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Monday musings on Australian literature: ABC RN presenters name their best reads of 2016

December 12, 2016

Now, here’s my conundrum. We (at least I think I can speak for a general “we”) want Australians to read widely, because it’s important for us to understand cultures that are different to our own. But, given how small the Australian market is, we also want people to read Australian literature (and see, for that matter, Australian films which struggle for recognition and box office).  To achieve more people reading Aussie writing requires promotion, and there’s nothing like people of influence (like those I reported last Monday) naming and talking about Australian books to help this process.

Helen Garner, Everywhere I lookSo, what happened when ABC’s RN (Radio National) presenters named their picks for 2016? Well, there are 18 presenters on this list, and only two named Aussie books:

  • Paul Barclay (presenter, Big Ideas): Stan Grant’s Talking to my country. Stan Grant is a journalist who has an indigenous background, and his book, says Barclay “might not be quite the best thing I’ve read this year” but he says that its message about “growing up feeling excluded and subjected to bigotry in your own country” has stayed with him. Great choice. It’s on my TBR pile and everyone who’s read it says it’s a book all Aussies should read.
  • Sarah Kanowski (co-presenter of Books and Arts Daily): Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look. Oh, lookee you here, another Aussie, and what a lovely one it is. (See my review.) Kanowski – I always knew I liked her (haha) – described it as the book that gave her the “most delight — and most wisdom” this year.

So, what did the others choose? Eight chose British writers – mostly novelists:

  • Richard Fidler (presenter, Conversations): Peter Frankopan’s The silk roads: (non-fiction)
  • Andrew Ford (presenter, The Music Show): Alan Bennett’s Keeping on keeping on. (non-fiction)
  • Ann Jones (presenter, Off Track): Max Porter’s Grief is the thing with feathers. (novel)
  • Patricia Karvelas (presenter, RN Drive): Deborah Levy’s Hot milk. (novel)
  • Lynne Malcolm (presenter, All in the Mind): Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. (novel)
  • Rachael Kohn (presenter, The Spirit of Things): Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. (novel)
  • Amanda Smith (presenter, Sports Factor): Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday. (novel)
  • Robyn Williams (presenter of The Science Show): Julian Barnes’ The noise of time. (novel)

And six chose American writers:

  • Kate Evans (presenter, Ear Shot): Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. (novel)
  • Antony Funnell (presenter, Future Tense): Amanda Foreman’s A world on fire. (non-fiction, that Funnell called “a nice, big fat book for summer reading”. I do like his definition of summer reading, I must say.
  • Cassie McCullagh (co-presenter, Life Matters): Noah Hawley’s Before the fall. (novel, which McCullagh decribed as “perfect holiday reading”)
  • Annabelle Quince (co-presenter, Rear Vision): Anthony Doerr’s All the light we cannot see. (novel, which Quince described as “perfect summer reading”.)
  • Scott Stephens (Online Editor for the ABC on Religion and Ethics): Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and forgiveness. (non-fiction)
  • Tom Switzer (presenter, Between the Lines): John B Judis’ The populist explosion. (non-fiction)

That leaves two more presenters:

  • Michael Cathcart (co-presenter, Books and Arts Daily) who chose a memoir by a Libyan-born novelist, Hisham Matar’s The Return.
  • Natasha Mitchell (science journalist and presenter) who managed to sneak in two choices, both memoirs, one English and one American: Jeanette Winterson’s Why be happy when you could be normal? and Gloria Steinem’s My life on the road.

These are all, I’m sure, worthy reads but is it wrong for me to be disappointed to see so few Aussie books here – just two works of non-fiction and no fiction? And, is it wrong for me to be further surprised that, of the preponderance of non-Aussie books, only one is not British or American? How ethnocentric we are! I appreciate that the presenters were asked to give only one pick (albeit Natasha Mitchell managed to squeeze in two). If they’d been asked to name three, say, we may have seen more variety, including more Aussie books.

However, I do see making these lists as a political act and therefore an oportunity for them to give a little boost to local writers. Perhaps, though, they didn’t want to show favouritism to one author over another and so went off-shore? Whatever the reason, I would love to have seen more Aussies here.

What do you think about this, particularly if you’re an Aussie? And if you’re not, what do you think about their choices?

42 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2016 11:46 pm

    I agree… very disappointing.

    • December 13, 2016 7:55 am

      What were they thinking, Lisa.. I don’t want to be jingoistic, but there’s a balance. It’s very interesting really, when you think about it.

      • December 13, 2016 10:01 am

        I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when they were planning this….

        • December 13, 2016 11:17 pm

          They did it last year too as I recollect, Lisa. I reckon they (but who “they” are I don’t know?) could even have just emailed each presenter and asked them for their best picks? (Given the presenters cross a wide subject matter from sport to literature to religion?)

  2. December 13, 2016 12:00 am

    I’ve just read and reviewed Stan Grant’s book and agree it’s a must read. As per the books named here, it seems like a rather predictable list of British and American fiction.

    • December 13, 2016 7:57 am

      Thanks, Kimbofo, yes I saw that and will aim to read it when I’ve read the book. Glad you agree.

      • December 14, 2016 12:42 am

        I do wonder how much of this is due to the cost of books in Australia. They’re so expensive so people tend to go for known quantities (McEwan et al) rather than trying a new Australian author? Just a thought…

        • December 14, 2016 12:45 am

          Interesting point kimbofo – I’d hate to think this was right but it could very well be a contributing factor.

  3. December 13, 2016 12:04 am

    If 18 presenters on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) named their favourite book of the year and came up with only two Canadian books, there’d be a mutiny in the Canadian reading community and the media. (At least, I hope there would be!)

    This ABC RN list should be a perfect place for me to find Australian titles I might have missed [although between you & Lisa, that’s probably not many].) It’s very, very disappointing.

    And, as you say, even their non-Australian choices are bland – where are the African writers, the European writers, works in translation, or–for crying out loud–the Canadian writers?

    • December 13, 2016 8:01 am

      Yes, for crying out loud Debbie, where are the Canadian writers!! Love your comment as a non-Australian about expecting to find Aussie recommendations. Exactly my point.

  4. December 13, 2016 12:10 am

    Maybe they didnt chose more Australian authors because they hadn’t read them and spent more time on the global big names? Perhaps you could suggest to NPR that they could do more to support indigenous authors – next year maybe do a special category on best Australian authors of the year etc

    • December 13, 2016 8:05 am

      Good ideas Karen re how they could handle it. But yes one worries whether it does mean that some haven’t read any Aussies this year.

  5. December 13, 2016 12:15 am

    Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is one of the worst books I’ve ever tried to read (I reviewed it on Sept. 25). I’ve liked others of his books but it’s hard to believe anyone would seriously propose that one as a book worthy of anything, even being mentioned.

    • December 13, 2016 8:07 am

      Haha I thought of you Jeanne when I saw that. Just shows how much we vary in taste doesn’t it?

  6. December 13, 2016 12:19 am

    Did you also notice they picked men over women authors by 13 to 5. Maybe the ABC is just totally put of touch.

    • December 13, 2016 8:11 am

      Yes, good point too Bill. It’s amazing, really, given the visibility of women in prize shortlists this year.

      Good on Sarah Kanowski is all I can say!

  7. ablay1 permalink
    December 13, 2016 6:31 am

    There still seems to be a ‘cultural cringe’ about Australian authors. I agree, contact RN and let them know of your disappointment.

    • December 13, 2016 8:15 am

      Yes, Anna, I nearly included that phrase in my commentary. And yes, good point about contacting them. I might do that. Perhaps the Books and Arts Daily Facebook page might be a good place to start.

  8. December 13, 2016 7:29 am

    Interesting debate WG. So many incredible Australian novels this year. We kind of expect the ABC to champion Australian authors so maybe we could ask them to rename their list ‘Favourite Aussie Picks for 20..’

    • December 13, 2016 8:18 am

      Yes we do expect it Karenlee, I agree. Asking them to do that would be good though it could make it feel like an also ran list now, couldn’t it, now that they’ve put their cards on the table.

  9. December 13, 2016 9:02 am

    Yesterday, I tweeted and commented on facebook precisely in the same vein. It’s a disgrace!
    They are from our national, government funded broadcaster. It’s intersting that when I tried to get an interview on RN about my book, arguing that it was time to celebrate Australian writers, they declined an interview on the grounds that that’s what they do – yet almost every day Cathcart or Kanowski interview overseas authors…

    • December 13, 2016 11:19 pm

      Oh did you Annette! That makes me feel better. Did you get any response? (BTW At least Kanowski named an Aussie book, and I do like their Indonesian series, but I do take your point.)

  10. December 13, 2016 9:13 am

    These people are RN presenters. They chose the books they have enjoyed reading most this year. You may be over-thinking this.

    • December 13, 2016 11:26 pm

      Yes, fair point Judith, and I do recognise that some chose books specific to their area of interest, but when they choose the well-known overseas names (albeit McEwan, O’Hagan, Barnes, Swift are good writers) as best reads I do find it disappointing, partly because I wonder how many Aussies they’ve read.

  11. December 13, 2016 9:50 am

    I’m with you. I find this really dispiriting. And as usual the majority of ‘best books’ are by men.

    • December 13, 2016 11:27 pm

      Thanks Irma – I like your word “dispiriting”. It reads are bit like the usual suspects in places doesn’t it – McEwan, O’Hagan, Barnes, Swift .

  12. December 13, 2016 11:11 am

    I think they are busy and stressed and didn’t put much thought into the ramifications of their choices. Much like I do when trying to win movie tickets or books and I must answer the question, ‘What was your favourite Spanish film?’ and I choose the first one google gives me. They just pick the first one that pops into their head without a lot of work as they would all have tight deadlines to meet at work or before they go on air.

    • ian darling permalink
      December 13, 2016 8:50 pm

      There does not seem to be anything in translation which is a great pity. Things are not much better in the UK as we loll about in the Anglosphere. In post Brexit Britain I wonder what will happen to publishers who want to publish European fiction?

      • December 13, 2016 11:30 pm

        Haha, Ian, I love the image of you lolling about in the Anglosphere – but yes, I take your point. This post Brexit Trump sort of world is going to be interesting. Let’s hope it’s only that and not something more worrying!

    • December 13, 2016 11:29 pm

      Fair point Pam – I know exactly what you mean. However, in this case I’d argue that they are journalists and are paid to think about what they are putting out to the public? (Though I suppose journalists get overwhelmed too at this time of year – I can accept that.)

  13. December 14, 2016 4:47 am

    I’m not even Australian and I am disappointed! The whole list doesn’t have to be Aussie writers, but golly, more than two would be nice! And I know from your blog there are plenty of good ones to choose from too.

    • December 14, 2016 5:06 am

      That’s exactly it, the whole lot being Aussie would look suss, but I think that particularly with those great summer reading novels they’ve chosen, they may have found something closer to home. I guess the good thing is that we can feel confident that this is clearly NOT rigged.

  14. Karen Viggers permalink
    December 14, 2016 12:15 pm

    I think it’s partly cultural cringe. There’s a perception that somehow you have greater literary intelligence if you are reading offshore, and that you are too parochial if you commend an Australian author. Plus it would be instant literary cred death to support too many women writers.

    • December 14, 2016 7:57 pm

      Oh dear, you cynic you Karen! Seriously, though, thanks for commenting. Lovely to hear from you. I don’t know whether to be pleased or not that so many commenters here share my reaction to this.

    • December 15, 2016 3:38 pm

      I agree with Karen that a lot of it is cultural cringe. But it may also have to do with the fact that before the parallel import restrictions for books were introduced, there wasn’t that much Australian literature around – certainly not when compared with now. And when people went to school, they would have come across very little Australian writing. Even in the 1990s when my kids went to high school, they each only read two Australian writers for the whole six years! Interesting contrast with the ABC book club last night: two out of three had an Australian book as their pick of the year, they recommended a decent number of Australian books amongst their ‘also worth reading’, but the best were the audience votes for the best of 2016: out of the top 10 books, nine were by Australian authors. Now that is cause for hope and celebration!

      • December 15, 2016 3:42 pm

        Oh, I didn’t see that Annette – excellent. Good for Jennifer and her crew. Will try to watch it on iView.

      • December 15, 2016 3:43 pm

        Oh, and good for the audience too, I should have said.

  15. Victoria permalink
    December 15, 2016 4:24 am

    I agree with the comments. I’m a British reader who enjoys reading Australian, Canadian and New Zealand fiction. I read the 2016 choices on the New Zealand book council blog from their major figures and the choices were mostly by non ANZ writers. Very disappointing.

  16. Meg permalink
    December 17, 2016 5:45 pm

    Unbelievable. Obviously the presenters don’t read enough, and not enough Australian books. I can only think that the presenters do not have much choice in what they read. Are books sent to them, and they are obliged to read them? Maybe not enough promotion is being done by Australian publishers. Whatever, the presenters should understand that their listeners are Australians and do want to read Australian books as well as overseas ones.

    • December 17, 2016 9:51 pm

      Great comments Meg… But whatever the cause I agree re what their listeners want.

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