February 6, 2013

Was 1988 the year Australian literature died?

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The newly launched Sydney Review of Books has begun, naturally, with an investigation — whither Australian literature? Is it dead? When did it die?

This topic is a given in any Australian cultural enterprise, and it comes as no surprise to find it being obsessed over in a new literary venue. Not least one that begins with the admirable premise that “in-depth analysis and robust critical discussion are crucial to the development of Australia’s literary culture.”

Kerryn Goldsworthy, a former academic at the University of Melbourne, explores the topic in the SRB. Her essay, “What we talk about when we talk about Australian literature,” traces the many arguments that have been had over the fate of Australian books.

Particularly in her sights is the Text Publishing Company, which last year launched “Text Classics.”  This collection is aimed at rediscovering and publishing books that are the “milestones in the Australian experience.”

But there are quibbles to be had.

As Goldsworthy notes, very little poetry has made its way into the collection. And bafflingly, a number of New Zealand authors have had a quiet veil drawn over their true birth place.

Most interestingly, however, she writes that,

“the rhetoric of the publicity campaign for the Classics series is grounded in blame and indignation about the alleged ‘neglect’ of Australian literature by publishers, editors, journalists and, most of all, academics.”

The rhetoric of blame in literary criticism may be unfamiliar to American readers, but as someone brought up and schooled in Australia, there was always someone bemoaning the death of, lack of, racism of, Australian literature. Best if it was in a British newspaper — The Guardian, if you could get it.

Goldsworthy identifies 1988 as a pivotal year in the dismantling of the Australian canon. 1988 was the Bicentennial year in Australia, marking two hundred years of European settlement, and was met with huge government-sponsored celebrations. On the part of academics and writers, it became unfashionable to talk about an accepted Australian literature in the face of celebrations that white-washed Australian history, particularly in relation to its indigenous people, and was often embarrassingly kitsch (it was the eighties!).

By way of example, Patrick White slayed any hopes of his participation, as one of Australia’s most celebrated living writers, when he wrote to a friend,

“I hope I am dead before 1988 when we are supposed to celebrate our emptiness in a great shower of bullshit.”

Goldsworthy suggests, that in the decade that followed, for many of the cultural gatekeepers — professors and editors — identifying a canon would be akin to participating in a gross form of nationalism.

She quotes author Nicholas Jose in 2008 when he said,

“I suspect that some of the resistance to Australian literature … comes with resistance to the political moment we have been living through. Australian literature as an institution risked being co-opted to a coercive agenda, leaving rupture as the solution: a clean break with a shameful past that was being recycled in the present as iconic of a ‘cohesive’ – narrow, racialised and triumphalist – Australian story.”

As valuable as these reflective examinations are, I do wish there would be at least one Australian literary institution that just assumes there’s a legacy of book writing in the country, including the works of all races and traditions that have a home there. Then we can start arguing over each book’s unique literary worth, rather than the right to have the argument in the first place.

It may sound reductive, but good books have been written and continue to be written in Australia. Do you need anything more to call it Australian literature? It’s worth examining the robustness of the industry, the impact of politics, or whether they’re being used in schools, but questioning the very premise over and over again seems a poisonous legacy to pass on to the next generation.

 

 

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

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