Monday musings on Australian literature: Debating Australian literature in 1908

Browsing digitised papers via National Library’s Trove yet again, I came across an intriguing 1908 article by Page Twenty-Seven columnist Norman Lilley. I gather that Lilley had made some pronouncements on Australian literature which had garnered some strong opinions. I haven’t searched hard for the original statements but we don’t necessarily need them to enjoy Lilley’s report of the ensuing discussion.

Lilley starts with two specific responses, which seem to be commenting on other opinions besides those of Lilley.

Tidminbilly (primarily a letter-to-the-editor writer I think) feels that 6×8 (pen-name of Dick Holt, about whom I’ll write more another day) was right to criticise “exaggeration” in Australian writing, but argues that the main problem is not in exaggerating “characters and incidents” as 6×8 had apparently said. Tidminbilly argues that the “defect” comes from writers exaggerating the importance of these characters and incidents. S/he says:

I cannot think, as our Australian scribes would have us do, that the harsh caw of the crow, on the top rail of the stockyard impresses the bushman more than the wealth of bird melody which greets him as he faces the early morning’s freshness. It is this diseased hankering after the abnormal which makes Australia, as viewed through its literature, appear more like a camping-ground than a home.

It is, Tidminbilly says, “the multitude of small joys and small sorrows which make up a man’s life”. Perhaps! But, not so exciting to write about methinks!

Talbot’s comments, as reported by Lilley, make me want to find 6×8’s comments. Here’s Talbot (please excuse the large chunk):

‘6×8’ makes himself ridiculous. Is it necessary for Lawson’s characters to exist? Characters do not “exist”: they are created. A story-writer is judged, by his ability to create them, ditto situations and scenery. Collection of fact is but a part, and a small part at that, of the writer’s business. If a writer uses South Pole matter, indisputably he ought to go there for it. Whether a writer spends 30 years or 30 days in the bush isn’t of any consequence. Perfect literal accuracy in small details is necessary to a traveller, but not essential to a story-writer. What is desired is the power to create situations, scenes, characters, and original incidents. … I only get THE WORKER occasionally, for its literary pages. Looking over such of the last few years, I find a considerable number of short stories ”by Phil Fairleigh”, ranging from Kanakadom in the far North to Western copper country and Bairnsdale (Victorian) hop land. The local color may or may not be correct, but of the writer’s power to correctly conjure up striking situations, invent new ideas, there can be no doubt. Let anyone who doubts this read “The Magic Stone,” “The Curse of Copper,” “Wire Netting,” “The Stowaway,” etc. The chief necessity of bush or any other writing your correspondents entirely overlook — style and originality. Can anyone deny in Phil Fairleigh the absence of that introspective egotism, bushranger glorification, and low-down pandering to not the best qualities in human nature which disfigure so much of Lawson’s work? The musical strength of Fairleigh’s sentiment, the melody of his style, the consummate ease of his long sentences — always a good test — will bear out a certain literary University professor’s statement: “He is likely to become the first stylist in Australia. A quality not much in evidence in Australia, which has been Bulletinized into snap sentences, so that the reader feels he is being shot at all the time, instead of passing easily and unconsciously on.”

First stylist? Lawson, whether he deserves it or not, has survived in our literary memory, while Phil Fairleigh hasn’t. Still, I agree with much of what Talbot says about what’s important in literature. Style and originality, the ability to “conjure up striking situations”, are more important than factual accuracy in fiction. (To me, anyhow).

Lilley then continues by discussing other opinions, such as those of “Simple Simon” (SS) and “Town Girl” (these could all be blog names today, don’t you reckon). SS, Lilley tells us, argues that “the secret why many readers are taking a dislike to Australian writing” is that it’s too “stolid”. SS says that Lilley’s own writing is “stolid” (which is defined in Lilley’s dictionary as “dull, foolish, stupid”) too! Lilley counters with:

If under any circumstances readers take a dislike to writings about their own country the fault is very evidently in the readers, not the writers. The writer must first please himself, then the editor, then the public: he could hardly do so by being either foolish, dull, or stupid.

Blame the reader, eh? Anyhow, SS apparently likes “imported reading matter” in which “there is absence of mere individuality”, but Lilley argues that writing, imported or not, that has no individuality is “rubbish”. That doesn’t sound like a “stolid” argument to me! Lilley goes on, presumably continuing to argue against SS, that:

Judging by the literary turnover of a single Australian publishing firm (Messrs. Angus and Robertson), amounting to about twenty thousand volumes per annum, there is no justification for the assumption that bush writers and their writings “fail to please the literary palate.”

He then praises Australian bush writing versus “drab stories … like the work of the Newlyn school of art, of Gissing and Gorky [which have] often proved very popular”. He continues that:

I do not think Lawson’s “handful of followers” (!) will be disturbed at the carping of “Simple Simon.” I have yet to find any “artificiality” or “stolidity” in the writings of Lawson or Sorenson. I should imagine writing of that description had no chance of getting past the eye of an editor.

I love his faith in editors and publishers. Anyhow, he then turns to 6×8,

6 x 8″ considers that no Australian writer has succeeded “in truthfully picturing bush life.” In the widest sense no one man could portray the life of a whole continent, but if he means to imply that Lawson, Barbara Baynton, Sorenson, Miles Franklin, Favenc, Edward Palmer, Gregory, “Nomad,” and a dozen others are incorrect with the section of it they deal with, he simply shows his own ignorance of that particular section. None of these writers “grossly exaggerate, caricature, or burlesque freely.” If any literary qualities are lacking it is those of fancy, passion, imagination, and invention, and Dorrington excels in these qualities.

Some of these writers, like the aforementioned Fairleigh, are no longer well-known to us. Clearly, though, we need to check out Dorrington.

Agreeing with Talbot, Lilley argues against a focus on facts, but says that

writers embellish and enhance on a basis of realism — the very thing they are required to do. It is a pity they do not do so to a greater extent. Editors will not print the simple fact: they want attractive fact. It is original skill, not fact, that is paid for.

There are the editors again!

And finally, he responds to “Town Girl” starting with an aside, “what is the matter with these girls?” Hmm… It seems that she criticised writing of his that had been published elsewhere. After defending himself somewhat and returning once again to praising Lawson, he concludes with, it seems, more references to her criticisms:

Will “6 x 8” particularise? Will “Town Girl” name an over-exaggerated bush character?” Lawson may have been “suckled by journalism”: he does not appear to be any the worse for it. … I did not say the yellow robin, which I know to be a silent bird, had a flute. I have been on the land several times my self; with the assistance of the undertaker I intend to go again. I hope there will be no girl critics there. The girl critic is usually better employed darning her brother’s socks.

Take that “Town Girl”! I guess this was 1908, but “6×8” didn’t come in for such a put-down.

Nonetheless, I found the article elucidating – combining a sense of “it was ever thus” with insight into some specific literary arguments of the times. I’ll continue exploring Trove …

6 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Debating Australian literature in 1908

  1. “The girl critic is usually better employed darning her brother’s socks” Them’s fightin’ words! How fun to have run across this literary argument over 100 years later. Do the same character issues and arguments still come up regarding Australian literature today?

    • Thanks Stefanie. I don’t know why it still shocks to see statements like that coming out from that era, but somehow it does!

      I think the issues discussed about Australian literature have changed a bit – I think, overall, the world has become more sophisticated about what constitutes literature, but we still do argue about what is Australian writing, do Australians read and appreciate Australians etc.

      • If Australian literature displayed a “dark hankering after the abnormal” in 1908 it shows that it had developed a rude sort of health. Wasn’t this the tail end of naturalsm as a worldwide literary force, soon after Dreiser and Zola and Gissing? Interesting the claim that Angus And Robertson putting out 20,000 titles a year at that time! I guess that Australia might have been one of the most literate societies anywhere in 1908?

        • Yes, I think you’re right about naturalism Ian. I like your assessment regarding the health of our literature at the time. Nettie Palmer compared Australian literature in the early 20th century to American about a century earlier, recognising that it takes time to build up.

          BTW my reading of the A&R comment, is that they printed 20,000 books, not published 20,000 titles. It was a weird figure to quote.

          I have found one of the comments Lilley refers to – the one by Simple Simon. If I find more I might follow up this post. I love the language and the ideas these people were using a 100 years ago.

  2. Following your Nettie Palmer references, I am reading her “14 Years”, which includes many of her pieces discussing early writing in Oz. I was very excited to see she was born in Bendigo, not far from where we live. I’m going to look at the local library digitised rate notices and see if I can locate her place of birth, assuming it was at home in those days.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s