MWF – A year for Australian writing

MWF session: A year for Australian writing

Cambridge History of Aus LitThis session had it all, from heckling to backslapping, from scholarly commentary to dogged insistence. It was what you could call a well-rounded experience. Funnily, looking back, the topic, based on the publication of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature and The Cambridge History of Australian Literature, may have been buried among everything else. Even the delivery, wiry and technical, a skilful performance of university-polished quality, seemed enshrouded in the controversy of what these works weren’t, rather than what they were.

Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aus LitI couldn’t help think that since I’d last attended the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) – a few years back now – these small interactive sessions had come a considerable way.

Peter Pierce, the editor of the Cambridge project, spoke about the long time coming for the Australian story on stories. Other nations, the US for example, had puvlished 6 or so volumes about their literature, while this was Australia’s first look-in in the Cambridge series – hence the name of the session. Similarly, the Macquarie PEN Anthology was also a first in many ways: the size, the breadth, the money it cost to produce. Nevertheless, there was the same nagging concern: how do you chose who should be in and who should be out? Good question. The lovely Nicholas Jose (general editor for the PEN edition) keeps a little red book with all the names of authors that missed out on being squeezed in, but I’ll come to that later.

The third speaker was the spritely Adam Shoemaker, a lecturer in literature at Monash University. Adam made much of the difficulty of representing a representative voice. Still, there seemed little doubt that his fellow panellists had, in the final texts, created a fair result from a large task. All agreed – the finished jobs were never going to be perfect but that was certainly not a reason to back away from doing them.

So, to the argy bargy, the back and forth, the question and answer part of the session. The facilitator, Lynette Russell, very sedately, as you might imagine, kicked it off with a question to each of the panellists, giving them a moment to expand on what they had already covered. From the audience, yours truly asked the first question: Relatively speaking, I ventured, having not long found our voice as Australian writers, what is the importance in a shrinking world, or indeed even the possibility, of maintaining such a voice?

All agreed it was a tricky balance to stay in our skin and, at the same time, get out into the world. Peter Pierce sat forward, saying earnestly, ‘For instance, what do you think of Tsiolkas’s book The Slap? All those references to dicks and bodily functions, I don’t like it.’ (The implication being that Tsiolkas was besmirching all Aussie literature from his success in the Man Booker thus far.) Peter Pierce finished his flurry – while I was thinking good on him, at least he’s animated – by asking me what I thought. I answered that I had enjoyed The Slap, to which he said we should go out the back, inviting me to a duel.

The next question was from a PhD graduate, recently returned from Ireland, who wanted to know why – in contrast to this session – there’d been so many people at a session she’d just left on politics. ‘It’s an indication,’ she said, ‘of the lack of support for Australian Literature.’ Why, (and I’m paraphrasing now) had it taken so long for the projects we were discussing here to exist, to be supported by governments?

‘Two questions in one’, Adam Shoemaker pointed out. Still, he and Nicholas Jose hobbled together good, solid responses. But the woman persisted: Australian’s just aren’t rallying the powers-that-be to get behind our literature, etc, etc. Possibly being too smart for my pants, I interjected her spiel with something close to, ‘I dunno, maybe that’s the reason there were so many people at that political session you just came from.’

And she and I weren’t even the hecklers. From the back, an insistent and anxious voice – aggressive in tone – rang over the audience’s heads, demanding, given the amount of publications the writer had had, why Such and Such (and I wish I could remember the name of the writer this man had called out) hadn’t been included in the PEN Anthology Nicholas Jose had edited. Out came his little red moleskin book and in went the name, correct spelling made clear from the booming voice at the back of the room.

It was a fitting end – for more reasons than its subject indicated – to an extremely interesting session. It truly did strike, if not a chord then certainly something, in many present.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at

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  1. thanks for blogging about this session SJ. I was hoping to make it but never even made it to Melbourne so I missed it. I like your question too. I think we’ve been finding our voices as Australian writers since English first landed here and our voices continue to evolve as the world shrinks and new voices emerge. eg Miles Franklin’s ‘My Brilliant Career’ is a powerful Australian voice from 100 years ago as are Christos Tsiolkas’s, Nam Le’s and Alexis Wright’s literary voices today.

    And I think it’s right that ‘the Australian story on stories’ (like that phrase) is only just beginning to be told. Don’t think PP’s comparison of Oz lit with US and its six or so volumes on its literature is valid. The US literary tradition is about 200 years older than ours so had really settled in by the mid 19C – eg ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘Moby Dick’ – while ours was just warming up. I think only now have we built up enough literary culture to be able to look back and begin see its shape.

  2. The heckler was boosting Denis Kevans, known as Australia’s Poet Lorikeet.

    These anthologists don’t know how to deal with what I like to call the THE GREAT TRADITION. The fetishism of documents and alphabetical literacy continues to eclipse the defendable position that the corpus of Indigenous Australian oral literatures constitute the greatest Australian tradition in terms of longevity, volume of work, and variety across traditional language families. That these traditions continue in many places tends to be ignored by the literary institutions, while another discipline has paid closer attention. Marcia Langton, for instance, has spoken of the ‘grand tradition of ethnography in Australia, that has produced, arguably, the most important literature in our history’. While speaking in a narrow sense here of the written ethnographic text, she engages the problem of just how the oral traditions have been transcribed, translated and interpreted. In other instances the Wine and Bread club, the Jindiworobaks, T G H Strehlow, Robinson and Parker have made important interventions.

    Meanwhile, the Great Tradition, or traditions, continue as performances that also cross over into theatre and film. And ‘Australian literature’ is left with its restrictive focus on the written word.

  3. Yes good point Stephen. I guess ‘Australian literature’ ends up with its restrictive focus on the written word because ‘literature’ derives from the French for ‘writing formed with letters’ and so has traditionally been associated with written culture.

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