Monday musings on Australian literature: ABR’s first laureate

While I was gallivanting in the northern hemisphere in April, ABR (the Australian Book Review) announced its first ever laureate. I missed it at the time, but heard of it soon after my return, and am now sharing it with you. For most Aussie readers, though, it’s probably a bit old hat!

ABR’s concept of a laureate is somewhat different to, say, Britain’s poet laureate who is called upon to produce poetry for special occasions. ABR’s idea, says editor Peter Rose, is “to highlight the work of our greatest writers”. However, the laureate will have one job, and that is to nominate (and possibly mentor) a “laureate’s fellow”, a younger writer who will receive $5000 to support “a work of poetry, fiction, memoir or criticism” that will be published in ABR.

So, who is ABR’s first laureate? Rose said that deciding the first laureate was easy – David Malouf. With David Malouf turning 80 this year, it seemed obvious, he said, to mark his many achievements. Makes good sense to me, particularly given the breadth and depth of those achievements. But, I’ve already written about Malouf turning 80, so won’t repeat what I said then.

However, to commemorate Malouf’s laureateship (is that a word?), ABC Radio’s Mark Colvin conducted a brief interview with Malouf for PM  Colvin asked him a few well-targeted questions concerning the development of Australian literature. Malouf was his usual thoughtful, measured self – and made his usual sense. He talked of the change in Australian literature from the 1980s to now, suggesting that in the 1980s and 90s, defining our identity, our Australian-ness “was a big thing … I think writers themselves had a more self-conscious notion of their Australian-ness and what the particular subject matter of Australia might be. I think that moment has more or less passed”. In response to Colvin’s question regarding why that might be, he said:

I think the question of Australian identity has become much more open and flexible and more complex. I think younger writers don’t necessarily think of themselves as being Australian writers; they really want to be global writers or international writers. But you know, like all writers, the thing that they are aware of is that you’re a writer for yourself. It’s something very, very personal.

And I think we’ve reached the kind of sophistication when we think about Australian-ness to understand, which I think is absolutely true, that for anybody who is writing and has grown up in Australia with Australian language and Australian education and Australian interests, your Australian-ness is something you can pretty well take for granted. You don’t have to work on it.

I think he he’s right – and it is probably part of the natural maturation of a nation. It’s perhaps a bit like moving from adolescence to adulthood in that we are becoming comfortable in our own skins. This is not to say that we won’t continue to write about some of the issues that define us, issues like our indigenous/colonial/settler history, or our physical distance from much of the world (which might be mitigated somewhat by technology but not completely – the kilometres are still there). But it does suggest that we are less likely to fuss about who we are, to feel that we have to explain or justify ourselves. Books like Malouf’s own Ransom (my review) is a perfect example – an Australian writing about classical Greeks (as he did earlier about ancient Romans in An imaginary life).

If Malouf is right and we do, and can, take our Australian-ness for granted, what does this mean for our interpretation of the Miles Franklin Award’s stipulation that the winner must be about “Australian Life in any of its phases”? How do we interpret that in 21st century Australia? In other words, what does an “indigenous literature” (Franklin’s words) look like in a mature nation?

Anyhow, the other main question Colvin asked him concerned the difficulty of being a writer today and the future of the novel. Malouf said that, while there may be some questions regarding the impact of new formats like reading on a screen,

my belief would be that there will always be readers because I think reading is for some people something they can’t do without. It’s a bread and butter matter, it’s an addiction. And I think those people will go on reading. I think they’ve always been a fairly small number; I think they’ve always been pretty much the same number.

So I’m optimistic really about the survival of the novel and the survival of the reader.

His final point – and it’s a writer’s point – was that “the question really would be about what happens to publishing rather than what happens to writing.” Once a writer, always a writer, obviously!


6 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: ABR’s first laureate

  1. I think the Miles Franklin criteria is quite wide enough to include anything written by someone identifying as Australian! I did not catch the news that DM is ABR’s Laureate so I am happy to know this having just completed reading his collection of essays – much about the sense of being Australian over the past number of decades! Nonetheless – there is a sense in which at this precise moment I am feeling my national identity most strongly – having just spent three days in Jawoyn country – Kakadu – and other nearby areas – in fact now writing from the bus heading into Batchelor and on into Litchfield. And some days ago in Alice Springs! This amazing part of Australia – the intricacies of Indigenous culture – kinship systems – but beyond that the stunning rock art records dated back 20,000 years+. I feel a deepened sense of respect to the First Peoples of Australia and feel myself very tiny within that vastness of history and ordering of the world. I want to mention the name of the Kakadu visit guide (with AAT Kings) – possibly the best teacher I have ever met (both his parents removed from their families – part of the stolen generations) Ted LIDDY.

    • Thanks Jim. We love that area. In fact I bought at Nitmiluk the Jawoyn Plants and Animals guide. I look at it often because it provides indigenous, scientific and common names for flora and fauna in the region. There are some wonderful guides and teachers in Kakadu. We did one tour into Arnhemland with one of the Huddlestone family (it was about decade ago now so I can’t remember his first name) and he was great. Dale Huddlestone was an Aboriginal Artist in Residence for the ACT Dept of Education many years ago so his last name has stuck.I agree that being out there gives you such a sense of the depth of our country’s history and culture.

      Thanks for replying to my post on the coach! I’m touched. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

      As for MF, the thing is that that’s not how everyone sees it, though I’m inclined to agree with you and think the interpretation should be broad. And, I think the trustees are moving to broaden it. There have been controversies when a book has or hasn’t been recognised because of its lack of “Australianness”. Moorehouse’s Grand days is one. HIs character was Australian but that novel was set in the League of Nations in Europe.

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