Monday musings on Australian literature: Once more unto the breach

A little over three years ago, I wrote a Monday musings about the GAN (aka the Great Australian Novel) and the canon. I concluded with the questions: Do you think there is value to the idea of a canon? Or does it discourage wide and open-minded reading and coincidentally encourage a too narrow view of the culture it refers to? It generated an interesting discussion. I was reminded of it recently when I read Kerryn Goldsworthy’s 17-month-old essay “What we talk about when we talk about Australian literature” (Sydney Review of Books, 29 Jan 2013) and John Kinsella’s older article, cited by Goldsworthy, “An Australian canon will only damage Australian literature” (The Guardian, 9 March 2012).

Critic, editor, author Goldsworthy and poet, critic, editor Kinsella are both responding, at least in part, to statements by Text Publishing’s Michael Heyward, and others, about the loss of Australian classics. Both tackle the issue of defining Australian literature, and refer to the idea of a “canon”.

I won’t summarise all their arguments here: you can read their far more eloquent words yourselves at the links I’ve provided above. In essence, both support and encourage the teaching of Australian classics, but both also question the existence of, or wisdom of defining, a canon – for the very reasons I posed in my questions back in 2011. Kinsella puts it this way:

Setting out precisely which books should be taught, and thereby defining a single national literature, is liable to occlude its true diversity.

I’m inclined to agree that we should be cautious about the idea of a canon, without discounting it altogether.

Goldsworthy opens her essay by suggesting that Australian literature changed around 1988. I loved her “proof”! It’s to do with parody nights at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL). Parody, of course, requires those on the receiving end knowing the references which, in the case of ASAL, means knowing Australian literature. Until around 1988, Goldsworthy writes, there was a “pretty stable Australian literature canon” of which, of course, ASAL conference attendees would be expected to be well-versed. They therefore “got” the parodies. However, from around 1988, she says, Australian literature started diversifying – which is, I think, a good thing – and academics started specialising. Common knowledge or recognition of our literary tradition started to wane.

This is not the only issue she mentions. A somewhat darker one has to do with politics and a reaction to the conservative cultural agenda of the John Howard era. She quotes Nicholas Jose who suggested that to avoid being co-opted into “a coercive agenda” involving teaching an approved canon, scholars opted for “a rupture … a clean break with a shameful past that was being recycled”.

Elizabeth Harrower The watch tower

Cover for The watch tower (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

Enter, sometime down the track, Michael Heyward and his Text Classics. Goldsworthy provides a good analysis of the series, addressing some of the issues regarding selection that have come to my mind – because it is an idiosyncratic list that includes works one wouldn’t have expected and omits those one would. There are many reasons for this, the main ones being availability and marketability. None of this, though, for me or for Goldsworthy, destroys the value of the enterprise. It’s just that you have to understand the parameters and not draw invalid conclusions about “a canon” from the list.

Kinsella takes a related but somewhat different tack to Goldsworthy, partly because hers is longer and therefore broader in reach. He immediately hones in to the idea of canons. He argues that by foisting a defined set of works on students

we are blatantly gatekeeping: setting agendas of control and manipulation. The teacher becomes an extension of the state in more ways than being its employee or citizen.

He argues that a national literature be looked at with “flexibility and an openness to change and reassessment”. He then says something a little more provocative:

Australian ‘classics’ are too often limited to texts that work as affirmations of Australian identity: about being Australian, if not being in Australia. In fact, the much-lauded Miles Franklin award is unapologetically nationalistic: given to a “published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases”. Which is not to say that the winning book has to be landscape-specific, but rather that it needs to deal with Australiannness in some way. That’s what “classics” are about in this context – and that’s what worries me.

Those of you who follow the Miles Franklin Award will know that this very issue of “Australianness” has often provided its biggest controversies. Kinsella’s concern is that focusing on “Australianness” equates with “nationalism”, as does, he fears, the creation of a canon. He says that, in focusing on a canon,

we run the risk of affirming the many other dubious tenets of any nationalism. Nationalism is about exclusion, about quarantine, about community in which consensus, the rights of all to have a say, are ceded to bodies of authority.

It’s a valid concern. Canons can change – and we can be committed to making our canon “diverse” – but the very act of selection does, unavoidably, make a statement. Of course, we can never not select when it comes to choosing what to teach or what we are individually going to read, but keeping the field from which we select open must be a good thing (even if that means parody nights have to go the way of the stone tablet!).

Meanwhile, Kinsella challenges us to seek out writing that doesn’t affirm received notions of “who we are”. I need, I know, to do better in this regard …

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Once more unto the breach

    • Oh great Guy, so you’re getting them over there? I think Kerryn, as I do, thinks that they are doing some good things. She mentions some books she’s discovered. Her main point was that you can’t read it as a canon or as a rounded selection of classics.

  1. How so very interesting. It seems Australian lit and US lit often have the same sorts of arguments and issues which I find to be fascinating in itself!

  2. I am also very happy when I see Text Classics in the book shops and at airports. As to a canon it would be very difficult to select which books should be in one. There are so many good Australian reads. I think Australian Literature should be encouraged, but such literature should not be devoted to just writing about “Australia” . All good Australian authors need to be recognized and encouraged.

    • Agree Meg re authors being encouraged regardless of their subject matter. I love looking at the Text Classics shelf in bookshops …. Well, in those bookshops which put them together like the National Library does. It makes it easy to see if there are any new ones.

  3. >Meanwhile, Kinsella challenges us to seek out writing that doesn’t affirm received notions of “who we are”. I need, I know, to do better in this regard …

    I don’t know if I’m doing well or badly at this! Perhaps it’s because I’m not sure who we are in the first place. I will ponder it more deeply as I choose my next Australian Women Writers read, I think…

      • Me too I suspect. This has been brought to my attention by Lisa’s Indigenous week posts, and Maxine Beneba Clarke asking on Twitter what would happen if every Australian devoted one month to reading literature by Australians of colour. Because I so rarely do that.

        • Yes, I read a small number each year but not as much as I’d like. And then there’s immigrant literature of which I’ve only read a smattering.

    • We are Australians JBR with a certain set of beliefs, customs and outlooks; I see no harm in there being an Australian canon from which we and fellow readers from around the world, and particularly newcomers to Australia who may wish to understand a little more of the country they wish to live in, and its people, can choose. I need not be, indeed should not be, set in stone but stand as a guide for all of us to expand our ideas.
      For the same reason and American canon, a South African canon, etc. have a place – we who are non-academics need all the guides we can find.

      • That’s a really interesting idea, that the canon can help newcomers learn about Australia and what it is to be Australian. Puts even more pressure on to choose the books carefully, I guess, so as not to give just one idea of what Australia is all about. Are there any particular books you’d recommend for that job?

      • Good point LL re providing a guide to newcomers and readers around the world. One good thing about the Internet I think is that there are many opportunities for providing different types of guides and lists to suit all sorts of needs – and to keep them updated/fresh.

  4. I think a canon can be useful but the danger is in an inflexible and non shifting one = and literature as nationalism is a little dangerous and limiting. In Scotland we have the excellent Canongate classics that give a good range of texts that have extended the choice of texts that readers can access as representative of the literature – if Scotland becomes independent in the near future I expect we will have the sort of debates that you are having- but will we regress to an “identity” literature which might be as bad as marginalisation and ignorance?

    • Yes, I think that’s the thing Ian – keeping it flexible and on the move. Interesting comment about what might happen if Scotland opts for independence. The temptation is to narrow the identity to force a differentiation isn’t it, rather than to comprehend an inclusive identity.

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