winners from the Pacific region, which includes Australia? The 2011 winner for our region was Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, which is a wonderful book but is probably too literary for the more generalist audience the University of Canberra needs to engage. The 2012 Pacific Regional prize was Cory Taylor’s* Me and Mr Booker. It’s a coming-of-age novel, as was Jasper Jones and some of the books in the 2014 shortlist. It might have been a good candidate for the shortlist.

And now, recognising that I haven’t read Donoghue or Taylor, I’m going to raise a question. Last year’s selected novel was written by a male and this year’s by a female, but in both the narrator is male. Could there be a belief that male students are more likely to read a novel told from a male point of view? Women do appear in the novels, and in Room the mother is a major character, but still … In fact, four of the five shortlisted novels have male narrators or protagonists. Riel Nason’s The town that drowned is the exception. I have, in recent years, read suggestions that (perceived or real?) male student preferences might take priority when choosing reading matter for study on the assumption that female students will read more widely. (Whether this might be because female students want to do so or because they are more likely to comply is an interesting question.)

But this is all conjecture of the sort that we readers like to engage in when we see lists of books. The important thing is that the project – which can’t be cheap – has continued into a second year. An executive summary of a report of the first year is available on-line. I’d love to read the full report.

*Cory Taylor’s My beautiful enemy has been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award.

30 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2014 11:14 pm

    I said it last year, and I’ll say it again because this year’s choice is ever worse IMO, I would be livid if I had to read these wretched books! It would make me question my choice of university if these titles are their idea of ‘starting an intellectual life’.
    If ANU is going to persist with this idea, they should at least at least choose something worthwhile, like Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough for You? or Anzac’s Long Shadow by James Brown, or Empathy by Roman Krznaric, or Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko. Something to challenge 18 year-olds out of their comfort zone, which would certainly get them talking during O-week which is the only conceivable purpose of this initiative IMO. (But do the cream of Australia’s tertiary students need this kind of imposed coddling to get talking to each other??)
    I’m blessed if I can see how lecturers of economics, engineering, renaissance history or any language at all can incorporate any of these books, their choices or mine into what they are teaching, and for what possible purpose anyway?
    I wonder what happens if you refuse to read it.. I’d be testing that out myself!

    • April 7, 2014 11:26 pm

      Lisa, this is not the ANU, but the University of Canberra. I think they have to find a book that will engage 18 year olds of a wide range of backgrounds so looking at the coming-of-age style novel isn’t a bad thing, much as I’d love to see something like Mullumbimby there or Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (which is set not far away from Canberra, geographically speaking but is about indigenous identity and experience). Who knows what reading many of these students have done – you have to walk before you can run I think. This link will give you some idea of the project and the use of the books.

      • April 8, 2014 7:33 am

        Sorry, my mistake about which university…
        Yes, Purple Threads would be a better choice too. I get the impression LOL admittedly only from their two choices, that it reflects their own lack of wide reading if they can’t find an Australian book to use and one with contemporary issues that at least offers something meaningful to grapple with (as students must be used to after compulsory Y12 English).

        • April 8, 2014 8:21 am

          It would be interesting to know what their parameters are and who came up with the shortlist. The final panel includes some very well read people … the shortlist in itself is varied and I’d guess has been put together by a reader but with some specific parameters. I’d like to see one of those parameters Aussie with perhaps some other global books offered as a suggested further reading list?

        • April 8, 2014 9:05 am

          I think year 12 English has only been made compulsory in the ACT very recently, if at all (but correct me if I’m wrong). UC is certainly not the most intellectual of universities, and I say this as a graduate of the joint, so I reckon it’s kind of surprising and great they’re taking on a project like this. I’m excited enough they’re trying to get people reading fiction to be too fussed over what the book is: it could so easily have been Matthew Reilly!

        • April 8, 2014 10:25 am

          Thanks Jane … I think it’s great too, and I like the fact that my post has encouraged such discussion. I take your point re the choice of book. It’s clearly part of a plan to lift UC’s game, on a few fronts. It must add some buzz to the campus though there’s sure to be students and staff who won’t engage. But that’s life isn’t it. I feel inspired by the project … I’d like to see more analysis of it.

        • April 8, 2014 7:25 pm

          LOL Jane I would rather read Matthew Reilly than Room!

        • April 8, 2014 9:47 pm

          You would, Lisa? I don’t think I would…

        • April 9, 2014 8:46 am

          Ha! Well, I started reading Room and gave up, but I’ve never even tried Reilly: maybe I should! (And maybe they should try Sofia Laguna’s ‘One foot wrong’ if they want a story about a kid kept captive: incredible book.)

        • April 9, 2014 8:57 am

          Sounds like we both should, Jane! I haven’t heard of Laguna at all.

        • April 9, 2014 6:39 pm

          oh, ‘One foot wrong’ is brilliantly written, but dark, dark, dark. I can only recommend it if you’re up for a rather harrowing experience. So worth it.

        • April 9, 2014 9:26 pm

          Oh I’m up for harrowing! I’m weird that way – particularly if it’s worth it!

  2. April 7, 2014 11:55 pm

    I suppose it is one people may be more likely to read life idea of a book to get folks talking but but like Lisa I actually found this book wouldn’t appeal to me

    • April 8, 2014 12:03 am

      Thanks Stu … yes, the idea is to get a book that will get people in, reading and talking. No book is going to appeal to everyone is it so they need to find one that will reach a broad group – and from what I know of Room it got people talking. It’s all about the goal and the particular audience in mind I think. Still, I think a commitment to Aussie lit would have been good.

  3. vyvienn permalink
    April 8, 2014 12:25 am

    Interesting discussion, I hope you get more input! From my own experience I can only say that in high school, we only did lit in German class, not English, and we exclusively read German-language books. Later in college, we had some American classics in our American History class (Willa Cather). At uni, the only lit class I took was Shakespeare, which pretty much excludes the rest of the world 🙂 So I do share your puzzlement at the book selection you presented, especially as a first assignment! I don’t know how much Australian students need to be coaxed out of their comfort zones. I saw an art exhibition in Perth done by some amazingly perceptive and sensitive 17-year-olds who seemed quite capable to reach beyond what casual observers might think of as their horizons.
    That said, I’d like to remark that reading your blog is a dangerous thing indeed: I seem to be unable to walk away without expanding my reading list! And yet, thank you for putting That Deadman Dance on it.

    • April 8, 2014 8:26 am

      Thanks for sharing your perspective Vyv … And for the comment on your Perth experience. I suspect as with any cohort, UC’s group will include a wide range from the well-read to the almost never-read. I love what they are doing, and love that people here are interested and talking. I’ve never been described as dangerous before but I like it! That deadman dance is a wonderful book … Needs some concentration in the beginning to work out the voice/s but it pays back in spades I think.

  4. April 8, 2014 12:40 am

    This sounds like a really interesting initiative and one that would hopefully encourage more students to read outside of their courses. I don’t think there’s anything similar here in the UK! It’s encouraging that this project is now in its second year.

    • April 8, 2014 8:29 am

      Thanks Gemma … When it started last year I discovered one other Aussie Uni had done it recently but couldn’t find evidence of a second year so fingers crossed for this one. It really requires staff engagement to make it interesting and exciting, plus a few keen students who read it, get excited and talk to their peers.

  5. April 8, 2014 4:51 am

    Well, at least it’s not a picture book as well as a male narrator.

  6. April 8, 2014 6:25 am

    Imnsvho it’s bloody outrageous, taking multiculturalism to ridiculous lengths.
    I have spoken.
    😉

    • April 8, 2014 8:34 am

      You sure have MR! I think a novel about immigrant Australian experience or indigenous experience would have been a lovely way to go. I suspect it’s not as easy as we think trying to find one book to be widely appealing but meaty too.

  7. April 8, 2014 9:17 am

    This is such an interesting conversation, and I don’t envy those who make the choice of book. When I taught first year uni English classes, I would begin by asking students to talk about the last thing they had read, whatever it was. A few had read a book, most had read magazines, and some had read nothing, and said they didn’t like reading, though they had chosen English lit !!!! (more from not knowing what to choose than anything else). If it’s difficult to get those people to read, it can be even harder to get non-literature subject students to read. That’s not everyone, obviously, and there are some great students in all subject areas, but it’s a tough gig. I thought Jasper Jones was a book most suitable for mid-teens, and not very challenging, but maybe that was the point. I’ve only read the first chapter of Room (a kindle sampler) and my impression is that many might be put off by it. However, WG, I agree with your point that it should be an Australian book, absolutely! Why on earth not?

    • April 8, 2014 10:20 am

      Thanks Robyn … you’ve pretty much said exactly what I had assumed about first year students and what might be a good book that might have wide appeal. Though I had never thought that someone who didn’t like reading would go so far as to choose English Lit! Jasper Jones seemed a fair enough choice for their purpose – not challenging, but Aussie and with a range of issues that could be picked up for discussion, in terms of content, style, audience. Room does sound like a somewhat different kettle of fish … I’m glad you agree re the Australian book. Why on earth not, indeed.

  8. April 9, 2014 2:42 am

    Good to hear the program was successful enough last year that they are continuing it! Is it bad to say that at least everyone is (supposed to be) reading a novel which might be more than some of them usually do depending on the focus of their studies? There are a number of US universities that do something similar as a way to provide a foundational experience for their incoming freshmen across areas of study. I think most of them hold events outside of classes to provide for mixing and the chance to meet and make friends. Choosing a book no doubt is a hard process fraught with rivalries and politics if academia there is anything like here! But I would think they’d choose something by an Australian author.

    • April 9, 2014 8:36 am

      No it’s not bad to say Stefanie … Accurate to say! I read about overseas examples when I researched this last year. The out of class events, mixing students up, sound great.

  9. Anthony Eaton permalink
    April 10, 2014 10:19 am

    A really interesting discussion. Thanks everyone for engaging in it. Just for the record, speaking (personally, not on behalf of the University) as a teacher of creative writing and Lit Studies here at UC, it should be noted that we have plenty of Australian literature on our reading lists: My units this semester (which includes a unit in children’s and YA literature) includes novels by Jackie French, and works by Shaun Tan and Matt Ottley, as well as (in my other unit) readings by Tim Winton, Sari Smith, Helen Garner, Margo Lanagan, Meme McDonald, Kevin Brophy, Greg Denning and Ben Stubbs, plus critical reading from a broad range of Australian scholars including Lucashenko, Bradford, Dudek, Hateley and others. We’re looking in depth at the construction of Indigenous characters in Australian fiction, and a wide range of issues surrounding the notion of national identity, and at the ways that writers engage with it. From my perspective, at least, I’m completely happy to have ‘Room’ as the book of the year, because I think it brings an international perspective.

    I’d also make the observation that everyone who commented on the need for a novel that will resonate with an extremely broad (and sometimes reluctant) range of readers and reading abilities was spot on the money. As a writer, you very quickly work out that the subjective nature of reading as a practice means that you’re never going to please everyone, and the same is pretty much true here; I wasn’t involved in the selection process for the novel, but I would imagine that the panel found themselves doing a balancing act between a novel that creates engagement and excitement, and is suitably accessible for readers across a vast range of discipline areas, and accessible for teaching staff who choose to use it.

    It’s probably worth clarifying, too, that the students are in no way compelled to read the book, nor are staff compelled to use it in their curriculums, but it is encouraged. The idea is to create a buzz, not kill it 🙂

    I’ve used ‘Room’ in my Creative writing class as a brilliant example of finely crafted voice, and particularly as an example of using language to build a specific and devastating emotional effect on the reader. For my money the final sentence of ‘Room’ is remarkable for its impact, and for the fact that the entire book has been very deliberately put together to lead to the protagonist’s use of one tiny, very common, word (which I won’t spoiler), and that, in turn, shifts the whole fabric of the reader’s relationship with the protagonist and his situation. It’s just lovely writing.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d throw in the perspective of someone involved in the process at the moment. Speaking for myself, I’ve found The Book of the Year program to be a great addition to campus culture and academic life at the uni, and one which has created some great benefits for both me as a teacher, and for my students.

    • April 10, 2014 2:20 pm

      Thanks so much for commenting Anthony. It’s truly wonderful to have your perspective. I’m interested in your comment that no-one is compelled to read the book because the main web page says it is “required” reading, though the Exec Summary of the report last year implies that not every student took it up so I was wondering.

      Thrilled to hear about your Aussie Lit classes. And thanks for sharing how you’ve used Room in your class. Do you have any sense of how many non-lit classes do make use of the book during the year?

      • Anthony Eaton permalink
        April 10, 2014 2:34 pm

        In my experience, it’s one of those ‘required’s that is more an expression of hope than a mirror of reality 🙂

        That said, a lot of staff did read and use last year’s book in various ways. I can’t recall off the top of my head the various faculties, but it certainly saw use beyond just the lit studies and writing departments.

        • April 10, 2014 2:58 pm

          Thanks Anthony. It never hurts to have aspiration does it, though perhaps “expected” might do the job? Hmm, maybe students are more likely to respond to “required”.

          Anyhow, I’ll be watching out for further reports on the website and for next year’s book. Fingers crossed there will be one.

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