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Bill curates: Monday musings on Australian literature: The future of Australian literature

January 17, 2021

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. During the latter part of January we will look at some of Sue’s older posts which have relevance to my Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II,17-23 Jan, 2021

Gen 3 covers the period from the end of WWI to the end of the 1950s, so first up I’ve chosen a Monday Musings from 22 Nov 2010 on Vance Palmer’s thoughts, in 1935, on the Future of Australian Literature. Doubly relevant as I began Gen 2 with a review of Palmer’s Legend of the Nineties. 

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My original post titled: “Monday musings on Australian literature: The future of Australian literature”

‘If their [Australian writers’] work is so interesting,’ comes the query, ‘why isn’t it known here [London]?’

This query was put to Australian novelist and literary figure, Vance Palmer, in 1935! When I read it, I couldn’t help thinking plus ça change. A few months ago I wrote on Hilary McPhee‘s concern about the continued low profile of Australian literature overseas. She said that, while the situation has improved since the 1980s when she first wrote on the issue, it is uneven because Australian writers are “cherry-picked”. In other words, Tim Winton, Peter Carey and maybe David Malouf are known, but who else?

Anyhow, back to Palmer and 1935. His response to the question was

No use to reply that it [Australian writers’ work] is hardly known on their native heath!

That was probably so … and during the 193os and 1940s, Vance and his wife Nettie Palmer, along with writers like Flora EldershawMarjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davison worked hard to raise awareness in Australia of Australian literature, and to secure good funding support for writers. The Palmers personally mentored writers like Eldershaw, Barnard and Davison. Nettie Palmer, in particular, corresponded regularly with writers, advising and encouraging them. Vance Palmer wrote for newspapers and journals, and lectured widely, on Australian literature.

Why do we need a national literature?

In the article “The future of Australian literature”, Palmer discusses why it’s important to have a national literature. He asks, “Why all this fuss about having a literature of our own? Why waste time writing books when ‘all the best and the latest’ can be imported from overseas?” His answer is not surprising to we readers:

The answer, of course, is that books which are revelations of our own life can’t be imported, and that they are necessary to our full growth. … since the world is divided into nations and societies, it is necessary that these shall find their own forms of expression, each subtly different from the others.

… we have to discover ourselves – our character, the character of the country, the particular kind of society that has developed here – and this can only be done through the searching explorations of literature. It is one of the limitations of the human mind that it can never grasp things fully till they are presented through the medium of art. The ordinary world is a chaos, a kaleidoscope, full of swift, meaningless impressions that efface one another; the world of a well-pondered novel or drama is designed as an orderly microcosm where people and things are shown their true significance. And so, unless a country has its life fully mirrored in books it will not show a very rich intelligence in the business of living.

He goes on to suggest that through literature, we

  • learn to understand and adjust to our surroundings or landscape (the physical, I suppose). In Australia at that time this meant learning “to live with our bonny earth with a spirit of affection. It is not the same haggard landscape our ancestors looked on with loathing” but has its own beauty in its, for example, wattle and gums.
  • discover our roots, find out who we are (what he calls, the social). In Australia at that time, that included exploring themes of exile and immigration, “the theme of the vanishing race, with its wild charm and its tragic doom”, and themes related to Australia-at-war and coping with universal economic conditions.
Katharine Susannah Prichard
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1927/8) (Courtesy: State Library of New South Wales [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

He argues that change was occurring, that a national literature was developing – and gave many examples including works by those mentioned above, as well as writers like Katharine Susannah Prichard and Christina Stead.  He suggests that one of the reasons for improvement was the growth of publishing in Australia. What these publishers produce might be uneven in quantity and literary value, he said, “but at least they have taken the Australian background for granted, and that has marked an advance”. However, he bemoans the lack of “lively and intelligent [literary] criticism” which he believes is essential to writers finding “their proper audience”.

Palmer concludes positively, believing that there has been “a bubbling in our drought-scaled springs”. He says that the new literary pulse will have a significant impact on Australia in the next 50 years and will “quicken its imagination, stimulate its powers of introspection, and make it as interesting to itself as every country should be”.

There’s a lot to think about here – in terms of how Australian literature has progressed (within and without the country) and how we see the role of national literatures in our more globalised world. How important is national literature? My answer is that while nationalism, taken to exclusionist extremes, can be rather scary, we still do need to understand our own little corners of the world, in both their local, unique and their wider, universal meanings and implications.

What do you think? And how important is it, particularly with so many writers on the move, to define nationality?

Vance Palmer
“The future of Australian literature”
First published in The Age, February 9, 1935
Availability: Online

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When we finished the Bill Curates series a few months ago, Bill and I discussed reviving it occasionally, and thought one such occasion might be his AWW Gen 3 Week. So, here we are again. Bill has chosen three for us to post for his Week, with this one seeming the best one to go live on Day 1. We’d love you to join us in the project!

Meanwhile, we would love to hear your thoughts – and, particularly, whether you have ever read any Vance Palmer.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2021 23:27

    I’m glad you reposted this one, because I think I missed it first time round.
    I thin OzLit has had a bit of a boost internationally with Flanagan winning the Booker, and if the Dublin Lit prize is any indication, Australian authors usually make a good showing there.
    But it’s still true to say that the space is dominated by the US and UK in fierce competition with each other, and Australia, like Canada, NZ, India and countries in Africa that publish in English like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana don’t get much exposure internationally. It’s just how it is, I guess…

    • January 18, 2021 08:13

      Market, market, market, I guess Lisa, in one aspect or another? You’d hope blogs which have international reach might make a difference, and we have a bit, but not significantly so.

  2. January 18, 2021 04:45

    Sadly I don’t think the situation has changed a huge amount since 2010. I look at all the authors that you and Liz and other Aus bloggers mention and I know hardly any of them. When I find one I want to read the cost is usually prohibitive because they are not published by UK presses

    • January 18, 2021 08:19

      Thanks Karen, yes, I suspect it is largely to do with publishing. There are Aussies with overseas publishers, but they are a minority. You would have thought electronic publishing might have made a difference but I think there are still all sorts of rights agreements that bind a lot of that up, and I think the e~book reading fraternity is still relatively small?

      • January 19, 2021 05:24

        It must be to do with the rights agreements because once you’ve created an electronic file then you can sell it anywhere.

        • January 19, 2021 08:18

          I think it is, Karen, but I don’t understand when electronic books are so easy to distribute. I don’t fully understand the whole publishing rights business. I think small publishers might just do world lights and be done with it, whereas big publishers seem to get caught up in a whole regional rights business.

  3. January 18, 2021 06:09

    The question Palmer was asked, and which Lisa and Karen address is why aren’t Australian writers known overseas. It’s an interesting question because the best of them have much more to say than all the middle ranking UK and US writers who are well known.
    But the question Palmer answers, and answers very well, is why is Australian writing important to Australins.
    And if you extrapolate, that is why ‘they’ read ‘their’ authors and not ours. Why we read mediocre Brits and Americas I have no idea.

    • January 18, 2021 08:27

      Great point Bill, but we also do like to read other voices don’t we? It would be interesting to see which nations read most diversely? Perhaps we are high there because the big publishers get the big overseas names here, particularly in genres like crime.

      We probably need for our National literary awards …MF here, Giller in Canada, Akutagawa in Japan, etc, to be more internationally known. We all know the Booker (which of course is wider than national). It’s understandable that these national awards aren’t well-known outside literary environments but greater exposure would surely boost knowledge and interest over time.

  4. January 18, 2021 09:01

    I read Palmer’s The Passage in Year 9 or 10 and strangely enough posted about it on my FB page last year. Here’s the link, if you’re interested.

    • glendaap permalink
      January 18, 2021 09:07

      Sorry, that should have been the link only 😦

      • January 18, 2021 22:29

        Ah, did we do that at Hornsby? I’ve always thought I did it in my Queensland High School, but maybe not. I think it was probably third Form (Year 9)? I’ve always wanted to read it again. (BTW I tried to edit your comment, but in the edit mode there’s nothing there about the link at all – weird.)

  5. piningforthewest permalink
    January 18, 2021 09:36

    I’d love to read books by Australian autjors but they just aren’t easily available. In recent years I’ve only read Shute, Dora Birtles and Capel Boake, the last two were published by Virago so they’re not exactly modern.

    • January 18, 2021 22:33

      Haha, no they are not – nor, really is Shute any more. (Would you believe that I know Dora Birtles grand-daughter – she’s a gorgeous flautist.) Anyhow, it’s a shame you have such little access to Australian literature.

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