Monday musings on Australian literature: Community novels

Recently, I came across a blogger discussing what she described as “community novels”. The blogger is Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home, and the book she was discussing was an English novel, Small miracles by Anne Booth. It got me thinking, because I love community.

Community, however, is a word with multiple meanings and applications, but Liz’s concept of “community novel” is one which has “a range of other characters, each with their own story that intertwines with the whole”. These characters, if I understand Liz’s blog correctly, can belong to communities that can range from those as “compressed” as a nunnery to those more open like a seaside town. The point is that the characters are all connected by their community, and the novel incorporates the stories of several members of that community.

Of course, I searched the internet for community novels, and found our own Annette Marfording (who has appeared on my blog). Back in 2016 she discussed the topic on her blog in a post titled 10 Great Novels on Community. Annette writes:

Using a community in fiction has several advantages: a community almost invariably provides a hotbed of conflict between its members, and it is conflict that drives a story. Communities also provide the opportunity for the author to begin the story with a new person joining the community, which can serve as the springboard or inciting incident for the story. Furthermore, community allows authors to display their skill at conveying a strong sense of the place where the writing is set. 

So, a significant feature for her are the dramatic opportunities offered by having a new person join a community. To this I would add the opportunities offered by someone returning to a community, which seems a common trope these days. Anyhow, Marfording goes on to list ten “great” Australian community-based novels – at the time of writing – noting that they tend to be set in “small rural or coastal towns, but it would, of course, also be possible, albeit more difficult, to build such communities in a city suburb”. (Check her post for her thoughtful list.)

Both Liz and Annette point to the factors that make “community novels” interesting. The small community, for one, which means readers can quickly come to know and feel engaged with it. The opportunity for conflict and difference – and hopefully resolution at the end – is another. In my internet search I found reference to a book published in 2014 by J. Hillis Miller. Titled Communities in fiction, its subject is described on Amazon as

the question of how communities or noncommunities are represented in fictional works. Such fictional communities help the reader understand real communities, including those in which the reader lives. As against the presumption that the trajectory in literature from Victorian to modern to postmodern is the story of a gradual loss of belief in the possibility of community, this book demonstrates that communities have always been presented in fiction as precarious and fractured.

I’ll leave the trajectory issue to the academics, but I’d be interested in your perspective on whether communities in fiction are always presented as “precarious and fractured”. For me, it depends on the definition of “precarious and fractured”. If “precarious” means “likely to fall or collapse” (Oxford Languages), I’d argue that many fictional communities might be fractured, that is, “damaged” or “broken”, but are not necessarily going to succumb. Take a recent American case, for example, Where the crawdads sing (my review). That community was never going to fall or disappear, but it sure was fractured.

I also found another interesting article* on JSTOR, from 1988, which I scanned. It’s about a genre the writer, Sandra Zagarell, calls “narrative of community”, which she describes as “committed to rendering the local life of a community to readers who lived in a world the authors thought fragmented, rationalised, individualised”. Zagarell and others argue that these novels see community as important to survival in an increasingly individualistic – or, some say – capitalistic world. Zagarell comments at the end of her article on the progress of this genre into modern times, writing that

Embracing increasingly heterogeneous visions of the collective life, narrative of community is expanding the story of human connection and continuity.

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip

Notably, she sees this happening particularly in the writing of African-American authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Interesting. We can surely see some of this in First Nations Australian literature. In Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip (my review) Kerrie returns to her community because her grandfather is dying but she decides to stay to fight for Granny Ava’s island. This is, in fact, a precarious community. It’s respected leader, Uncle Richard, says near the end that

We had to grow hard just to survive … But the hardness that saved us, it’s gonna kill us if it goes on much longer.

This is a community learning how to live in modern rural Australia. It’s a similar story in Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review) which is also about a community being torn apart, and about the resilience of a culture that is, philosophically, community-based.

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughter

Besides these and other First Nations novels, I’ve read other several community-set novels in recent years, such as Malcom Knox’s coastal Bluebird (my review) and Karen Viggers’ rural The orchardist’s daughter (my review). Both are set in vividly delineated communities and explore the tensions, prejudices, greed and/or corruption that can tear communities apart, while paradoxically also conveying the potential in community for the opposite.

I opened this post by saying I love community, which means I also love novels set in communities, so my question of course is …

Do you like “community novels” and if so, what do you like about them and would you like to share some favourites?

* Sandra A. Zagarell, “Narrative of Community: The Identification of a Genre” in Signs, 13 (3) Spring, 1988: 498-527

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Miles Franklin Rights Project

Some months ago, I became aware of The Miles Franklin Rights Project, and of course, it piqued my interest, so I flagged it for a future Monday Musings. The project apparently commenced in early 2021, and is still continuing. Before I describe the project, though, I need to explain for non-Aussie readers here that the Miles Franklin Award, though no longer Australia’s most valuable award in monetary terms (albeit is still generous), is arguably our most prestigious literary award. It is also one of our oldest, having been first awarded in 1957. That first winner was Patrick White’s Voss.

So now, the project …

It is led by Dr Airlie Lawson, who is “a literary sociologist and cartographer, a Visiting Fellow at the ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Postdoctoral Fellow on Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project (on which I posted earlier this year) at the University of Melbourne”. The project intrigues me because it asks some questions that are dear my heart. Here is how it is introduced on the AustLit website, which is funding the project:

Alexis Wright Carpentaria in Chinese
Chinese edition of Carpentaria

Over the last 21 years, the Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by many acclaimed Australian novels including Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, Michelle de Krester’s Questions of Travel, Tara June Winch’s The Yield, Peter Temple’s Truth and Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. But which of these novels has been published internationally—where and in what languages? And shortlisted titles—have they had international success? Is there a discernable gender difference? Associations between publishers? What about change over time? How might we find out?

The site goes on to say that

Globally, publishers and agents report a strong association between literary awards and prizes in international interest in a novel and, subsequently, the licensing of the publishing rights internationally.

The problem is that there’s been little research into what impact awards and prizes have had on rights transactions. A prerequisite for such research, really, is “a comprehensive set of international editions” of Miles Franklin Award winners, but this has not been easy to find. Consequently, the aim of this project is “to create such a list—and to create an efficient, accurate international edition identification model that can be used for other AustLit projects”. They are focusing on the novels which won or were shortlisted for the award from 2000 to 2020. This list, which comprises 22 winners and 93 shortlisted titles, will provide, they hope, a basis from which the global impact and value of this award can be explored.

As you can imagine, it’s not easy tracking down the editions, but they are starting with two major international book databases: WorldCat (library-supplied data) and GoodReads (crowdsourced). As you would expect from an academic project, the information obtained from these databases, and elsewhere, is then checked against multiple sources, including authors, agents and publishers.

You can read about the project on the AustLit website. In fact, this website was my major source for this post, but I did find information about a paper given (via Zoom) by Airlie Lawson in May this year. The paper was titled “How Global is Australian Literature in the 21st century? A story of gender, genre and the international literary field”. The talks’ description says that the “paper draws primarily on data produced for the Conditions of Access (COA) project*, supplemented by data from the industry report Success Story (Crosby et al) and AustLit’s The Miles Franklin Rights Project. Specifically, it draws on data relating to what the COA project models as international rights ‘transactions’ for adult novels first published in print between 2000-2020″. The description also says this:

Analysis of this data reveals several rather different accounts of international access over a twenty-year period, but all have one element in comment: in contrast with the domestic field, they tell a positive story for women authors. 

Interesting, but not wholly surprising, because anecdotally-speaking, at least, my sense is that many of our women writers are finding their way to overseas readers. We are seeing it in posts by international bloggers, for a start. Presumably Lawson explored why this might be the case. The point she makes here is not comparing our women with our men authors overseas, but our women authors overseas versus them at home.

I also found a Q&A with Lawson. The first question concerned the inspiration for the project, and Lawson responded that

There’s been a lot of discussion in Australia about literary prizes in recent years—the cost of entering, the type of books more likely [to] win them, their proliferation—but there’s no question that a prize win can boost copy sales. I wanted to find out if there was a similar effect on international rights licensing.

Anecdotally, she said, Australian industry professionals claim some do have an influence, and her own research has supported this, but there’s no “reliable comprehensive data set of international editions” to enable this to be properly proved (or not). On why she chose the Miles Franklin Award as her basis, she said that

  • it is often described as Australia’s “most prestigious literary award”;
  • it’s long running (though they are starting with a 21-year period); and
  • it stipulates Australian content, so “examining the international publication records for works associated with it can tell us something about how Australian literary culture is valued internationally”.

As for who the research is for, it’s broad: it’s for other researchers (of course), students, readers, book clubs, and publishers.

Certainly, as a reader and book-club member, I am fascinated by the publishing environment within which authors work, and what can help them reach more readers. Moreover, as one who loves to read works from overseas writers, I am also keen to see overseas readers read our writers. Consequently, I love the idea of this project.

Does such research interest you – and why, if it does?

* The Conditions of Access project is another Airlie Lawson project. Its aim was, said the talk’s description, “to better understand, from a data-driven and conceptual perspective, where, when and why Australian novels have travelled in the early years of the twenty-first century”.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Fremantle Press

Given I am currently in Fremantle, I felt it appropriate to give a little shout out to one of the first independent presses I became aware of, back in the 1980s, the Fremantle Press. Then it was called the Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and it published one of my favourite authors at the time, Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley's Diary of a weekend farmer

I must admit that felt sorry for them – and a little cross with Jolley – when she left them for Penguin, but I understood too. Writing is a tough business, and being in the stable of a company with the reputation and clout of Penguin must certainly help your visibility and thus your sales and income. Nonetheless, these small presses, which tend to be the ones to take a risk on new writers, are so important to Australia’s literary culture, so we need to support them.

A little history

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976, and publishes a wide range of works – fiction and nonfiction, adult’s and children’s. The write that their

core purpose is to identify talented new and emerging Western Australian writers and artists, and to publish and distribute their work to the widest possible audience.

How did they start, though, and when did their name change? This sort of information is hard to find when organisations don’t document it on their site – and Fremantle doesn’t on their About Us page. My Internet search retrieved, of course, lots of hits on specific books they’ve published or the occasional news item about an award. However, I persevered and found an article written in the University of Western Australia’s Mots Pluriels (no. 5, 1998) by academic Phillip Winn. The issue is devoted to a study of the Press, and containsinterviews with authors and staff of the Press, as well as Winn’s article.

Winn’s article is titled “The Fremantle Arts Centre Press: a case study of a smaller publishing house”, and he explains the case study’s aims and hints at its findings:

Armed with a barrage of questions designed to expose the ‘how to’ of getting published in Western Australia, it soon became apparent that the search for a general response was the least fruitful. How do lesser-known authors get published? Is it easy? What help does a publisher give a budding writer? What is a good book in the eyes of the reading committee? In this study of FACP, such questions have been more meaningfully answered on the individual rather than the corporate level; for the dominant theme to emerge from this series of interviews is the importance of the personal touch. Public questions of universal interest have, it seems, very private and personal answers.

Winn documents a bit more of the Press’ history, saying that it is part of the cultural heritage of Fremantle itself. He says that by the mid 1970s, the Fremantle Arts Centre “had established a highly successful, community based, creative writing program” and that on the basis of this, the Centre’s then dire actor, Ian Templeman, “saw the possibility of establishing a press to gain wider recognition for Western Australian authors”. Winn says that the creation of the Press (FACP) in 1975 (not 1976 as the website says), “is now considered a watershed in Western Australian history”. He argues that part of the Press’s significance was that it was able to reduce ‘the so-called “brain-drain phenomenon”‘, that common problem in Australia’s artistic scene, whereby “those with talent in search of recognition are first seduced eastwards to Sydney and Melbourne, and then overseas”.

From the beginning, FACP’s focus was Western Australian artists and writers, and its early writers from the 1970s and 80s, like Elizabeth Jolley, Albert Facey (My fortunate life) and Sally Morgan (My place), are still internationally renowned.

This early success continued in the 1990s, with authors like Kim Scott, whose Benang won the 1999 Miles Franklin Award. Winn notes that in this decade FACP diversified, with their catalogue at the time of his writing, including “a wide variety of texts in the fields of art, history, education, biography and autobiography, cultural studies, and children’s books as well as their traditional lines of literary prose and poetry.”

Margaret Rose Stringer, And then like my dreams

And this has continued. Fremantle books I have reviewed in recent years include Margaret Rose Stringer’s memoir, And then like my dreams (2013), and Madelaine Dickie’s novels Troppo (2016) and Red can origami (2019). Fremantle has also started republishing classics, in a series they call Treasures. Books in this series include a collection of stories by T.A.G. Hungerford, Stories from Suburban Road.

As for when it became “just” the Fremantle Press, that I found in Wikipedia – and it was 2007. Wikipedia doesn’t explain why, though.

In April 2022, the Fremantle Library unveiled “its extensive new collection” of Fremantle Press books. Local author David Whish-Wilson is quoted as saying:

“I applaud the step taken by Fremantle Library to gather Fremantle Press’ entire list and back-list in one place, and I, for one, will be eagerly perusing the shelves.”

Any initiative which aims to ensure continued availability of backlists (like the Untapped project I wrote about earlier this year) must be commended. Of course, you would expect libraries to be at the forefront of such endeavours, but in these days of reduced resources, even they cannot always provide the depth of collection that we would expect of them.

As well as publishing books, Fremantle sponsors two writers’ awards:

Book cover for Madelaine Dickie's Troppo
  • the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, co-sponsored by the City of Fremantle and Fremantle Press, is “Western Australia’s most prestigious award for an unpublished work of adult fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction by an unpublished writer”. The prize is $15,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.
  • The Fogarty Literary Award, co-sponsored by the Fogarty Foundation and Fremantle Press, is a biennial award for an unpublished manuscript (of adult fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction) by a Western Australian author aged between 18 and 35. The prize is $20,000 cash and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.

Fremantle Press is a non-profit publisher.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Introducing Rachel Henning

If you are an Aussie who was sentient in the 1950s and/or 60s, you have probably heard of Rachel Henning. If not, she may be new to you, though she does have something of a classic status in Australia. Let me explain.

Rachel Henning (1826-1914) was an Englishwoman who came to Australia in 1854 with her sister Amy, following her brother Biddulph and another sister Annie who had come previously for Biddulph’s health. She did not enjoy the life: she was homesick, she disliked bush life “extremely”, and hated the hot climate. She wrote on 29 March 1855 of being

tired of the perpetual glare of sunshine. Fine days here bring me no pleasure as they do in England: they are too hot and too numerous, and besides, you cannot enjoy them by taking nice walks–there are no walks to take.

So, she returned to England in 1856. However, in 1861, back she came to Australia, determined to be more positive, and found it much more to her liking. It was well into autumn when she landed on this second trip, which helped. After spending a few days in Melbourne, she got a steamer up to Sydney arriving there in mid-May. She writes in her first letter after arrival:

The next morning I got up early, and a most lovely Australian morning it was, the sun shining and everything looking bright and beautiful.

I do not know how to give you any idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour. I certainly underrated the Australian scenery, but, then, it is winter now; I should tell a different story in the heat and dust of summer. (Letter to sister Etta, May 15, 1861)

After spending a little time in New South Wales, she joined her Australian family in the Bowen region of Queensland where Biddulph had taken up a property. From there she lived in several parts of eastern Australia, before spending the end of her life in Sydney.

Penguin ed. 1969

Rachel Henning died in 1914, but her letters, which were never intended for publication, were not published until The Bulletin serialised them over 1951 and 1952. This was followed by publication as a book in 1954, illustrated by none other than Norman Lindsay, and edited by David Adams. Here is where it gets interesting because, as Bill writes (and as Judy Stove told my JASACT group), Adams severely edited them (reminding us of how Austen’s sister Cassandra “curated” Austen’s life by destroying so many of her letters). Bill reports that Adams reduced the original 179 letters down to 90. Not only did he remove repetitive salutations etc, but he also deleted references to “women’s problems” (which would be so interesting now) plus her most scathing comments about her fellows and most of her complaints about ‘colonials’. None of this editing was acknowledged at the time, and was only exposed decades later.

I’m not sure, and nor was Judy Stove, about the current state of the original manuscripts – or whether there are plans to release a more complete edition of the essays. However, Stove said that Norman Lindsay apparently liked the letters, and, I believe, likened them to Jane Austen’s letters which, unlike many male readers, he also liked.

Now, at the beginning I indicated that Henning’s letters were very popular in the 1950s and 60s, but implied that, if you weren’t sentient then, you may not have heard of her. This is because she fell out of favour, mainly, said Judy Stove, due to her “snobbish” attitudes, including to First Nations Australians. These attitudes changed a little over the time, with her expressing some humanity towards the original inhabitants. Fundamentally, though, it appears, as Bill cites cacademic Anne Allingham saying, that Henning “became party to the pastoralist’s pact to maintain silence on frontier conflict, the hope being that silence would imply that it simply did not exist.” In the letters, she clearly distinguishes between the “wild blacks” and the “boys” who worked on the station. She does seem aware that the term “boys” is not really right, but still, she accepts the status quo:

He [Biddulph] takes with him Alick, one of the blackboys–they are always called “boys”, though the said Alick must be thirty-five at least. People who are going for a long journey almost always take a blackboy with them. They are most useful servants in the bush, get up the horses in the morning, light fires at night, and know by a sort of instinct if there are any wild blacks lurking in the neighbourhood of their camp. They are very faithful, too. I never heard of an instance of a traveller being murdered or robbed by his own blackboy. (Letter to Mr Boyce, 23 March 1864)

Regardless (or perhaps because) of these attitudes – which were not uncommon in her time – Henning offers valuable insight into colonial Australia. Caldwell puts in this way, at the end of her ADB entry:

Her letters read like a novel with ‘darling’ Biddulph the hero, and give an invaluable picture of colonial life; with vivid descriptions and shrewd, if not always charitable, observations on people, they have both charm and humour.

Read more …

You can read the full text of her letters at Project Gutenberg Australia.

And here are some places where you can read more about her:

Have you read The letters of Rachel Henning? And if so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Local colour, 1920-style

Back in June I wrote a post on the Australian Literature Society’s Women’s Night that they held in 1922. This Society, which was formed in Melbourne in 1899, has played an important role in supporting and promoting Australian literature for well over a century – first as itself, and then as part of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) with which it merged in 1982. As I’ve written before, ASAL continues to award the ALS Gold Medal which was established by the Society in 1928.

Now, I had in fact planned a different post for today, but I have had a busy weekend, and am still away from home, so have not had the time to work on that post. I therefore thought I would share another one of the delightful snippets I found some months ago about about the work of the society. The wonderful thing is, you see, that this Society’s meetings were often written up in the newspapers of the day, which provides us with an interesting insight into what the literati of the time were thinking and caring about.

And, one of those things was what made “Australian” literature. In 1920, Melbourne’s The Herald (July 10), reported on the meeting that marked the Society’s attaining “its majority”. That is, it turned 21! The meeting’s topic was “Local Color in Women’s Work”, with a paper was presented by Mrs Hilda Vroland. She argued that Australia’s women writers “did not portray very vividly those features of our life which were distinctive”. The report went on to explain what she saw as local color:

What was meant by local color was certain incidents, scenes and language which were characteristic of a particular country, and not only that, but a portrayal of an outlook on life which was typical of the class of people dealt with. Our local color was derived from incidents which immediately suggested Australian life — scenes that were truly Australian, and traits of character which had been developed by the freedom of this new land and the broader outlook.

Mrs Vroland named some writers whom she thought did produce good local colour – Doris Egerton Jones, Marie Pitt and Mary Gaunt (the last of whom Brona of Brona’s Books wrote about for the new AWW). Brona notes that some of Gaunt’s attitudes are problematical now, but nonetheless,

her short stories show a writer concerned with the role of women in society. Mary’s privileged colonial upbringing may be apparent in her writing at times, but her focus was clearly on how double standards, lack of agency and patriarchal practices negatively impacted on the lives of women.

Sounds like excellent local color to me …

Anyhow, the poet and journalist Bernard O’Dowd, who presided over the meeting, clearly agreed with the importance of Hilda Vroland’s subject, arguing that

Australians had as much right to see the universe in our honeysuckle and wattle blossom or even in the opossum’s burrow as the Englishman had to see his world in the oak-tree.

Furthermore, he was concerned, said The Herald, that Australian literature was not valued unless it “received the hallmark of the English papers”. (The old cultural cringe.) Local journals, he apparently said, “dealt almost exclusively with American literature, and ignored Australian writers”. Another speaker at the meeting, a Charles Carter, is reported as having “said that he “was gratified to know that the women writers quoted did not wholly rely upon the use of slang, horse-racing or bush-ranging for local color”. According to Brona, Mary Gaunt’s stories did include bush-ranging, among other topics. But was Carter being sexist about what “women” writers should write about, or simply complimenting them because these were not truly local color?

I will close here … and simply say that I enjoyed reading about the passion of these Australians for our own literature, even if (not surprisingly) the idea of First Nations people contributing to that literature doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds. I hope you all have enjoyed this little insight too.

Monday musings on Australian literature: The new AWW, six months on

In February, a new AWW (Australian Women Writers blog) team, comprising its founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, Bill Holloway (The Australian Legend) and me, published our first post in our revamped blog. Six months on we have settled into a nice little routine which I’d like to share with you, but first …

Let me recap what I explained in my last AWW Challenge post for 2021. This challenge was, as many of you know, instigated in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. By 2021, things had changed significantly with women writers seeming to be well-established on Australia’s literary scene, at least by observable measures. Because of this and some additional practical reasons, it was agreed that the challenge would change tack in 2022 and focus on past, and often under-recognised or overlooked, women writers from the 19th- and 20th-centuries. The new team decided that we would write articles about and reviews of earlier writers, and publish their actual writings – in full or excerpt form, as appropriate. Our reasoning was that Australia’s rich heritage of Australian women’s writing hasn’t been fully explored and we wanted to nudge it into the limelight.

So, what have we done? We have established the following routine:

  • on Wednesdays we publish essays or articles on relevant writers, works, or topics; and
  • on Fridays we publish actual writings, related, where possible, to that Wednesday’s post.

Bill is our commissioning editor, which means he sets up our posting timetable and approaches others (mostly bloggers we know) to contribute to our Wednesday articles, while Elizabeth schedules the Friday posts, drawing from the work she’s done, and is still doing, on locating and listing online content for past women writers. I have the easy job, being part of the ongoing consultations and keeping an eye on some of the background issues like our category and label policy and practice. Each of us also writes one Wednesday article a month, with the other week/s (given there are three of us) being a guest post.

We have not imposed a structure over the content of the posts. That is, we have not decided to explore past Australian women writers chronologically or geographically or thematically. Instead, we have drawn on contributors’ interests and experiences. This has resulted in an eclectic mix of posts, but, we believe, an interesting one, that should appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.

So, for example, Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly!), who contributed many poetry reviews to the original blog, agreed to write articles on past women poets. His first was on Zora Cross. Brona (Brona’s Books) posted on Mary Gaunt, while author and blogger Michelle Scott Tucker posted on the children’s writer Patricia Wrightson and the issue of appropriation. We have also been thrilled to have contributions from overseas bloggers interested in classic Australian literature, like French blogger Emma (Book Around the Corner) on Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s will, and Canadian Marcie McCauley (Buried in Print) on Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfield’s trilogy.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth has focused specifically on our goal of finding forgotten and overlooked writers. Putting her research skills to work, she has unearthed writers we really never have heard of – and, along the way, has discovered some fascinating stories. Netta Walker, for example, took her on a merry chase, as did another wonderful find of hers, the case of Eucalypta (or, Mrs H.E. Russell). As for Bill, in between tracking down guest posters, he has been contributing posts on works by some of his favourite independent women, like Miles Franklin and Ada Cambridge.

Posts on topics other than individual writers and works include guest poster and literature honours student Stacey Roberts on Using the AWWC Archives, and mine on Primary and Secondary Sources.

So, six months in, we seem to be going strong, though there’s not a lot of comment engagement on the blog. More of that would be lovely.

We’d love to know whether you’ve looked at the blog. If you have, what have you liked or not liked, and is there anything you would particularly like to see? (We are open to offers too!)

Monday musings on Australian literature: The Australian girl’s annual

Some time ago I posted on an old School friend annual that I found during my decluttering. Today, I bring you a much older annual for girls, The Australian girl’s annual. It came not from my childhood, but from my aunt’s house when I was working on her estate, and it is undated. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain the series was published annually from 1910, when editions were apparently dated, until around 1935, when they weren’t. 1935 is the last time I found it mentioned in Trove’s newspaper index.

Trove’s cataloging records for it are incomplete. As far as I can tell, it was first called The Australian girl’s annual. It was then published as The Australasian girl’s annual (and perhaps The Australiasian girl’s annual), before returning to its original name. It was originally published by Cassell in London and Melbourne, but one Trove record notes that volumes from [1929]* on have the imprint “[Sydney] : Gordon & Gotch (A’sia) Ltd. for the Amalgamated Press Ltd.” My edition says “Published in Australasia by Gordon & Gotch (Australasia) Ltd.” but it also credits “The Amalgamated Press Limited Fleetway House, London, E.C.4”

So, I have two challenges. First, what is the date of mine? From Trove’s records, and from the contemporary-story illustrations, I’m guessing it comes from the 1929 to 1935 period. Second, who did it belong to? My aunt was born in 1930, when my grandmother was 37, making the book not really age-suitable for either – given it was geared, says The Australasian (21 December 1912), to “those who have passed childhood”. However, my aunt had a big sister who was born in 1918. Perhaps the book was hers?

I was intrigued when I picked it up, because here’s this book called The Australian girl’s annual, but it was clearly generated from England. In my search of the Internet, I found reference to some research published in 2014. It was done by Kristine Moruzi, and her paper is titled “The British Empire and Australian Girls’ Annuals”. The abstract says:

This article explores two series of girls’ annuals: the Empire Annual for Australian Girls (1909–30), published by the Religious Tract Society, and the Australian Girl’s Annual (1910–3?), published by Cassell. Although both series were seemingly targeted at Australian girls, they were published in Britain before being given a new title and sent to the colonies. This article examines the implications of these British models of girlhood for their explicitly colonial girl readers. The British publishers of these annuals addressed an apparently homogenous readership comprised of girls from white settler colonies and Britain without attempting to customize the contents of their books for different audiences. In both fiction and illustrations, the annuals simultaneously employed and produced a British model of girlhood that was attractive to Australian girl readers.

“Before being given a new title and sent to the colonies”? This suggests that the very same content was published for English girls under a different title. Certainly, the volume I have contains 26 stories with not one written by an Australian, though one author, Violet M Methley (b. 1882 in Kent), might have had some Australian connection. She is listed in AustLit, because, as a blogger writes, “she may have spent time in Australia, as many of her books are set on that continent”. Then again, as this blogger’s blog is “Tellers of Weird Tales”, Methley may just have had a vivid imagination! She has two stories in this volume, one being “Mademoiselle Miss: a story of the French Revolution”. (As little aside, this story is illustrated by H.M. Brock whose brother was C.E. Brock, famous for his Jane Austen illustrations.) Her other story is “Celia: A thrilling story”, which is set in the Hebrides.

Anyhow, the 26 stories are written pretty much 50:50 by male and female writers. None are known to me, but many were prolific writers in their day. Pleasingly, the illustrators are identified along with the authors in the table of contents. Most of the stories are fiction, and they include traditional “girls’ stories” like school stories, but there are also historical and adventure stories, and non-fiction, such as editor H. Darkin Williams’ travel piece, “On top of the world: Sun and ice at mid-summer on the heights of Switzerland” and naturalist Mortimer Batten’s “The adventure land of wild nature: And how YOU can become a Member of a Famous Camp Circle”. Batten’s heart is in the right place but how relevant were his “stories about hedgehogs, and stoats, and hares, and wildcats, and eagles, and deer …” to his Australian readers?

Of course, my next step was to see if the annual was written about in Australian newspapers, and it was, most often in end-of-year lists as a gift suggestion. Here are some of the mentions:

For softer tastes quieter themes are chosen; but the stories by Mrs. G. Vaizey, Katherine Newlin, Bessie Marchant, Doris Pocock, and others, are well written, and have nothing of the vapidity which was once thought a proper characteristic of fiction intended for girls [my emph]. – The Australasian (21 December 1912.

a very attractive and beautifully printed volume, with illustrations in colour and in black and white. It contains many short stories by writers popular with girls, and one complete book-length story, ‘The Girl from Nowhere,’ by Nancy M. Hayes. An excellent present for a girl. – Sunday Times, 13 December 1925.

… It has four color-plates, a profusion of other pictures, and as for the stories and reading matter, generally—well, a very high standard is reached. – The World’s News, 19 December 1925.

The “Australian Girl’s Annual” is another publication that puts the girls quite level with the boys in diversity of reading matter and illustration. It has all those features which girls like, and a lot of others that boys will turn to—on the quiet, of course [my emph]. It is really a very fine compilation of first-class serial and short stories. – The World’s News, 18 December 1926.

fills that very much-needed requirement of the girl-child who has passed the ‘toys’ standard, and is yet too young to be interested in the sentimentality of the average best seller in the fiction field, or carried beyond her age by the classics. – Sunday Times, 15 December 1929.

But what did the girls themselves think? Well, thanks to the letters section in some newspapers’ Children’s Pages, we do know something:

Dear Uncle Jeff … I have been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Australian Girl’s Annual.’ It is just the thing. – The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 10 October 1913.

Dear Aunt Mary … I had a book called “The Australian Girl’s Annual” given to me for my birthday. There are some nice stories in it. – Western Mail, 22 September 1916.

Dear Aunt Georgina … We got book prizes, and the name of my book is ‘”The Australian Girls’ Annual.” It has nice stories in it. – Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette 25 January 1930.

You can see how these Children’s Pages worked. Some of the correspondents even signed off “your niece”! These writers aren’t exactly effusive about the annual, but these were spontaneous comments in letters to a newspaper, so may not mean much.

Meanwhile, I would love to read what Moruzi found.

* Square brackets donate the lack of date on the volume.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 7: Science fiction

Unlike my last two posts in this “supporting genres”series, today’s is a true-blue genre. The problem is, as many of you will realise, that it takes me way, way out of my comfort zone. However, with this week being National Science Week in Australia, I decided that it was a good time to tackle this oh so popular genre. I will just add that, this not being my area of expertise, today’s post will be even more introductory than usual for this series.

I hope to hear from aficionados, who will hopefully fill in gaps and correct any misconceptions. Meanwhile, I’ll start with Wikipedia’s statement that

Nevil Shute, On the beach

Australia, unlike Europe, does not have a long history in the genre of science fiction. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, published in 1957, and filmed in 1959, was perhaps the first notable international success.

Does international success define a genre’s history? This seems to be the implication of the opening paragraph, but I see it more as “a” measure of success rather than necessarily indicative of activity. Anyhow, the opening paragraph also suggests that the situation may have been worse in Australia had not importing American pulp magazines been restricted during World War II, “forcing local writers into the field”. “Forcing”?

Wikipedia then shares that pre-Second Word War Australian science fiction tended to be racist and xenophobic by today’s standards. This was due, it continues, to contemporary worries about invasion and foreigners. By the 1950s, as in other countries, the genre became influenced by technological progress and globalisation. I guess what all this is saying is that science fiction – perhaps more than most genres – is closely affected by contemporary issues and concerns. Even I know that current science fiction is drawn to issues like climate change and environmental degradation!

Definition

Must I? Science fiction, I suspect, though you can prove me wrong, is one of the most difficult genres to define. When we Australian Women Writers Challenge volunteers were establishing our genres, this area took some thinking. In the end, we called it Speculative Fiction, and incorporated “genres” like fantasy, horror, paranormal, into it.

Wikipedia calls Science Fiction a “genre of speculative fiction which typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts …”. It continues that SF “can trace its roots back to ancient mythology, and is related to fantasy, horror, and superhero fiction, and contains many subgenres” and then says that “its exact definition has long been disputed among authors, critics, scholars, and readers”. So, I’m not going to argue with that. The Awards below tend to encompass a broad church under the banner.

Conventions

Interestingly, Science Fiction followers seem to have conventions rather than festivals. Here are a few:

  • Australian National Science Fiction Convention (ANSFC) has been an annual event since 1952! That’s impressive, surely. Even more impressive is that, as Wikipedia explains, “each convention is run by a different committee unaffiliated with any national fannish body”. This speaks to the passion of its followers, I’d say. It even ran through the pandemic, as the Wikipedia article shows.
  • Conflux is an annual science fiction convention held in Canberra, since 2004, building on the CSFcons (Canberra Science Fiction Conventions), held in the early noughties. Its website says it encompasses “sci fi, fantasy, alternative history and horror”. It was not held during the pandemic, but, if I read its website correctly, it will host NatCon (ie the ANSFC) in 2022.
  • SwanCon is an annual science fiction convention held in Perth, since 1976. It has often hosted the Australian National Science Fiction Convention.

Awards

Australia has two main science fiction awards:

  • Aurealis Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction was established in 1995 by the publishers of Aurealis Magazine. It’s an annual award for Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction, and its categories are different to the Ditmar, below, being based on subgenre (like fantasy, horror) and age (young adult, children’s, for example). It now also has categories for form – anthologies, short stories, novellas, etc. If you want a sense of this award, check out its website.
  • Ditmar Award has gone through a few permutations since its establishment in 1969 (which makes it our longest standing science fiction awards). It is announced at the ANSFC, and, says Wikipedia, aims to recognise “achievement in Australian science fiction (including fantasy and horror) and science fiction fandom”. The fandom aspect is interesting. It encompasses a number of awards which are defined by form rather than content, like novel, novella, short story, fan artist, fan writer.

The notable thing about some genre awards, and we see it here, is that they often recognise various forms, like short stories and novellas.

Publishers

There seems to be a plethora of science fiction publishers in Australia. Many of them pride themselves on supporting inventive works and forms. Here are just a few, which I think are currently active:

  • Brain Jar Press: “Brisbane’s scrappiest, weirdest, and most genre-friendly small press, publishing outstanding and unexpected works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and crime”. Their authors include Angela Slatter and Kaaron Warren.
  • Clan Destine Press: publishes “genre fiction in its myriad and wondrous forms: crime, mystery, historical fiction, thrillers, adventure, speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, urban fantasy, paranormal, steampunk, and ah-ha! “
  • Sunburnt Fox Press: only publishes Australian science fiction and fantasy, mainly, it seems, through Etherea Magazine.
  • Twelfth Planet Press: aims “to elevate minority and underrepresented voices with books that interrogate, commentate, inspire. Challenging the status quo through provocative science fiction, fantasy, horror, and cosy crime”.

Of course, the general publishing houses also publish science fiction.

Science fiction and me

Bill recently responded to a comment of mine on his blog that “I think that if I ever got you started on reading women’s SF you would never stop”, because, he said, “the great majority are of the inner lives of women in unusual situations. The story is only rarely about the SF premise”. He’s right – to a degree. From my youth, I have read a smattering of science fiction – John Wyndham (and Nevil Shute) in my teens, and in my twenties and early thirties I read Huxley’s A brave new world, Orwell’s 1984 and Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle. (All by men!)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

I read no Australian science fiction through those years. However, in recent years I have read several Australian dystopian and cli-fi novels. Not all of these, though, are, technically, science fiction because not all are “futuristic”. However, some are, such as Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review). I loved both of these, and remain open to the genre – but I’m unlikely to ever become an aficionado.

Do you like science fiction and, if so, care to share why?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime; 6. Novellas; 7. Poetry

Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Poetry

As with the last post in this series, which was on novellas, poetry isn’t so much a genre as a form. However, to repeat what I said then, when I started this sub-series, I couldn’t find one all-inclusive word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I’d cover, so settled on “genres”. With August being National Poetry Month, it seemed a good time to do the poetry post.

I’ll start by saying that over the years of this blog, I have written several posts that could be seen to cover ways in which poetry is supported in Australia … so I’m going to begin with some of those posts, all Monday Musings:

  • Australian Poetry Library: In 2011, I wrote on a wonderful initiative, the online Australian Poetry Library which was launched that May. Unfortunately, as those of you who have read last week’s Monday Musings comment trail will know, the site is off-line at the moment. It’s a fabulous site, and we believe the hiatus is technical rather than permanent. We urge that “fixing” it be given priority.
  • National Poetry Month: This has to be a major initiative for supporting Australian poets and poetry and I have written two Monday Musings posts on it, one in 2021 and one in 2022.
  • Poetry Awards: In 2014, I wrote a Monday Musings on Poetry Awards, in which I listed many of Australia’s best-known poetry awards.

Publishers

In my 2021 National Poetry Month post (linked above), I mentioned two publishers which focus specifically, or heavily, on poetry – Giramondo and Pitt Street Poetry – so you can read more about those there. Other more general publishers also support poetry. There are too many for me to include here, but I will exemplify with a few:

  • Black Inc: an independent Melbourne-based publisher which supports poetry, with a focus (I’d say) on established poets. They have published annual Best Australian poems anthologies (though not since 2017 it seems); they publish The best 100 poems of [poet, like Dorothy Porter] series, and they also publish poetry collections, including, most recently the posthumous Les Murray collection, Continuous creation.
  • Fremantle Press: an independent Western Australia-based publisher which publishes poetry regularly, both as single poet collections (including John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan) and anthologies.
  • UQP: a university-based publisher in Queensland, which is also a strong publisher of poetry. Not surprisingly, given their track record in publishing First Nations writing, they are a major publisher of First Nations poets, like Evelyn Araluen, Tony Birch, Jazz Money, and Ellen van Neerven, alongside many other new and established poets.

I have reviewed poetry from all of the above. For more publishers, check out this Poetry Sydney page which includes these, plus more, like Ginninderra Press, Magabala Books, and Wakefield Press.

Awards

I covered several of Australia’s significant poetry awards in my dedicated Monday Musings post linked above, and Wikipedia has a useful list too. I love that the majority of poetry awards are named for poets. Here I will share a few that I didn’t include in my 2014 post:

  • Anne Elder Award has gone through some changes since its establishment in 1976 by the Victorian Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. It goes to the best first book of poetry published in Australia, and since 2018 has been managed by Australian Poetry.
  • Biennial Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award is a more recent poetry prize, with the inaugural award being made in 2013. The original prize was $7,000 but it’s now described as Australia’s richest poetry prize, with $40,000 going to the 2021 winner. It is “dedicated to celebrating women poets”, with, says AustLit, the award going to “an Australian woman poet for a collection of previously unpublished poems”. It is managed by the University of Sydney.
  • Mary Gilmore Award has gone through a number of permutations and slight name changes since it was established by the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) in 1956. Love this. It is currently an annual prize for a first book of poetry published in Australia, and is managed by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. The 2022 winner was Jelena Dinic’s In the Room with the She Wolf published by Wakefield Press.

Festivals

Many writers festivals include a poetry panel or two, and those of you who attend folk festivals will know that these festivals often include poetry sessions (mostly, in my experience, of the bush verse variety).

However, there are some specialist poetry festivals, like the following:

  • Perth Poetry Festival, is an annual festival with this year’s being its 18th. Its webpage is brief but you can read more about it there. It is run by WA Poets Inc.
  • Poetry on the Move is a festival that was established in Canberra in 2015 by the University of Canberra. Its website describes its aims as being “to promote poetry as a vibrant art form through the engagement with international, national and local poetry communities”.
  • Queensland Poetry has operated as an incorporated association, the Queensland Poetry Festival Inc, since 2007. Their aim, according to their home page, is “Supporting poets on page and stage across Queensland”. Check out their website for the range of their activities, but as far as I can tell, this year’s festival, Emerge, ran from June 3rd to 6th.
  • Red Dirt Poetry Festival has already appeared on this blog, through Glen Hunting who often comments here. As its website says, it is a “4-day International poetry and spoken word celebration in Mparntwe/Alice Springs”. It’s a hybrid festival offering both in-person and digital sessions, and involves national and international poets. The sessions include “presentations, workshops, showcases and exclusive commissioned works”.
  • Tasmanian Poetry Festival is a longstanding festival which started in 1985 ran its 37th event in 2021.

It goes without saying that many festivals, including these, have been significantly affected by COVID and so what were annual, in-person events, have in some cases missed a year or two, recently, and/or become hybrid events. Some are run by poetry associations which offer many more programs than “just” the festival. You can find out more by navigating the links I’ve provided.

Do you like poetry and, if so, how do you engage with it?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime; 6. Novellas.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry Month 2022 and Verse novels

Having launched their Poetry Month in 2021 which I wrote about at the time, Red Room Company (or, Red Room Poetry) clearly felt it was successful, because they are back again this year with another Poetry Month. Its aim is to “increase access, awareness and visibility of poetry in all its forms and for all audiences”, and it will run throughout the month of August.

From what I can tell, they are following a similar plan to last year with their 30in30 daily poetry commissions, poetry ambassadors, online workshops, prizes and residencies, and more. Do check their page, which includes a link to a calendar, to find ways in which you can take part, or, simply, introduce yourself to some new poets and poems.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d celebrate the month by writing a little tribute to verse novels.

Verse novels

When I decided to write this post, I found a good introduction to verse novels at The Australian Poetry Library. However, when I checked the link I’d saved, it said “currently unavailable”. I will share what it said, but you may not be able to find it online any more. (They do still have a Facebook page.)

A verse novel tells a long and complex story with many characters, much as a prose novel would, through the medium of narrative verse. The verse may be blank verse in the manner of Shakespeare, or free verse, or (less often) formal rhymed verse of any type.

The ancient epics were verse novels, of a sort, and so were the Alexandrian epyllia such as Apollonius’ Argonautica, but the modern verse novel, like the novel itself, is a fashion that found a large audience in the nineteenth-century: Don Juan (Byron), Amours de Voyage (Arthur Hugh Clough), The Ring and the Book (Robert Browning).

Movies, paperback novels and television seem to have killed it off in the early twentieth century, but it found a strong revival after the 1970s: Another life (Derek Walcott), The golden gate (Vikram Seth) and The changing light at Sandover (James Merrill).

Notable Australian verse novelists are Alan Wearne, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, Steven Herrick and John Tranter.

A selection of Australian verse novels

Susan Hawthorne, Limen, book cover

Wikipedia’s article on the form provides a brief history, going back to epics like Gilgamesh. After appearing to have declined with Modernism, it has, Wikipedia continues, “undergone a remarkable revival” since the 1960s-70s, and is particularly popular in the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. I wonder why these particular regions?

I should add, though, that verse novels do have a longer history in Australia than this later 20th century revival suggests. CJ Dennis’ The songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) and The moods of Ginger Mick (1916)(my post) are earlier, and very popular, examples.

Of course, I did a little search of Trove, but, given the form’s apparent recent revival and the fact that Trove is not so useful yet for recent decades, I didn’t find much. However, I was intrigued to find reference to a satirical work called Solstice, by 20-year-old Matt Rubenstein. It was shortlisted for The Australian-Vogel award (in 1994, I presume). Sen, writing in The Canberra Times, was reasonably positive, saying that “the narrative has its share of sentimental blokes as well as philosophers like the homeless Arthur, and the relationships and issues it explores are treated relevantly as well as entertainingly. It could start a verse-novel cult. Could, I said.”

I’m not sure that there’s been quite a cult, but my little list below confirms some level of ongoing popularity in Australia. But, back to Rubenstein’s Solstice, I also found through Trove that it had been adapted by the author into a play to be performed at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1996, with Kate Ceberano as the featured singer. That says something about the quality of the work. I note that the play is available from Ligature Digital Publishing.

Anyhow, I do enjoy a verse novel, and have reviewed several on my blog, as have some other Aussie litbloggers. Here is a selection of some of the verse novels we have reviewed on our blogs:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby Moonlight (2012) (my post, and Lisa’s): this is particularly interesting because it is a First Nations historical fiction verse novel. It is a moving, and generous read.
  • Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov poems (2013) (my post): also historical fiction, this work tells the story of the Petrov affair providing a personal perspective on a very political event.
  • Susan Hawthorne, Limen (2013) (my post): Hawthorne’s quiet yet forceful work explores women going camping, the threats and vulnerabilities that confront them, and how they navigate the lines that appear.
  • Geoff Page, The scarring (1999) (my post): Page has written other verse novels, including Freehold, which I have also read, but The scarring is particularly strong and gut-wrenching about war, the mistakes people make, and the power men can wield over women.
  • Dorothy Porter, El Dorado (2007) (Brona): Porter’s last verse novel is described by Brona as “another dark crime story with a psychological twist”.
  • Dorothy Porter, The monkey’s mask (1994) (Brona): Porter’s most famous verse novel is also a psychological crime story, and, says Brona is “gritty, exciting & passionate”. It surely qualifies now as a classic, particularly given it is taught in schools and universities. It was also adapted for a feature film.
  • Alan Wearne, The night markets (1986) (Bill): this book was highly praised when it came out, and won significant awards including the ALS Gold Medal and the National Book Council Award. Bill knew Wearne at school, and has read this book a few times “because it feels so intensely familiar”. The Canberra Times reported on its ALS Gold Medal win, saying the judges ‘were impressed by the ambition and confidence with which Wearne approached his task. The novel’s subject, political and social change in the past two decades, had rarely been approached, they said, and its verse form was “bold and exciting”‘.

Readings Bookshop has provided lists of Australian and non-Australian children’s and YA verse novels, for those of you interested in these audiences.

Do you read verse novels? And if so, care to share your favourites (Aussie or otherwise)?