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”.
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 …