Monday musings on Australian literature: Beach (or Summer) reads

It is currently summer down under and so, despite some unseasonably cold weather in various parts, the thoughts of many have turned to “beach reads”. Most of us understand that to mean escapist, easy-to-read, non-demanding fiction, although we don’t all define our own “beach reading” that way. But, do you know the history of the term and concept? Last month, Julian Novitz, from Swinburne University of Technology, wrote an article for The Conversation titled “Melodramatic potboilers, worthy classics and DIY escapism: a brief history of the beach read”. Of course I was interested.

Do you know when the term “beach read” originated? I was surprised to read that it only dates back to the 1990s. Novitz cites as his source a 2016 article by Michelle Dean in The Guardian. Dean wrote that:

the term only emerged in the 1990s, usually in book trade publications such as Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly. It was only around the middle of the decade that it migrated into the general lexicon and became something literary journalists began using.

(An aside: I did find a reference to “beach books” in the 1960s, on which more below.) Dean continues that

vacation reading is not a new concept. Ever since the 19th century, when novels were considered relatively sinful indulgences, leisure and fiction-reading have been closely associated. But it was not until the wide popularization of paperbacks in America in the middle of the last century that you began to see the beach so closely entwined with a page-turning thriller.

Dean doesn’t explore the history further, but Novitz does. He writes that communications scholar Donna Harrington-Lueker says that in the early 19th century, “holiday reading was often viewed as a mark of gentility and refinement” and that “travellers were encouraged to use their abundant time to appreciate worthy classics”. Recommendations for “perfect” summer reading included works of Lord Byron and Charles Lamb.

A combination of social, economic and technological developments – including increased literacy and the ability to publish books more cheaply – contributed to the rise of reading for leisure. The resultant “dime novels” popularised sensationalist thrills and adventure, and publishers started marketing “light literature” for summer reading. Novitz writes that:

Summer novels were typically presented as “agreeable” fiction, easy for vacationers to pick up and put down, cheap enough to be happily left or exchanged in hotels.

Of course, not all approved this trend, including those who didn’t think much of fiction in the first place. Novitz gives the example of the popular Brooklyn preacher Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage who in 1876, labelled summer novels as “literary poison” and “pestiferous trash”.  However, even in the nineteenth century, not all saw summer reading as necessarily light. Novitz reports on Scribner’s suggested summer reading list of 1885. It included “Frances Hodgson Burnett’s passionate exploration of inequity and exploitation in the Lancashire coal pits (That Lass O’ Lowrie’s), the surreal, proto-science-fiction tales of Fritz James O’Brien, as well as travel writing, histories, and a small collection of Plato’s dialogues”.

Critics and publishers, Novitz says, have ‘defended summer reading as a necessary “release” from the stresses of the year’, but he argues that this “doesn’t necessarily imply triviality”, and concludes that

the best lesson to take from the history of the beach read is that if you can only get through a book or two while on holiday, then make sure they are ones you will like.

Amen to that …

What about Australia?

However, this is my Monday musings series, so to bring the discussion specifically to Australia, I went of course to Trove. I’m sharing just a handful of articles I found. They are too few to be regarded as conclusive or even properly representative, but they offer some insights …

On 26 December 1903, Rockhampton’s Capricornian ran an article titled “Summer reading”, in which the first half discusses the topic in some detail. It suggests that, for many, “a pleasant book in a shady nook will afford welcome relief and give agreeable exercise to the mind in the contemplation of novel thoughts, strange characters, and startling incidents”, but few will think about whether this time “will be well spent”. However, it says, this is being discussed “in some quarters”. The books most demanded from public libraries are “those classed under the head of fiction. All conditions of readers are alike imperious in their demand [my emph] for novels”. In fact, “the publication of works of imagination exceeds that of all other classes of literature” across the English-speaking world. The article describes in some detail what these works offer, including that “places and persons are portrayed with vivid realism” and that “good and bad characters are met with just as in real life, but those in fiction are the more interesting because the moving springs of their action can always be traced, and the consequences of their conduct considered and discussed. Human nature in all its strange developments and infinite varieties is strikingly illustrated in modern fiction and its consideration under diverse aspects and in startling forms is always pleasant occupation”.

Hmmm … just “pleasant occupation”. Indeed, says our writer, “the value of novel reading is meeting with lively condemnation”, with the time spent being “alleged to be not a pastime, but a waste-time”. S/he is not prepared to disagree outright with this, but does suggest that novel reading offers “a change of exercise to the wearied brain, and a subtle form of excitement to the system [and, for these reasons] it must be admitted to be worth more than can be readily estimated”.

A few years later, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (3 November 1911), there is a brief article titled “Books for summer reading”. It lists 20 books compiled by Andrew Lang, “an accomplished and quick-witted writer and editor”. Lang apparently suggested that “no one who is happily placed during the summer months reads at all” and then proferred his list, which included ‘… 3, “The High History of the Holy Graal”; (Mr. Sebastian Evans’s translation)… 8. Hazlitt (Essays); 9. Leigh Hunt (Essays) … “‘Confessions of St. Augustine; 12 Boswell’s “Johnson” … 19, Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”‘. You get the picture. The article writer assesses the list:

Every book in this list is full of meat; there is no whipped syllabub for the undisciplined and the indolent. But when one considers the taste of the average summer reader as disclosed by the books placed at his disposal at summer resorts and on ocean steamers, this list is a huge satire.

Love it. Two decades later, we are moving on. In Adelaide’s Southern Cross on 10 January 1930, “K”, recommends some books suitable “for the holiday season in Australia, when the heat of summer interferes with serious, and sustained reading… the kind of mental fare palatable to those who are recuperating at the seaside or in the hills”. The books are published by Mills and Boon, “the enterprising London publishers … [who] … are constantly bringing out novels which are suitable for general reading.” Clearly “K” is happy with light summer reading.

More fascinating to me though is the Editor of W.A. Amateur Sports (20 November, 1931) who says about summer reading:

I am sure readers will have observed from their experience that, as in the case of our dietary needs, it is not in the best interest of our health to live on rich matter continually. Generally, there is no difficulty about that, since really good books are certainly in the minority, and we are compelled, in fairness to others, particularly if our reading is catered for by a circulating library, to be inflicted with a great deal of trash at frequent intervals. 

Oh dear … to be so “inflicted with a great deal of trash”. Anyhow, s/he sees summer reading as more varied:

Thrillers are in regular demand, whilst in more enlightened circles travelogues are never far from the hand of those who seek the Muse in solitude. Poetry comes once more into its own and the sun sets on many a magazine flung carelessly on beach or hammock.

Not “just” light fiction here.

Jumping now to times a bit closer to ours, we get Bookman in The Australian Jewish Times (3 November, 1961). He reviews three books by Australian writers, but starts off with:

Summertime is a period when ‘‘light reading”” is thought to be in order.

Whether this is because prolonged sunshine and heat make profound reading too much of a strain, or because so many people are making holiday moves that they cannot be expected to stick a hard text, l don’t know.

But round the world we get such publishers’ categories as “summer reading,” “hammock novels” and “beach books.”

There we have it, “beach books”. Not “beach read”, but much the same in concept.

He continues that these sorts of books generally come in “two types: the so-called light fiction, including detective and adventure novels; and the more or less diverting non-fiction of general interest and limited importance”. The three books he reviews are of the latter type, all non-fiction published by Angus and Robertson – John Bechervaise’s book on Antarctica, The far south; Alice Duncan-Kemp’s on life in northern Australia, Our channel country; and Helen McLeod’s on living in Papua New Guinea as the wife of a government official, Cannibals are human.

There is more to say, including about these books in particular so I’ll return to them. Now, though, it’s late so I’m closing here on a question:

What does “beach read” mean to you (if anything)?


A little note on dark literature

Book cover

I ended my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim with Carey’s point that, although at her death there was a belief that von Arnim’s work would live on, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”. This was because, claimed English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy” and these, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. He was referring to Modernism, which, as Carey says, “didn’t believe in happiness” – and this, she added, is a value that has carried through to today.

Modernist writer, Albert Camus, for example, wrote

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (1 January 1942)

Anyhow, Carey writes just a little more about this issue of our focus on gloom. She quotes literary theorist Terry Eagleton from his 2015 book Hope without optimism. Eagleton comments that it can be “arresting” when contemporary novels “fail to be suitably downbeat”. He said that for a contemporary novel to end on a “joyfully transformative note” – as Jose Saramago’s Blindness does – “is almost as audacious as if Pride and Prejudice were to conclude with a massacre of the Bennet sisters”. Love his example of course.

Eagleton goes on to say that

In this era of modernity, gloom appears a more sophisticated stance than cheerfulness.

Carey picks up this idea, suggesting that this attitude is the key to von Arnim’s demise. She says:

It has become more respectable to be depressed, an attitude that signals virtue, and almost socially irresponsible to be happy – a state that is associated with vacuousness. After all, if you aren’t depressed by the mess the world is in – ravaged by fire, flood and plague – you are clearly insensitive or uninformed. Perhaps that is precisely why no one reads her novels anymore, because amid our infatuation with darkness, being cheerful has become not only unsophisticated but morally suspect.

This made me stop and think … because, while most times have been difficult in one way or another, it does seem to be particularly so now. The pandemic, climate change, the current war in Ukraine, not to mention, in Australia, our government’s refusal to meet our First Nation’s people half-way, their inflexible hard-hearted policy regarding refugees and asylum-seekers, and the continuing violence against women, are all a bit overwhelming. No wonder we feel gloomy.

But, here’s the thing. My personal life here and now is going OK. Of course I’m concerned about all the things I’ve just mentioned – I’d be “insensitive” and “uninformed” if I weren’t – but in my daily life they are (with perhaps the exception of the pandemic) “just” concerns. What I mean by this is that I have the luxury of choosing whether to worry about them or not, rather than that they are issues that spoil my generally comfortable life. It should therefore, theoretically speaking, be easy for me to be cheerful. This is something that, coincidentally, I’ve been pondering rather a lot lately, so Carey’s comment hit a nerve. I DO feel it would be “morally suspect” of me to be cheerful.

This is because – to use the word du jour, if it’s not already passé – we are now “woke”. We are acutely aware of our privilege in a way that past generations may not have been, and this is not only uncomfortable, but we feel uncomfortable about being uncomfortable because, well, we are not really uncomfortable. It’s too easy, in the situation, to become smug in our “wokeness” …

So, where does that leave us? Cheerfulness in itself is not a bad thing. We achieve nothing by being gloomy all the time, but can we truly be happy being cheerful? I’m not sure I can. The best, I think, I can aim for, is to have a laugh every now and then – and what better way than through the arts – before I get back to the difficult job of living in this challenging, uncertain world.

What do you think?

(Meanwhile, for a different take on happiness in modern literature, check out this 2013 article from The Guardian.)

My year in books 2021

I did this meme last year but wasn’t really thinking of doing it this year. However, here I am on Christmas morning with, for the first time in decades, nothing much to do until we head out to lunch, so why not? The thing about these memes is that they remind us of some of the great reads we’ve had over the year, and that’s a good thing.

Lisa says she thinks it was Annabel at Annabookbel who led the way in 2020 with this annual Christmas meme… Karen at Booker Talk reminded her and would have reminded me too, except I saw Lisa’s first, and I like that she seems to have added in a “lockdown” question.

Here are the rules: Using only books you have read this year (2021), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. Links in the titles will take you to my reviews.

In high school I was  This mournable body (Tsitsi Dangarembga) … because, you know, puberty and bodies aren’t a happy match.

People might be surprised by A mouthful of petals (Wendy and Allan Scarfe) … because, well, wouldn’t you?

I will never be The believer (Sarah Krasnostein) … at least, not of most of the kinds in this book.

My life in lockdown was like Dreams they forgot (Emma Ashmere) … self-explanatory!

My fantasy job is (in) West Block (Sara Dowse) … because it’s a gracious old building and I love working in gracious buildings.

At the end of a long day I need (a) Bluebird (Malcolm Knox) rather than (a) Black cockatoo (Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler) … the happiness of the bluebird without the raucousness of the cockatoo.

I hate (being) The long prospect (Elizabeth Harrower) … because I’d rather be on the shortlist!

I wish I had A different kind of seeing (Marie Younan and Jill Sanguinetti) … because who couldn’t do with a new way of seeing in their lives?

My family reunions are Where the heart is (Irma Gold and Susannah Crispe) … because family just is.

At a party you’d find me with Girl, woman, other (Bernadine Evaristo) … because, sorry men, but woman do make safe company when there’s drink around.

I’ve never been to Bitter Wash Road (Garry Disher) … and am not sure I want to, either.

A happy day includesRural dreams (Margaret Hickey) … because, although I’m a small city-big town sort of girl, I do love to dream of the country.

Motto I live by None of us alone (Jonathan Shaw) … no man (or woman) is an island, and I like it that way.

On my bucket list is (exploring) Where the crawdads sing (Delia Owens) … when we can travel again (and if that happens in my lifetime).

In my next life I want to have Infinite splendours (Sofie Laguna) … wouldn’t you?

Sorry, but you only get two images, after two attempts to get a slideshow in. Methinks there might be a limit to the number of images in a slideshow and I exceeded it. Whatever, it wasn’t happening.

Anyhow, it’s time to get ready for my Christmas day’s activities, so I hope you all enjoy this little response to the meme, and, even more, that you have a peaceful, healthy, and happy holiday season wherever you are.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian campus novels

Two recent articles in The Conversation inspired today’s post, Lucas Thompson’s “Liked Netflix’s The Chair? Here are 4 moving, funny novels set in English departments” (published 26 October) and Catharine Coleborne’s “Beyond Oxbridge and Yale: popular stories bring universities to life — we need more of them in Australia” (published 5 October).

Defining the term

Wikipedia describes campus or academic novels as those “whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university”, which sounds pretty obvious! They say that the genre in its current form dates back to the early 1950s, with Mary McCarthy’s The groves of academe (1952) being an early example. I’ve not read it, but I have read a much earlier novel, Willa Cather’s The professor’s house (1925), which some argue fits the genre. I’ve also read JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to safety (my review), and one of the Kate Fansler mysteries from the “campus murder mystery” sub-genre. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited, which I’ve also read, is regarded bu some as a separate genre, “varsity novels”, because its focus is students. Who knew?

Wikipedia continues that many well-known campus novels, like those by David Lodge, are “comic or satirical, often counterpointing intellectual pretensions and human weaknesses” but there are serious ones, like the aforementioned Disgrace, and Philip Roth’s The human stain. Sally Rooney’s Normal people, which I’ve still not read, is a recent example of the genre.

Thompson’s above-linked article in The Conversation suggests, a bit tongue-in-cheek, another sub-genre, The English Department Novel. He recommends four titles to get readers started, but as none are Australian, my focus here, I’ll move on.

The Australian campus novel

When pondering Australian versions of the genre, I was hard-pressed. The first that came to mind was Dymphna Cusack’s 1936 novel Jungfrau (my review), but only a couple of the main characters are students or lecturers. I was consequently relieved then to read Coleborne who reassured me that I wasn’t alone. She says that, compared to North America and Britain, “Australian readers and audiences have had meagre opportunities to examine the world of the university in novels, television or film” and she goes on to name some of their examples, including the recent TV series The Chair, which inspired Thompson’s article. She does, however, offer some Australian examples, none known to me: Laurie Clancy’s The wildlife reserve (1994), Mary-Rose MacColl’s No safe place (1997) and Michael Wilding’s Academia nuts (2002). She doesn’t mention David Williamson’s play (adapted also to film), The Department.

Wilding wrote about his campus novel in Griffith Review’s edition 11, Getting smart (2007). It’s worth reading because I can’t do it justice here. He says he’s not sure there are any clear conventions for the campus novel, and discusses some examples. There’s such variety that he felt “it was more a case of having to define your own different vision. Most of these writers were too uniquely themselves to serve as a model”. In the end, he felt the two main options were farce or a murder story. And what did he decide?

Despite all the provocations and irritations of academic life, I felt uneasy about murder. So farce it had to be. For a while, anyway.

Then it was a case of finding a model, and he turned for this to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister :

Here the comedy was classically designed to instruct with delight, radically demystifying the manipulations of the political establishment. This was didactic comedy, comedy that told the truth about revered institutions. It was an extraordinarily subversive and educative show, and I acknowledge its influence gratefully. Who after watching it could ever again believe that a commission of inquiry was designed to do other than provide a whitewash? Who could ever expect ministers and prime ministers to do other than lie? Who could ever again believe principles and policies took anything but second place to political survival? When I came to write Academia Nuts, I consciously attempted to inform the humour with a similar didactic purpose.

He says more, including how he came to write a second revised edition. It’s eye-opening, particularly about the intersection between reality and fiction – do read it. Meanwhile, Coleborne is surprised that the genre here is so thin, given universities have a “rich history as a catalyst for social change”. She argues that with the opening up of universities to a wider range of students in the 1970s, “hopefulness about the value and purpose of tertiary education was palpable. Campuses were lively, and students sought debate, difference, dialogue”. She identifies a number of non-fiction works which confront university life, including some I’ve read, like Jill Ker Conway’s The road from Coorain and Helen Garner’s The first stone.

BUT, she believes that “the overwhelming lack of a collective memory of university education and the student experience in Australia now presents a serious problem in our social, cultural and political life”. She believe that US and British campus novels “highlight questions of personal journeys into education and beyond, and rites of passage. They touch, too, on issues of inclusion and exclusion and campus culture”. It’s time, she believes, for us to both celebrate and critique “these spaces in public debate”, to think about “the value, purpose and role of universities in public life”.

Diana Reid, Love and virtue book cover

Into this space has come a brand new Australian novel just published in September, Diana Reid’s Love and virtue. Neha Kale, reviewing it in The Sydney Morning Herald, says that “Reid is a long-time fan of the campus novel, books, such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Sally Rooney’s Normal People“. And she quotes Reid, recently graduated from university herself, on the campus novel:

As a form, when you have a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities and you put them in a confined space, it is inherently dramatically interesting. 

Good point. Typical of its genre, this campus novel addresses contemporary issues. Here, they include consent, class and privilege (which are not new issues, actually, in campus novels!) Coleborne quotes Reid, who said she wanted to grapple with

“how hard it is to make moral judgments … So often the way we judge other people is by asking ‘is what you did moral?’. I think the question we need to be asking [should be]: ‘is the course of action you took the most moral one given all the courses of action available to you?’… I accept that you can be paralysed by nuance and never do anything. We need people who think in black and white.” She smiles. “I just don’t think those people lean towards becoming novelists”.

Literature is, in fact, where ambivalence can be explored, she believes. Absolutely!

Theresa Smith reviewed and enjoyed this novel.

Do you like campus novels, and, if so, care to name any favourites?

The Age Book of the Year 2021 shortlist announced

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Monday Musings on the revival of The Age Book of the Year award. Back then, there was no information about when the shortlist would be announced. Suddenly, however, with no fanfare, it was announced yesterday afternoon – at least that’s when the announcement I saw was posted.

The judging panel comprised Jason Steger (The Age’s literary editor); Susan Wyndham (author and former The Sydney Morning Herald literary editor), and Thuy On (poet and critic).

The shortlist was drawn from books published between 1 June last year and 31 May this year.

The shortlist

I’ve included a brief excerpt for each book of Steger’s (the judging panel’s?) comments:

  • Robbie Arnott’s The rain heron (Kim’s review): “Its separate but connected narratives are beguiling, beautiful and violent”.
  • Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate (my review): “restrained, elegant prose that crackles with sexual, moral and political tension”.
  • Richard Flanagan’s The living sea of waking dreams (Lisa’s review): “provocative story [that] taps into our anxieties with an urgent plea and hopeful flashes of beauty”.
  • Kate Grenville’s A room made of leaves: “a witty voice that blends echoes of Jane Austen with a contemporary perspective”.
  • Amanda Lohrey’s The labyrinth (Lisa’s review): “explores the contradictions of human nature and community with wry wisdom”.
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (my review): “its lyricism and attentiveness to language are testament to Simpson’s musicality”.
  • Adam Thompson’s Born into this (my review): “the past is never far from the present in these nuanced glimpses of complex lives”.

A lucky seven, eh? It’s not a particularly provocative or surprising list. It largely reflects the books currently doing the awards rounds, which is not to say it’s not a reasonable list. It contains four male to three female writers; two First Nations writers; a short story collection; two debut books; two works of historical fiction; four by previous winners of major literary awards. Something for everyone?

I’m thrilled that I’ve actually read – and greatly enjoyed – three of these.

The winner, who will receive $10,000, will be announced on September 3, at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Now, my usual question. Thoughts anyone?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing about the war between the wars

By accident, really, I came across an article from the 1930s in Trove about war novels. However, with Anzac Day coming up here in Australia next weekend, it seemed apposite to follow up. So, I did – and was somewhat surprised by what I found.

Not surprisingly, World War 1 was still fresh in people’s minds in the 1930s, and there were many opinions on how war should be written about. Erich Maria Remarque’s now classic All quiet on the Western Front was particularly controversial at the time and discussions about it provide some insight into those opinions. First published in 1928, it appeared in English in 1929 (translated, in fact, by an Australian, Arthur Wesley Wheen, himself a World War 1 soldier.)

“the most graphic picture I have had of the war” (Woman reader)

All quiet on the Western Front was a big hit, particularly with women readers. An article in the Port Adelaide News (14 March 1930) reports that “the popularity of the war novel is still maintained in England, where every girl typist seems to have read All quiet“. Apparently one Council Library system had bought a record number of 126 copies of the book, but they had 553 people on their waiting list. Unfortunately, the article said, “borrowers, strong in that possession which is nine ‘points of the law are lending All quiet to relatives and friends before returning it”. (Love it!)

Here in Australia All quiet was also popular with women, as The Herald (14 February 1930) reported in its article, “VC attacks war novels”. Captain W.D. Joynt V.C., speaking at a Legacy Club luncheon, denounced “recent war books” including All quiet. At the luncheon, Captain Peters, of booksellers, Robertson and Mullen’s, said that women “had been the largest buyers and readers of the book”. It had “achieved such success that it was affecting the sale of wholesome [my emph] English novels”. He continued that the boom of interest in war novels “had brought out some good war books, but not many, and unless the protest was made the women and young people would get a wrong impression of the soldiers”. A motion had been put “to deplore” such books, but it failed, not because attendees disagreed but because they feared the motion would increase interest in the book!

So, what was the problem? Wikipedia summarises the controversies in its article, but I’ll share some of what I found in Australian newspapers. The main concern seemed to be that its presentation of war denigrated the heroism of the soldiers. It had too much “muck”. One speaker at the luncheon said that “the book showed contempt for the men who served at the war, and brought grief to dependents of men who fell at the war” while another said that the phrase “give ’em muck” was applicable to the book. He said he had “read one or two chapters and refused to go further. It is full of Continental grossness. The coarse language is superfluous. This type of book should be banned.”

Interesting that women were reading this “muck”.

The writer in Freeman’s Journal (10 April 1930) comments on the new fashion for war novels, saying that for some time people had had their fill of war news but

Now it has come into its own again, and, perhaps under the influence of the peace movement, it concentrates on the most repulsive aspect of war, sometimes deliberately trucking to the appetite of so many readers for word-pictures of the evil aspects’ of human life. Many of these novels are as wide of the truth and as repulsive as Zola’s La Debacle, which professed to give a realist picture of the war of 1870, but was a horrible libel on the people of France, representing her young soldiers as mostly imbecile fools or blackguards. 

He goes on to describe another novel – not Remarque’s – that has, as its central figure, an utterly incapable Anglican chaplain. He says:

It was by self-sacrifice and earnest efforts to be helpful that they [Anglican and Non-conformist chaplains] won the respect of the men. It is an insult to their memory to write of them as this novelist does, as if they were either hopeless failures or self-seeking idlers.

Similarly, the Singleton Argus (28 April 1930) reports on one Rev. C. J. Macaulay, who was the principal speaker at the West Maitland Anzac Day service. Macauley made “a scathing attack … on salacious war novels”. He doesn’t name any, but said they “paint vile pictures, not so much of war, as of the men themselves”.

Interesting that women were apparently reading these “vile pictures”.

Were women seeing something different? Were women, like Lady Kitty’s woman reader, appreciative of “the grim reality” that its opponents wanted to hide? Lady Kitty writes that “it is remarkable what a vogue war novels are having now, especially among women. The type of immediate postwar sentimental romance has given way to simple narratives which reveal the common soldier’s point of view.”

Writing about war

JP McKinney, Crucible

Meanwhile, in 1934, Australia’s RSL instituted a war novel competition. It was “open to all men and women who served abroad during the war as members of the Australian army, navy or nursing services”. The novel had to “depict the life of an Australian soldier during the war, and his reactions to the various conditions and environment through which he passed. The sequence of the story and descriptive matter must be historically and geographically correct”. It was won by JP McKinney (who, alert readers among you may know, was Judith Wright’s husband, though much later.) His novel was published as The crucible, in 1935.

During my research, I came across a letter to the editor written by McKinney concerning his novel, and writing about war. He was responding to reviewers who seemed to criticise his novel for being “largely recollections cast in the form of fiction” or “more or less autobiographical”. (Helen Garner knows the feeling!) McKinney wanted to correct these misconceptions. He writes:

A writer of fiction is permitted, by the canons of his art, to draw for his material upon both his own and other peoples’ experience and upon his imagination, the only demand made of him being, if his work is to be judged as literature, that he keep within the bounds of probability. His accepted function is to illuminate life— or at least that aspect of it which he treats —from all angles. The greater the fidelity to life and actuality the greater his achievement. 

But, he says, people seem to see war fiction differently:

In the case of the war novelist, however, it appears to have become unconsciously assumed that he shall write only of what he knows from his own actual, personal experience; and he is either denied, or assumed not to have availed himself of, the privilege of his fellow craftsmen of ranging into the realm of what may be called created fact. 

So, he writes, “I granted myself the fiction writer’s full privilege, the only restriction I placed upon myself being that I make no sacrifice of truth to dramatic effect”. The characters are all created he said; they’re “types” not “persons”.

J.P. McKinney did go to war, but, some readers here may be interested to hear the words of T.C. Squire, editor of London Mercury (reported in Tasmania’s Advocate, 10 January 1930). He was critical of the current crop of war novels, like Remarque’s, suggesting that they came out of “hysteria” rather than from thinking, compassionate, “religious” men. He concluded his comments with

And it may be that the novel of this war (there is precedent for it) may come from some Tolstoi or Hardy of the future, who never saw a bullet fired and never looked in the face of the unnecessary dead.

And here, I’ll conclude with Henry Savage from The Port Adelaide Gazette (10 January 1930). He was, I think, a local businessman and religious official. He wrote about war novels:

There is a great difference between the horrors of war and reading of its horrors; between reality, that is to say, and the interpretation of reality in terms of art. Will the story of Eden ever stop simple Adam from being lured to his hurt by curious Eve? Will Hamlet make a man of action out of a dreamer and give him faith and resoluteness? Can it be done?

Ignoring Adam-and-Eve, I pass his question on to you!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Commonwealth Writers Prize (now defunct)

March 8 this year is a packed one. Of course, it is always International Women’s Day, but the second Monday in March is also Canberra Day here in the ACT, Labour Day in Victoria, and Commonwealth Day in, yes, the Commonwealth. It is not a public holiday in most places, but I decided it could inspire this week’s Monday Musings!

Some of you will have come across the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize before. It was established by the Commonwealth Foundation in 1987, as a successor to their Commonwealth Poetry Prize. This Foundation was itself established in 1966 by CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government). As its Wikipedia page, says

the Commonwealth Secretariat was established [1965] to support the political endeavours of the Commonwealth, the “Foundation was brought into being in the hope that it would give further substance to the old truism that the Commonwealth is as much an association of peoples as of governments”.

In other words, it focuses on the social, cultural, professional and other more locally-focused aspects of the Commonwealth. This includes, the Wikipedia pages also says, “to help to create national professional societies as part of a general process of “deanglicization”. This sounds a bit quaint now, but maybe that’s because much of this “deanglicisation” has been achieved. Has it? Anyhow, another of its formal goals was “to aid the broadening of experience through the printed word”. Hence, I assume, the various literary prizes.

The first was the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, which was succeeded in 1987 by today’s focus, the Commonwealth Writers Prize. This prize had two components – Best Book (1987–2011) and Best First Book (1989–2011). They were awarded for four regions: Africa, Caribbean and Canada, South Asia and Europe, and South East Asia and Pacific. There were winners in each category, Best Book and Best First Book, for each region, and from these, overall Best Book and Best First Book winners were chosen. In 2011, this award was discontinued. A new cultural programme was launched, with a new prize, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is still going.

Anyhow, as most of us love lists, I thought I’d share the Australian winners of the Best Book and Best First Book awards over the duration of the award. Australia was in the Southeast Asia and South Pacific region, which comprised Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Malaysia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

So, the lists … bolded titles were overall winners for the year. Also, please note that I’m not being ethnocentric, just true to the Aussie Lit focus of Monday Musings! You can see all the prizes on the website.

Best Book

Kim Scott That Deadman Dance
  • 2011: Kim Scott’s The deadman dance (my review)
  • 2009: Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap (my review)
  • 2008: Steven Carroll’s The time we have taken
  • 2006: Kate Grenville’s The secret river
  • 2005: Andrew McGahan’s The white earth
  • 2004: Michelle de Kretser’s The Hamilton case
  • 2003: Sonya Hartnett’s Of a boy
  • 2002: Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s book of fish
  • 2001: Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang
  • 2000: Lily Brett’s Too many men
  • 1999: Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus
  • 1998: Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs
  • 1997: Sue Woolfe’s Leaning towards infinity
  • 1996: Gillian Mears’ The grass sister
  • 1995: Tim Winton’s The riders
  • 1994: David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon
  • 1993: Alex Miller’s The ancestor game
  • 1991: David Malouf’s The great world
  • 1990: Robert Drewe’s The bay of contented men
  • 1988: George Turner’s The sea and summer
  • 1987: Blanche d’Alpuget’s Winter in Jerusalem (shared with a NZ book)

You will see that Australia won the lion’s share of these prizes (21 of 25). The exceptions were 2010 won by a Samoan writer, 2007 and 1989 by a New Zealand writer, and 1992 by a Samoan-New Zealand writer. Things were a little different for the Best First Book award …

Best First Book

Book cover
  • 2010: Glenda Guest’s Siddon Rock
  • 2008: Karen Foxlee’s The anatomy of wings
  • 2007: Andrew O’Connor’s Tuvalu
  • 2005: Larissa Behrendt’s Home
  • 2004: Nada Azar Jarrar’s Somewhere, home
  • 2002: Meaghan Delahunt’s In the blue house
  • 2001: Arabella Edge’s The company
  • 1998: Emma Tom’s Deadset
  • 1995: Adib Khan’s Seasonal adjustments
  • 1994: Fotini Epanomitis’ The mule’s foal
  • 1993: Andrew McGahan’s Praise
  • 1991: Thea Welsh’s The story of the year of 1912 in the village of Elza Darzins
  • 1989: Gillian Mears’ Ride a cock horse

So, fewer won by Australians here (13 of 23), and another country involved too: 2011, 2009, 2000, 1999, 1996, 1992, and 1990 by New Zealand writers; 2006 and 2003 by Malaysian writers; and 1997 by a Samoan writer.

There’s another interesting thing here. All of the winners of the Best Book award continued to be published and be well-known after their win. This is not the case with the Best First Book winners where a few have not become well-known on the literary scene (though many have continued to write and publish, some now overseas).

I have read many of the Best Books, and a few of the Best First Books, but mostly before blogging. Interestingly, the Best Books reflect the very “white” focus in Australian literary awards at the time (with a couple of exceptions), while the Best First Books reflect greater diversity. I wonder whether this fact is behind the Foundation’s change to focusing on short stories, because the aim seems to have also changed from “simply” recognising achievement to developing, promoting and encouraging writers. The prize, they say,

is open to writers who have had little or no work published and particularly aimed at those places with little or no publishing industry. The prize aims to bring writing from these countries to the attention of an international audience. The stories need to be in English, but can be translated from other languages.

What do you think about all this?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Yes, you read right. This week’s Monday Musings on Australian Literature focuses on an award established by the Swedish government, but it is an international award. Established in 2002 to honour the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren (as you’ll have guessed), the prize is five million SEK, making it, says Wikipedia, the richest award in children’s literature and one of the richest literary prizes in the world.

The award, continues Wikipedia, “annually recognises one or more living people and extant institutions” for “their career contributions”, in the case of people, and for their long-term sustainable work, in the case of institutions. The winners should be “authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and promoters of reading” and their work should be “of the highest quality, and in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren.” The award’s aim “is to increase interest in children’s and young people’s literature, and to promote children’s rights to culture on a global level”.

Alert readers here will have seen it mentioned here before, most recently in my post on Alison Lester, because she has been nominated for the award. However, she’s not the only Australian to have been so listed, and in fact, Australians have won it.

Aussie winners

The first winner, in 2003, was Maurice Sendak, but in its short history, Australians have won twice: Sonya Hartnett in 2008 (whose adult novel Golden boys I’ve reviewed) and Shaun Tan in 2011 (whose little book Eric, from Tales of outer suburbia, I’ve reviewed.)

The Chinese paper, People’s Daily Online, reported Hartnett’s win, quoting the award jury as saying:

Sonya Hartnett is one of the major forces for renewal in modern young adult fiction …


With psychological depth and a concealed yet palpable anger, she depicts the circumstances of young people without avoiding the darker sides of life. She does so with linguistic virtuosity and a brilliant narrative technique; her works are a source of strength. 

Shaun Tan, Eric cover

Reporting Tan’s win, Claire Armitstead of The Guardian wrote that

Larry Lempert, the chair of the jury, described Tan as “a masterly visual storyteller” whose minutely detailed pictorial narratives touched everyone, regardless of age. “His pictorial worlds constitute a separate universe where nothing is self-evident and anything is possible,” the citation says.

The Guardian article describes the prize as focusing on work with “a profound respect for democratic values and human rights”. That certainly describes Shaun Tan’s work, and ethos, as I know them.

Announcing the British contingent for the 2020 award, The Guardian quoted the jury’s citation for British past-winner Philip Pullman (whose His Dark Materials series Daughter Gums loved) for writing that

stands firmly on the side of young people, ruthlessly questioning authority and proclaiming humanism and the power of love whilst maintaining an optimistic belief in the child even in the darkest of situations

I rest my case – I think!

Some Aussie candidates

As far as I understand it, candidates are nominated by organisations around the world, but the winners are chosen by, quotes Wikipedia, “a jury with broad expertise in international children’s and young adult literature, reading promotion and children’s rights. The 12 members include authors, literary critics and scholars, illustrators and librarians. One member represents Astrid Lindgren’s family.”

Book cover

I’ve already said that Alison Lester has been shortlisted (or, announced as a “candidate” as they call it), but given our strong children’s literature culture here, many Australians have been shortlisted over the years, too many, in fact for me to discuss in detail.

Children’s/young adult author John Marsden was nominated in 2008. I enjoyed reading his books when my children were young, and was impressed by the fearlessness with which he tackled some difficult issues, including domestic violence in his 1987 novel, So much to tell you.

Some authors have been listed multiple times. For example, Jeannie Baker, Ursula Dubosarsky, Susanne Gervay and Margo Lanagan were candidates for the 2020 Award, and are again for 2021. The specialty Indigenous Australian publisher Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation are also in this 2020 and 2021 group.

I know and have read works from some of these writers and organisations, but not all. However, it’s clear how and why Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation would meet the prize’s interest in “democratic values and human rights”.

I could go on finding more Aussies to tell you about, but I think you get the gist. This is an impressive, and significant award in both value and what it is trying to achieve (or so it seems to me).

Are you familiar with it?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Hidden Women of History

Every now and then I share some content from The Conversation, and so I am again today. This time, it’s an occasional series they have featuring the “hidden women of history”, in which they “look at under-acknowledged women through the ages”. Not all of these are Australian but around half, so far, are.

The most recent article in the series (see link below) is about Catherine Hay Thomson. It starts:

In 1886, a year before American journalist Nellie Bly feigned insanity to enter an asylum in New York and became a household name, Catherine Hay Thomson arrived at the entrance of Kew Asylum in Melbourne on “a hot grey morning with a lowering sky”.

Hay Thomson’s two-part article, The Female Side of Kew Asylum for The Argus newspaper revealed the conditions women endured in Melbourne’s public institutions.

Her articles were controversial, engaging, empathetic, and most likely the first known by an Australian female undercover journalist.

Before this, the intrepid Thomson had written about Melbourne Hospital, having obtained work there as an assistant nurse. She was quite a social justice mover-and-shaker, and worth reading about.

Here, though, I want to share with you some of the other women in this series which, at the point of writing, numbers 31 articles. The first was published on 31 December 2018, and featured  Elsie Masson, a journalist who became an advocate for Aboriginal people. Lydon writes in her article (see link below) that:

As one of the “first white women” to travel in the Northern Territory, Masson’s newspaper articles and book An Untamed Territory – a profusely-illustrated narrative of life in the wild north – show how she popularized the “expert” views of her circle: an elite global network of colonial administrators, including the famous anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer.

Lydon writes of Masson’s “transition from dislike to respect” not only of Indigenous Australians but of “others” as well, such as Chinese people. Attending the trial of nine Indigenous men arrested for the murder of trepanger James Campbell also changed her views. Lydon writes that her

account of this trial ultimately argued for the need to acknowledge the coherence of Indigenous tradition, and what today is termed customary law.

These articles cover a wide range of women – Indigenous, immigrant and Australian-born – from the early nineteenth century to well into the twentieth. They cover a wide range of professions and achievements, from the arts and sport to social justice and activism.

Listed below are the articles featuring Australian women (alphabetical by last name):

I haven’t read all of these articles yet, but once again, I thank The Conversation for bringing these women – few of whom appear, for example, in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) – to our attention.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Growing up [name the aspect] in Australia

With my Japanese trip almost over, I’m posting just a quick – but nonetheless interesting, I hope – Monday Musings this week.

Anita Heiss, Growing up Aboriginal in AustraliaSome of you will have guessed what this title refers to; it’s to the little recent flurry of anthologies being published in Australia in which contributors write about growing up Asian, or Aboriginal, or name-a-specific-situation in, yes, Australia. I have read one of them, myself, Anita Heiss’s Growing up Aboriginal in Australia.

Here is a list of the books (as I’ve found), in publication date order:

Book CoverIt doesn’t take a genius to see that publisher Black Inc has got a stranglehold on the theme. You could be forgiven for being a bit cynical about bandwagons and such, except that Black Inc is a thoughtful, quality publisher, and the editors of these books are established people in their fields who have walked the talk. They have significant reputations which establish their credentials and which, I presume, they’d want to maintain. (I don’t think I’m being naive here.)

Also, in one case at least, the Disabled one, it was the editor who approached the publisher to do the book (presumably, of course, on the back of the series to date). Black Inc’s publisher Kirstie Innes-Will was apparently delighted that Findlay approached them. Innes-Will says:

Part of the strength of the Growing Up series is the way it has evolved organically, championed by editors from different communities. The way these books have been embraced by readers shows how much representation matters. Growing Up Disabled will be an invaluable contribution to that tradition.

Book coverIf you believe, as I do, that reading can open your mind to the lives and experiences of others and therefore help you understand people better, then these books (if as good as the one I have read) are worth publishing. And, if you believe, as I do, that reading about your own experience can help you understand your own life, can help you manage your own life, can perhaps even help you survive your own life, then these books (with the same proviso) are worth publishing.