Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Classics

Over the years I have written several posts on publishers who have made a commitment to publishing Australian classics, such as Text, Allen and Unwin and the Sydney University Press, to name a few. I was thrilled last week to come across another one, this time from UQP, the University of Queensland Press, which has announced a First Nations Classics series.

UQP is well-known for its longstanding support of First Nations writing – both through publishing and through its sponsoring the annual David Unaipon unpublished manuscript award for First Nations writers. Indeed it describes itself as the first mainstream publisher “to set up a list specifically for Indigenous authors, the Black Australian Writers series”. Now, with this Classics initiative, it is going the next step.

The first set in the series comprises EIGHT titles which will be published in 2023. They are award-winning or shortlisted titles, dating back to 1988, and are well-priced at $19.99 each. Here’s the list (from UQP’s own blog):

(Links on the introduction writers are to my posts on those writers.)

As you can see, like the Text Classics series, for example, this comes with new introductions from contemporary authors – a true value-add. UQP says on its blog that this first set of books includes memoir, novels, short stories and poetry. Some are Unaipon Award winners, including the inaugural 1988 winner, Graeme Dixon’s poetry collection Holocaust Island, which is currently out of print.

You will also notice that among the bloggers I know, we have reviewed five of the eight titles. The three we haven’t, Graham Dixon’s Holocaust Island, Archive Weller’s The window seat and Herb Wharton’s Unbranded aren’t known to me, though I have heard of Archie Weller. So, given you have no reviews for them to click on, here is a little more on them:

  • Dixon’s Holocaust Island (1990): “a dynamic collection of poetry” that speaks out “on contemporary and controversial issues, from Black deaths in custody to the struggles of single mothers. Contrasted with these are poems of spirited humour and sharp satire”. (from GoodReads)
  • Weller’s The window seat, and other stories (2009): “a collection of Weller’s best short fiction and a tribute to his contribution to Australian literature. The stories are honest, brutal and moving” (from UQP website).
  • Wharton’s Unbranded (2000): a novel which offers “an Aboriginal viewpoint on the pastoral industry and race relations … by a masterly yarn teller” (from the book cover on the UQP website)

Now, back to the series – UQP’s publisher Aviva Tuffield articulates, on the above-linked blog, their ambition for this project:

This series will generate renewed interest for these books and their authors – both individually and collectively – and ensure them the contemporary audience they deserve.

She also explains that they’ve been assisted with funding from the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. I love the work that the latter does, in particular. Over the years of this blog I have referred to many varied programs and projects supported by the Copyright Agency.

The editor of the series is First Nations writer and editor Yasmin Smith who reiterates Tuffield’s ambition:

I hope this series will provide readers a renewed appetite, a greater awareness and a new thoughtfulness towards Indigenous stories and culture. The First Nations Classics are essential reading for all generations.

The blog implies UQP’s selection criteria for the books when it describes them as “some brilliant, timeless books – across all genres – that are as important, engaging and relevant today as they ever were on first publication”.

The blog also shares a little about the cover design for the series, by Jenna Lee, “a Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman with mixed Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Filipino) and Anglo-Australian ancestry”. The aim of the design is “to highlight and showcase the vibrancy, diversity and nuance of First Nations authors, their voices, and the important stories they share”. The covers are intended “to make sure they are recognisable as a collective set but still allow for individuality to feature, with unique colour combinations and illustrative patterns giving the reader a window into the story within”. I’ve had a look at them, and think they are gorgeous and accessible. Click on the pic and see what you think.

Now, over to you. What – looking at UQP’s inventory – do you think should be in the 2024 set?

(If you are not Aussie, you are welcome to select a First Nations work from your own country if relevant. Of course, you can also name a non-UQP book, as an intellectual exercise, but I’d love to see how close we get to what is selected.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Allen & Unwin’s House of Books

I have written a few posts over the years on the publishing of Australian classics, including one in 2014 in which I mentioned Allen & Unwin’s Australian Classics series. That series seems to have disappeared, but the publisher does have another initiative, House of Books.

Here is what Allen & Unwin say about this series (or, imprint):

The House of Books aims to bring Australia’s cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation’s most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books.

The House of Books is an eloquent collection of Australia’s finest literary achievements, and the digital revolution is helping bring us all closer to the books and writers of Australia’s literary tradition.

The House of Books makes accessible a library of authors and their books at affordable prices to a whole new readership. Some books have long been out of print, some have recently slipped into oblivion but the House of Books should be the first stop for all readers of Australian fiction and non-fiction.

I can’t find out much about the history of all this, because the books listed on their House of Books page all seem to have been “published” over 2012, 2 years before I wrote my post referencing the now apparently defunct Australian Classics series in 2014. Does “House of Books” now include rebadged “Australian Classics”. Seems likely.

What makes this imprint interesting is that it uses a slightly different publishing model. All books, they say, “will be available simultaneously as ebooks and print editions (using POD  – print on demand technology)”. This means, of course, that bookshops don’t have to carry expensive stock of book titles likely to have low throughput.

So, I decided to test out whether these books – around 90 of them and all, as far as my random checks can tell, published eight years ago now – are still available. First, I went to Readings (online), because it is mentioned on the page as a source. I searched for a few of the titles and they all said “This item is not currently in-stock, but it’s available to order online.” So, I ordered a Thea Astley print version, and, well, so far, so good! I haven’t got it yet, but, fingers crossed it will arrive.

Book coverI then checked Booktopia, which is also listed on the page as a source. I searched for Eleanor Dark’s Prelude to Christopher. They provided this message: “This product is printed on demand when you place your order, and is not refundable if you change your mind or are unhappy with the contents. Please only order if you are certain this is the correct product, or contact our customer service team for more information”. Readings didn’t say this, but I’m presuming their copy will be POD too.

The prices seem to range mostly from $14.99 to $19.99, though some are more expensive.

House of Books books

But now, what you’ve been waiting for – if you haven’t clicked on the link above already – that is, something about the books available. They are listed in a strange order – alphabetical by title, with all book titles starting with “A” appearing under “A”, and “The” titles under “T”. Really? For me, the best order would be by author, so I could see, for example, all the Astleys they have, all the Cusacks, and so on. Also, very few of the book descriptions include original publication date which pedantic me would really like to know!

Book coverWhinge aside, the list is an exciting albeit serendipitous one, including many books barely remembered these days. There are, for example, Kylie Tennant’s memoir The man on the headland, and her autobiography, The missing heir. There are four by Thea Astley, eight by Dymphna Cusack (including the Newcastle-set Southern steel, which interests me), and four by Xavier Herbert.

Book coverOther treasures, in terms of their place in Australian literary culture, include Dal Stivens’ 1951 political (and debut) novel, Jimmy Brockett. Stivens is little known now, but, as Wikipedia tells, he won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970 for A Horse of Air, was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1981 for his contribution to Australian literature, and in 1994, he was given a Special Achievement Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Book coverAs you’ll have realised from the Tennants above, the books include non-fiction, like Australian historian Russell Ward’s memoir, A radical life. There are also books of poetry, such as AD Hope’s Selected poems, and short story collections.

More contemporary writers in the list include Nick Earls and Mandy Sayer (both born, coincidentally, in 1963).

I’d love to know if any of my Australian readers know of this series? The cover style is a little familiar to me, but I am certainly not as aware of them in the shops as I am of the wonderful Text Australian Classics series. My guess is that this is due to the publishing model they are using. Any comments?

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1965

1965 as a topic? What the?! Those familiar with the lit-blogosphere will probably guess what inspired this post, but for everyone else, I’ll explain. Over the last week of April, bloggers Kaggsy (Kaggsy’s Book Ramblings) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) ran a 1965 Reading Week, the latest in their series of reading weeks focusing on books published in a particular year. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to take part – if I had, you would have known about it before now! (For a list of the books read and who read them, check Simon’s 1965 Club Page.)

However, I thought I could play along, in my own way, by writing a – yes, I admit – belated post on 1965 in Australian literature. If it works, I might try it again for their next “year”, whatever and whenever that may be.

My main sources for this post were:

Australian literature and 1965

Kaggsy and Simon’s focus is books published in the year, but I’m going to do a sort of literary snapshot.

Writers born in 1965

An interesting group containing, not surprisingly, many writers in their prime now:

  • Michael Farrell: poet, who has had several books published, mainly by independent publisher Giramondo
  • Gideon Haigh: journalist and author, best known for sports and business writing
  • Fiona McGregor: novelist, whose third novel, Indelible ink, won The Age Book of the Year award
  • Melina Marchetta: novelist, primarily of Young Adult literature, whose award-winning YA novel, Looking for Alibrandi (1992), is an Australian classic
  • Mateship with Birds (Courtesy: Pan MacMillan)Carrie Tiffany: novelist, whose first two novels, Everyman’s rules for scientific living and Mateship with birds (my review), both won awards, and whose third book, Exploded view, was published this year. Mateship with birds won the inaugural Stella Prize.
  • Christos Tsiolkas: novelist who has written eight novels, including The slap (my review) and Barracuda (my review), as well as plays and screenplays.
  • Charlotte Wood: novelist who has written both novels and non-fiction, and whose dystopian The natural way of things (my review) also won a Stella Prize

Writers died in 1965

Hooton and Heseltine list a small number of deaths for the year (and I’ve added them to Wikipedia), but none are particularly significant in terms of my blog’s interests. However, one of those who died was a significant Australian personage, HV (aka Doc) Evatt. Among other roles, he was President of the UN General Assembly, and helped draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Novels published in 1965

By 1965, a goodly number of books were being published in Australia, so I can’t list them all. Hence, I’m focusing on those that interest me! You can check my sources for more.

  • Thea Astley, The slow natives: if I’d taken part in the 1965 Club, this is the book I would have chosen. I love Astley and have written about, or reviewed, her here a few times.
  • Clive Barry, Crumb borne: included because Barry was the inaugural winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize, and was described by the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature as a “vivid stylist with a capacity for dry humour”; his experiences as a POW in Italy in WW2 inform this novel.
  • Nancy Cato, North west by south: well-known for her historical fiction (of which I reviewed All the rivers run) but also wrote biographies and poetry, and was an environmentalist and conservationist; this book is about Lady Jane Franklin.
  • Don Charlwood, All the green year: this would have been my second choice for the club, because I have the Text Classics copy that I gave my late aunt.
  • Catherine Gaskin, The file on Devlinbest-selling romance novelist, whose book Sara Dane, based on the convict Mary Reibey, sold more than 2 million copies.
  • Donald Horne, The permit: one of Australia’s best known public intellectuals in his time, famous for coining the phrase “the lucky country”. Novels were not his main form of writing.
  • George Johnston, The far face of the moon: best-known for his My brother Jack, which won the Miles Franklin in 1964.
  • Thomas Keneally, The fear: prolific novelist who has won both the Booker Prize and the Miles Franklin Award (twice).
  • Christopher Koch, Across the sea wall: best-known for The year of living dangerously, and twice-winner of the Miles Franklin Award.
  • Eric Lambert, The long white night: one of the many left-wing/communist writers who were published in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • D’Arcy Niland, The apprentices: husband of Ruth Park (haha, just had to describe him in relationship to his wife!), and best known for his novel The shiralee.
  • Lesley Rowlands, A bird in the hand: also published two humorous travel books, and short stories.
  • Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the seaRandolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea (my review): woo hoo, one I’ve read!
  • George Turner, A waste of shame: best-known for the SF novels he wrote later in his career, but in 1962, he won a Miles Franklin Award with his novel The cupboard under the stairs (reviewed by Lisa)
  • Morris West, The ambassador: a best-selling author in my youth, West is on my list of topics for Monday Musings one day

Selected other publications from 1965

So many well-known writers well-known published poetry, plays, short stories and other works in 1965, but I can only share a few (links on their names are to posts on my blog which feature them, though most have been mentioned in some way, in fact):

  • Rosemary Dobson, Cock crow (Poetry)
  • Frank Hardy, The yarns of Billy Borker (Short stories)
  • AD Hope, The cave and the spring (Criticism)
  • Geoffrey Lehmann & Les Murray, The Ilex Tree (Poetry)
  • Hal Porter, The cats of Venice (Short stories)
  • Kenneth Slessor, Life at the cross (Poetry)
  • Ivan Southall, Ash Road (Children’s novel)
  • Kylie Tennant, Trailblazers of the air (Children’s novel)
  • Colin Thiele, February dragon (Children’s novel)
  • Russel Ward, Australia (History)
  • Patrick White, Four plays (Drama)
  • Judith Wright, Preoccupations in Australian poetry (Criticism)

Literary Awards in 1965

Most literary awards we now know, started in the 1970s or later:

  • ALS Gold Medal: Patrick White’s The burnt ones (this book of short stories was my second Patrick White, the first being Voss)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica Awards for Literature: Shared between two poets, AD Hope and Robert D Fitzgerald. The chair of the awards committee said: “As a critic [Hope] he is lively and controversial and he has earned the respect of his fellow teachers and intelligent readers, for his determined efforts to reevaluate accepted literary convention.”
  • Miles Franklin Award: Thea Astley’s The slow natives 

In conclusion

The interesting thing, not necessarily obvious from these lists, is the number of left, if not Communist, writers who were active at this time, beautifully reflecting the political activism and idealism of the 1960s.

Oh, and I found some fascinating articles in Trove about Australian literature in 1965. They deserve their own post – watch this space.

Monday musings on Australian literature: some Australian feminist “classics”

Jane Caro, Accidental feminists

Tonight I went to an ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event featuring author and journalist, Jane Caro, in conversation with local radio personality and booklover, Alex Sloan. It was of course inspired by Caro’s new book, Accidental feminists. So, I thought it might be fun this Monday Musings to just list some of Australia’s best-loved feminist books – in chronological order of publication.

While I call myself a feminist, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the history of feminist writing in Australia – and most of what I’ve read I read before blogging so I have minimal reviews here. Consequently, I don’t want to pretend to be offering anything like a complete or thorough list. Instead, this list is just a taster, a sample, an introduction to some of the best-known books and writers. (Oh and I admit up-front that I’m using the term “classic” loosely as I will be including some rather recent books which might, in time, become classics.)

Here goes:

Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn: a feminist magazine published between 1888 and 1905, The Dawn was established by feminist Louisa Lawson (under the name, Dora Falconer). It became, according to Wikipedia, the official publication of the Australian Federation of Woman voters. The journal has been digitised on Trove, and this comes from its first issue, May 15, 1888.

Every eccentricity of belief, and every variety of bias in mankind allies itself with a printing machine, and gets its singularities bruited about in type, but where is the printing-ink champion of mankind’s better half? There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voice of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions … Here then is Dawn, the Australian Woman’s Journal and mouthpiece – phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood.

Here we will give publicity to women’s wrongs, will fight their battles, assist to repair what evils we can, and give advice to the best of our ability.

Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch: first published in 1970. Reading this while still a teen was my founding feminist moment. I had been brought up believing I was equal, that I could go to university and get a job just like my brother and the boys around me, that I didn’t have to marry to live a good and enjoyable life, but Greer’s book gave me an understanding of the structural, personal, psychological issues behind the struggle women faced (and still face) to gain true equality.

Anne Summers, Damned whores and God's police

Anne Summers’ Damned whores and God’s police: first published in 1975, this book examines the two main stereotypes that are used to define women – “bad girls” who refuse to conform to society’s expectations of “the good girl”, or “good women” whose role it is to civilise society, to keep everyone else moral. Forty years on, Summers believed that, despite some progress, the stereotypes persist, and a revised edition of her best-selling book was published in 2016. Lisa (ANZlitLovers) posted on this book, focusing on the introduction to the new edition.

Jocelynne Scutt’s Different lives (ed): published in 1987, this is less a feminist treatise, than an anthology of writing by women who were active in the second wave of feminism (either formally through organisations or informally through individual action.) This is just one of feminist lawyer Scutt’s several books on feminist issues.

Dale Spender: I’ve included Spender here because of the volume of her writing on women’s issues, in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, rather than for one particular book. Her focus has largely been women writers, and their neglect. Her first book, Man-made language, analyses how the English language is constructed from a masculine point of view, and the ramifications of this. Other books include Writing a new world: Two centuries of Australian women writers and the provocatively titled The writing or the sex?, or, Why you don’t have to read women’s writing to know it’s no good. I have her Mothers of the novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen, in which, among other things, she discusses how and why the work of these early women writers has been lost while that of their male peers has entered the canon.

Tara Moss’ The fictional woman (my review): published in 2014, this explores her thesis that women’s lives and roles are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in representation, status, value. I’m not sure of Moss’s longterm standing in feminist literature, but I found this an engaging read.

Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl

Clementine Ford’s Fight like a girl: published in 2016, this book belongs to the new generation of Australian feminists of whom Ford is clearly one of the frontrunners. The book’s starting point is that things have not changed for women – at least they haven’t changed enough. The book is therefore, writes Readings bookshop, “a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.”

There are many other Australian writers who explore aspects of women’s experience from a sociopolitical, and feminist, perspective, including Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at home, on Australia’s lively, fierce and often activist women writers of the 1930s; Diane Bell’s Generations on the way women pass on traditions; and Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza (on my TBR) which takes on colonialism – and how the attendant stereotypes and myths have played out in the treatment of indigenous people, particularly women, since 1788. But, I had to stop somewhere…

Now, over to you: do you have any favourite feminist texts, Australian or otherwise, you’d care to share with us?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Text Classics publishes its 100th title

Back in 2012, I reported on Text Publishing’s new initiative to publish Australian classics, with new introductions, and market them at a very affordable $12.95. I was thrilled and hoped the venture would take off. Well, it did, and now four years later they have published the 100th title in the series. What a wonderful achievement – for them and for readers of Australian literature. I have loved seeing favourite authors in print again and, particularly, being introduced to new ones (to me) including the luminous Elizabeth Harrower and the intriguing Madeleine St John.

Text’s 100th Classic

Mena Calthorpe, The dyehouse

Text Publishing – quite rightly – is planning to celebrate this milestone but, before I talk about that, I should tell you the title of the 100th book shouldn’t I? It’s a book and author I hadn’t heard of, The dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe. Originally published in 1961, it was, according to Wikipedia, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Hmm … I wonder where the Wikipedia author got that from, because on the Wikipedia Miles Franklin page it says that they’ve not been able to find records of shortlists released prior to 1987. Fiona McFarlane, who wrote the introduction to Text’s release, says it was “commended for the Miles Franklin Award”. I wonder where that came from too. I’d love to know more about the early history of the awards. However, that’s not my concern today.

The dyehouse belongs to the tradition of social realist novels – to which Ruth Park’s Harp in the south belongs, not to mention many of the books written by our women writers of the 1920s to 1940s. It is set in a textile factory, and the Australian Women’s Weekly, reporting its publication, quoted Calthorpe as saying:

All my life I’ve just written for myself, for experiment. I started this novel when I was working in the dyehouse, simply to practise writing dialogue.

McFarlane tells us that Calthorpe was a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s, and after leaving that joined the Australian Labor Party. She was also secretary for a while of the “leftist Australasian Book Society”. It’s not surprising, then, that she wrote in the social realist style.

McFarlane says that the book received mostly favourable reviews, from the “right-wing Bulletin to the left-wing Tribune“. However, my research did uncover a less than favourable one from The Canberra Times’ reviewer “RR”. RR was rather circumspect about it, praising it with one hand and panning it with the other. S/he writes:

Despite its immaturity of style, it is an impressive piece of work—about a factory, factory workers, unsubtle seduction, and love.

Its characters range from a not-very-convincing All Black, Renshaw, to a veritable troupe of Snowy Whites. The few in-betweens, notably Oliver Henery, are the really interesting characters. They almost come to life. The story is about simple people experiencing simple emotions.

Almost come to life”. Oh dear. Describing it as, among other things, the story of “a lovesick girl and her search for the Real Thing”, s/he says

This is trite material. That Mrs. Calthorpe makes it interesting is a tribute to her skill.

Yet the book is badly overwritten and pretentious. It needs ruthless pruning of its “literary” passages […

…] She has considerable skill as a writer, her great strength appears to be story construction. When she stops fascinating herself with her own clever prose, throws away her thesaurus, and gets down to telling a story simply, economically, and honestly she may well be a force to be reckoned with on the Australian literary scene.

Well, that final point is good isn’t it? Interestingly, when the book was republished by Hale and Iremonger in 1983, suggesting faith in it, The Canberra Times’ reviewer, author Marian Eldridge, was more positive. She ends her piece with:

Calthorpe’s views about the exploitation of people are clear but at no time does she preach at the reader. Nor does she offer pat solutions. She is too good an artist for that: through spare, clear prose and jaunty dialogue she creates a series of intermeshing situations that she lets speak for themselves. She does not probe deeply into the psychology of her diverse characters but neither has she created stereotypes.

The Dyehouse’ is a fine example of the social realist genre. Through Calthorpe’s vivid, compassionate picture of people at work we learn a great deal about the actual processes in a dyehouse, or at least one of 25 years ago. I find very satisfying a piece of fiction that both tells a good story and explains how things work.

So, Eldridge likes her prose … anyhow, that’s enough for now. I’ll say more when I read it myself!

Text’s celebration plans

Text 100 Classics Goodies

Text is clearly proud of its achievement – as it should be – and is planning a multi-pronged celebration, which will hopefully also promote these books to more Australian readers. Celebratory activities include:

  • events at writers festivals;
  • giveaways and reader competitions;
  • a revamped website including a literary map of Australia and New Zealand;
  • initiatives for bookshop promotions;
  • a boxed set of 100 Text Classics Postcards (thanks Text for my complimentary set); and
  • a free “I could never get bored with reading” (Amy Witting) tote bag for customers buying Text Classics at participating bookshops.

If you are interested in any of these I suggest you go to their website and “become a text member”. While there you will see a special deal of 5 classics for $50. You’ll also see Text’s Top Ten classics. Guess which book is number one? Elizabeth Harrower’s The watch tower (my review). What a service Text has done for Australian literature by bringing this author to our attention. I wonder what great finds Text will bring to us in the next 100?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also written a post on this milestone.

Monday musings on Australian literature: On nurturing Australian literary classics

Over the weekend an article appeared in The Age describing the parlous situation regarding recognition of classic Australian literature. Written by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, it’s titled “Classics going to waste” and argues that those who have the power

to choose and influence what people might read – publishers, professors, teachers, journalists, commentators, editors – have done a lamentable job of curating the primary materials of our literary history.

Heyward provides some embarrassing arguments to support his case. Here are three of them. In 2011, he says:

  • Melbourne University did not offer one course in Australian literature;
  • not a single (university, I presume) course taught Henry Handel Richardson‘s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, which he equated with not one Russian University teaching Anna Karenina; and
  • David Ireland‘s The glass canoe, which won the Miles Franklin in 1976, was not in print, while new copies can be bought of that year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Saul Bellow‘s Humboldt’s gift.

The good old cultural cringe is with us still. I was very disappointed when in the late 1990s/early 2000s my children were taught little or no Australian literature at high school but were taught, instead, books (albeit worthy) like Steinbeck’s Of mice and men. They read, while growing up, a lot of excellent Australian children’s literature but as soon as they moved into adult literature the situation changed, particularly in terms of their formal studies. Heyward quotes a Melbourne University academic, GH Cowling, saying, admittedly back in 1935, that

The rewards of Australian literature are not good enough to make it attract the best minds … Good Australian novels which are entirely Australian are bound to be few … Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first class novels.

Really! Really? This rather reminds me of VS Naipul’s recent statement that no women writers are his literary match because of their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. Both views are pretty prescriptive, and seem to define good literature more by the importance of its subject matter rather than by the quality of its expression of ideas and experience. It’s why many people still – men more often – discount Jane Austen. But I digress!

Heyward then announces that Text plans to help rectify the accessibility issue by publishing a series of cheap versions of Australian classics – which seems, in publisher jargon, to include books only 20-30 years old, but who’s going to quibble? Good for them, I say. However, there are other publishers working in this arena. Here (excluding libraries and secondhand booksellers) are some current sources of Australian Classics:

For these initiatives to succeed, we need to buy the books. But to buy them we need to know they exist. How do we do that? Well, through reviews (hail litbloggers, for a start), through film and movie adaptations (of which there aren’t enough, says Heyward), through their being taught in schools and universities, and through online initiatives such as those I wrote about earlier this month.

Do you have any other ideas? And what, if any, is your favourite Aussie classic?

Australian Classics Library

Am I the last to know? I have just discovered that Sydney University Press is publishing a new set of Australian Classics, using a grant from the CAL Cultural Fund. Each title has a newly written critical introduction and, in a nice bit of collaboration, some biographical and bibliographical information from AustLit.

The titles – an interesting lot really – were selected from over 80 titles already sold by the Press and were chosen for “their importance in the canon of Australian literature and their applicability to the education market”. They are:

The commandant, by Jessica Anderson (SUP website, applying their fair dealing statement)

The commandant, by Jessica Anderson (SUP website, applying their fair dealing statement)

The prices, ranging from around $22.95 to $32.95, are a little high I think. Some (though by no means all) of these are still in copyright so that makes a difference, and there’s also the additional editorial material (but presumably that has been covered by the grant?). However, with the recent and very cheap original-look Penguin Classics range, the comparison may put people off, particularly when the covers of these, with their orange and white theme, appear to riff a little off those Penguins.

Anyhow, back to the selection. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve read almost none of these books though I have owned the Cappiello for quite a few years, and bought Maurice Guest a few years ago to fill a gap in my reading. I have read and do like Jessica Anderson – just not The commandant. It’s encouraging, in fact, to see a decent, well 33% anyhow, proportion of women in the list. Oh, and I must admit that I haven’t heard of Price Warung (apparently, according to Wikipedia, a pseudonym for one William Astley, 1855-1911).

The advertisement (and I have to remember that it IS an advertisement) that drew my attention to this new series described it as “12 best-known and loved works of Australian literature”. Hmmm…I have no serious quibble with the selection – after all, it is encouraging to see such support for our classics and any selection is going have a large degree of subjectivity. However, I’m not sure that I’d quite describe this set – fine as it is – as our “12 best-known and loved”. Would you?

Some Australian literary classics

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers referred yesterday to ABC Radio National’s The Book Show program on Patrick White’s The solid mandala. This is in fact part of weeklong series they are doing on Australian classics. They have chosen an intriguing – but not unappealing – list of works to discuss:

Dare I admit it? I’ve only read two of these: the White and the Astley.

Although I haven’t read as much of White as I want (plan) to, I’ve liked everything I’ve read. I like his style; I like the things he talks about. The solid mandala’s style includes multiple points of view, sentence fragments, and a somewhat complicated time structure: I’m a bit of a sucker for these techniques as they tend to keep my brain in gear while I’m reading. And while it sounds terrible really, there’s an aridity to his characters that fascinates me. This aridity is well evident in The solid mandala. It’s there in the repetition of yellow-brown colours: the main characters’ surname is Brown, their neighbours are the Duns, and the colour yellow features regularly (“waves of yellowing grass”, “yellow fluctuating light”, “yellow feet”). It’s there in the description of characters as dry and brittle (Waldo is “dry and correct”, “felt as brittle as a sponge” and “had shrivelled up”). And, somewhat ironically, it’s even there in the colour blue (“the moons of sky-blue ice fell crashing” and “his heart contracted inside the blue, reverberating ice”). It’s a desperately sad book about failed ambitions and missed connections – and yet it’s also about kindness and about the “truth above truth” (that is there if you look for it).

As to Astley, I have been promising for a while to write my next Favourite writers post on her – and I will do it soon!  Since reading Chloe Hooper’s The tall man earlier this year, I have been wanting to re-read The multiple effects of rainshadow as it’s been a lo-o-o-ng time since my first reading. Both, as you probably know, deal with violence and racial tensions on Palm Island – Astley through fiction, Hooper through non-fiction. Hooper is interviewed briefly in The Book Show’s program. She says of Astley that:

I think that she was very much interested in the violence of the frontier and she wrote about it and was very brave, because she was one of the first writers of her generation to deal with this question.

And that was Astley. Fearless, forthright and prepared to be confronting. I will get to her soon…

As simple Arthur says to would-be intellectual Waldo in The solid mandala, “it doesn’t matter what you write about, provided you tell the truth about it”. White’s and Astley’s truths are often uncomfortable – but that didn’t stop them and we, I think, are the richer for it.