Reviving classic Australian literature

Reviving Australian literatureIf I were to ask you to name three classic Australian novels, what would they be? Would you think back to your high-school reading? Or consider more recent prize-winning novels by authors such as Peter Carey, Kate Grenville or Frank Moorhouse?

Most people would struggle to define, let alone name, the great Australian novel. Surprising really, since America has them in abundance – think The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow or The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – and the US is not much older as a country than we are. England has the Bronte sisters, Dickens, and Shakespeare. In Europe, writers such as Flaubert, Dante and Kafka are lionised. Why then, does Australia seem to shy away from acknowledging our own literary heroes?

Back in January, Text Publishing editor Michael Heyward wrote in The Age about the perplexing lack of recognition for Australian literature. His editorial contained some alarming statistics. Australian authors whose work was critically acclaimed, and indeed commercially successful, at the time of their publication are now completely out of print. These award-winning authors have been relegated to obscurity despite their literary achievements.

What is a classic?
A “classic novel” is not an easy concept to pin down. When we talk about classics, we talk about books that have a timeless quality, they tackle universal themes that readers across many cultures and decades can relate to. And, for some, they can be read many times, each new reading bringing a fresh perspective on the novel.

Traditionally, classics have also stemmed from a strong literary tradition and often a long history too. It is Australia’s perceived lack of this that many commentators, including Heyward, think may have contributed to our neglect of home-grown literature. Even Professor G H Cowling, Professor of English at the University of Melbourne, wrote in 1935, “There are no ancient churches, castles, ruins, the memories of generations departed… From the point of view of literature this means we can never hope to have a [Sir Walter] Scot, a Balzac or a Dumas.”

So, who decides which books should be called a classic? Ultimately, readers should be the ones making that call. But over time, we start to rely on our teachers, critics and often publishers to lead us to these classics. And this is where Heyward thinks Australian literature has struggled. In his column, he says:

“Our universities have failed for more than a century to create any kind of enduring tradition for the teaching of Australian literature. In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France.”

How do we save Australian classics?
If, as renowned Italian writer Italo Calvino says, “Classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory”, then there’s hope for Australian classics yet.

Many Australian writers are still influenced by the work of our most iconic authors, and with good reason. Madeleine St John, for example, was the first Australian woman to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize, which her novel The Essence of the Thing was shortlisted for in 1997. Henry Handel Richardson’s 1930 novel The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (actually 3 novels published as one collection) was described in 1965 as “one of the greatest novels in the English language”, and David Ireland won the Miles Franklin Award three times in the 1970s for The Woman of the Future, The Glass Canoe and The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.

There may be plenty of people who don’t recognise those names but, despite Heyward’s assertion there are few good Australian literature courses in our universities, there are still plenty of readers keen to seek out our own classics. And there are plenty of opportunities to do so – including Text Publishing’s latest collection of classic Aussie novels. The first collection of 30 titles is now available and it includes some familiar names, including Miles Franklin, Kate Grenville and Thomas Kenneally, as well as plenty you may not have heard of, like Watkin Tench, whose account of his journey to Australia on the first fleet is told in 1788.

The covers of each book are designed by Chong Weng Ho (he’s the creative director at Crikey and an award-winning cover designer), which Heyward describes as “vivid and bright, and inherently modern”. Each book also includes an introduction from a noteworthy Australian writer, critic, academic or artist. These introductions are designed to give the books a new relevance to modern readers: Tim Flannery introduces 1788, and Peter Temple (for Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook), Robyn Nevin (for Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliot) and Sonya Hartnett (for A Difficult Young Man by Arthur Boyd) also lend their expertise.

Text Publishing’s collection and Michael Heyward’s column have kickstarted a conversation about iconic Australian literature we should have had a long time ago and this first collection of 30 Aussie classics should go a long way to reviving interest in our greatest authors. I know my reading list has just got a lot longer.

Text Classics
1788 by Watkin Tench
A Difficult Young Man by Martin Boyd
An Iron Rose by Peter Temple
Bring Larks and Heroes by Thomas Keneally
Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott
Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner
Dark Places by Kate Grenville
Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee
Homesickness by Murray Bail
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
Stiff by Shane Maloney
Strine by Afferbeck Lauder
Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne
Terra Australis by Matthew Flinders
The Australian Ugliness by Robin Boyd
The Commandant by Jessica Anderson
The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd
The Dying Trade by Peter Corris
The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse edited by John Clarke
The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney by Henry Handel Richardson
The Glass Canoe by David Ireland
The Jerilderie Letter by Ned Kelly
The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume
The Plains by Gerald Murnane
The Scarecrow by Ronald Hugh Morrieson
The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John
They’re a Weird Mob by Nino Culotta
Wake In Fright by Kenneth Cook

Which Aussie classics have you read? Have you heard of or read any of the books on Text’s first 30 classics?

About Danielle Williams

Danielle Williams is the course manager at the Australian Writers' Centre and feature writer for Writing Bar.