The REAL Australian classics – and why we should teach Oz lit courses in our universities

At this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival I was in a session about Australian classics with Text Publishing’s Michael Heyward, broadcaster Ramona Koval, and poet, academic and deputy general editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature David McCooey, chaired by the Wheeler Centre’s man about town Michael Williams. I was very excited by the prospect of this panel, with its provocative title – The ‘Real’ Australian Classics – and genesis in Text Publishing’s new classics series.

In a similar panel at the recent Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, poet John Tranter mused on the possibility that Heyward’s call for more teaching of Australian literature in universities was a marketing exercise designed to sell more of his new classics series to a captive readership. He was half-joking – I think – but his argument was persuasive.

I’ve also followed the responses to Heyward from Australian literature scholars and academics, notably Ken Gelder’s, which countered that Australian literature is alive and well and being taught in Australian universities. This is certainly the case at my own university, the University of New South Wales, and on the evidence of this year’s vibrant Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) conference, at most universities in Australia.

And so I went to the ‘real’ Australian classics panel expecting to argue with Heyward over what I’d come to think were his unfounded calls for more Australian literature to be taught in our universities.

But instead I found myself impressed by Heyward’s conviction, his vision of an Australian literature and the need for its concerted teaching.

I was particularly struck by Heyward’s answer to Williams’ question about why Text classics? Why now? Heyward said the new classics series is really part of a long-term project Text embarked on in the 1990s. He told a story about reading Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters in 1994 and finding in it a name he’d never heard: Watkin Tench. So he found and read Tench’s remarkable Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay – and decided to publish it with an introduction by Tim Flannery. A colleague thought it a crazy idea and bet him that a book by an unknown author with an introduction by an unknown writer (Tim Flannery was not then famous) would not sell its first print run of 2000 copies. But it did. And then some.

When Tench’s narrative appeared in 1996 as 1788, it was the first time it had been published since 1793. It has since become a cornerstone of Australia’s early colonial history and has fed into our literature, informing Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore (1987) and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant (2008).

Such connections – where writers speak to each other across the decades through their work – are the stuff of literary culture and their significance was remarked upon by both Ramona Koval and David McCooey.

Koval talked about the resonant links between the women in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower (1966) and Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino (1992), which span a century.

McCooey proposed that a classic only becomes a classic if it’s picked up and used by other writers – as Peter Carey did with Ned Kelly’s 1879 ‘Jerilderie Letter’ in his 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang.

My own example was the dissonance between Patrick White’s Voss (1957) and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006).

I think these literary connections between writers across time – and which we discern as readers – are the best argument for the teaching of entire courses on Australian literature at universities.

If I had any doubt that universities should be running courses devoted to Australian literature, like the one I took at the University of Sydney, then they vanished at a conference I went to this month at the University of Worcester, called ‘Composting Culture’. It was the first literary conference I’d been to in the UK, the font of our literary language, and I was struck during almost every paper by the embeddedness of the texts they discussed in both place and in their literary heritage. And by the scholars’ easy reference to their literary tradition. They were steeped in it, even while they probed and challenged it. The texts of England and of English comprise a richly composted culture. I think we do the literature of our own continent a disservice if we don’t study it in its entirety.

The question then becomes: What exactly is Australian literature, in its entirety? ‘Australian’, ‘literature’, ‘heritage’, ‘classics’ are loaded and contested words – and must be interrogated. But surely the best way to do this is to attempt to study it and mark out its territory.

In a Guardian article writing against the idea of an Australian literary canon, poet John Kinsella said: ‘it is surely vital to think in terms of a national literature, historically or contemporary, with flexibility and an openness to change and reassessment.’ I agree.

Kinsella continues: ‘teaching those books [classics] alongside non-classics, or indeed, teaching works that weren’t part of the zeitgeist in their time, can often be more illuminating, more challenging to the status quo, and more generative.’ Yes, exactly. This is exactly how we should be looking at our literature: reading and revitalising the ‘classics’ by keeping them in conversation with other texts, with old texts overlooked, with new texts just published, texts which challenge them – texts from every part of our vibrant culture.

Australian literature is a work in progress – and I believe it will remain vital only if we pay attention to it. Surely one of the best places to do this is in our universities, which specialise in paying attention to such things.

Journals like Overland have an important role to play too, especially in introducing new voices to the mix. There are three voices new to Australian fiction in the latest issue, my last as fiction editor – Jannali Jones, Stephanie Convery and Davide Angelo – and a story by Overland’s new fiction editor, Jennifer Mills.

Thanks for having me, Overland. And all the best to Jennifer Mills.

Jane Gleeson-White

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. Thanks Jane! Inspiring words.

    Have found some ‘buried’ women writers like Harrower and Eve Langley this year. A good reminder that ‘the canon’ always needs interrogating/revising/discussion.

    Nobody writes in a vacuum. I do think all our fictions are a kind of conversation. So it is good to be able to make room for the voices who do not always get heard.

    1. Farewell Jane! And thank you for this interesting discussion of Oz Lit.

      Can I add Barbara Baynton’s name to the list of ‘buried’ women writers, in particular her short story ‘The Chosen Vessel’.

  2. thanks Jen. Yes, Harrower I only discovered through the new Text version (still not read but must) and Langley from a friend some years ago, she’s amazing.

    And Clare – what is this ‘Jane!’ (is it like, where the hell have you been?)

  3. Thanks Trish (I’ll still be blogging for Overland, btw).

    Yes, quite agree about Barbara Baynton. She and that story are in my book ‘Australian Classics’ and she’s top of my list to talk about later this year in a session on forgotten Australian women writers in Sydney. That story is chilling.

  4. I think we need to consider who curates the collection and whose histories are being taught. If we keep in mind that indigenous histories continue to remain misrepresented or underrepresented. Sure there are a few female authors, a few migrant authors on the list, but the list is ultimately one of those regurgitated sets of classics that censors other straining voices from the past. Curating a collection such as this is a POLITICAL task at the hands a COMPANY. I would argue that the last thing we need in our universities is a”Text Publishing take on Australian Literature 101″. There is a wealth of poetry and a rich history of fiction which lay beyond the canary covers, and working in a library- I can assure you that real readers don’t need inspiration from a publishing company to seek out and engage with pieces of Australian literature beyond a Grenville or the Slap! That sounds a little harsh, I suppose, but the task of reprinting history is the task of writing history. We need to exercise caution in the way we think about, contextualise and read these texts. (As pure as their motives may be, the “About” section on the Texts Classics website makes for an interesting read- here you will find a claim that these texts are like the Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams of the Australian literary world. Perhaps there is more truth to that comment than intended…hmmm….)

  5. Absolutely Ann! I’m not suggesting that the Text classics become the basis of Australian literature courses at universities (shocked and dismayed to think that could be read into my piece), just that when Michael Heyward spoke about his rationale for the series, it made me consider for the first time the value of entire tertiary courses on Australian literature, which have recently fallen out of favour.
    This is not a post arguing for Text classics, but for the teaching of whole tertiary courses on Australian literature. Where the content comes from is another question entirely. I’m sorry if it appears to conflate these two things.
    Text classics merely prompted my thoughts. I am fully aware of the dangers of companies (this is one of concluding arguments in my latest book) and the fact this is a political task (which I thought might be evident in what I say above, implicit if not explicit.)

    1. Oh, Jane, you made your point very clear and I really admired your article. I think you make it very clear that these texts are among a vast body of work which would be considered- and what Kinsella said tied it all together so nicely!: “This is exactly how we should be looking at our literature: reading and revitalising the ‘classics’ by keeping them in conversation with other texts, with old texts overlooked, with new texts just published, texts whichchallenge them – texts from every part of our vibrant culture.” Your new book sounds like a great topic- am curious to know in what context you will explore this theme. I think you are correct in your assessment of the deficiency of Australaian literature in university reading lists and I agree with every point you made! I do wonder whether the lack of Australian literature taught at university levels is bound up with a sort of apprehension towards the past- towards our colonial history and our ambivalent relationship with the power structures in place. What incentive is there to focus on the roots of some forms of marginalisation (not just of indigenous people, but women, people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds etc) when all universities need to care about is pumping out people with pieces of paper that allows them to do a job? Commodification of university means then that there is nothing to protect or foster any thought which transgresses the ideals of capitalism— in fact, it would not be in the interests of universities to advocate for a system of thought which accepted that there are varying levels of agency and that these are dependent upon political and economic factors- I think David Nichols really captured this idea in The Bogan Delusion where he unraveled an interesting sort of culture in which those who have been marginalized are seen to have “chosen” to be that way. That any sorts of violence or oppression that are experienced by groups are self induced. Same could be said of women and indigenous people, too (eg. that women chose to be sexually assaulted, that indigenous people have options about the sorts of lifestyles that they want to live etc.). These sorts of ideologies protect the capitalist mirage of individualism–all universities want to promote themselves as institutions which reflect and enable the pursuit of individual freedoms, yet ironically enslave and perpetuate in a system in which people need to pay money to “participate” in an economy or society that they did not necessarily consent to in the first place. Please charge me through the nose for a compromised, low budget, streamlined education so that I too can become another cog in the consumerist utopia I see before me today. What institutions beyond publishing companies and universities (glorified shops) will protect and nurse healthy debate, discussion and reflection on Australian literature? In the absence of institutions with any integrity, I would argue that yours is just a dream that we can put into effect at a very individual level- e.g lets hope teachers/lecturers/tutors maintain their “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”!

  6. Thanks Ann. For your clarifications and further thoughts, which go to the heart of the question of Australian literature I think, especially your suggestion that the lack of Oz lit taught at university is tied up with our apprehension about our past, and interestingly this question came up in the MWF panel too. Our history is messy, fraught, traumatic.

    And I agree that mine is probably ‘just a dream’, although perhaps I have more faith in publishing companies and universities than you do. Because I know so many of the people who work in them – publishers, editors, academics – who are dedicated, passionately, without much reward, to Australian literature and writing. The making and teaching of Oz lit is an imperfect art, in a flawed culture, full of compromise and negotiation, but listening to Heyward talk, I found myself committed to its teaching at universities, for the first time. I think on balance we’d gain more than we’d lose.

  7. I’ve been teaching courses in Australian Literature at Australian universities (and occasionally overseas) since the early 1980s. The student enrolments have gone up and down, as has the general interest in Australian Studies.

    Once we had year-long courses, which allowed for both critical depth and historical breadth of consideration of Australian Literature. Then we went to semesters, which cut the courses in two for the most part. (I’ve managed to keep two at the University of New England, each with a different kind of focus: one focused through literary history, from modern to contemporary literature; the other with special reference to writings by Indigenous authors.) We are now moving to trimesters, which shortens the term further still. Every attenuation of the teaching period changes the kind of course that is possible.

    Another challenge for teaching Australian Literature is the move away from nation-based studies generally. There are many reasons for this, the most obvious being the impact of globalisation (with its associated theorising and modeling of literary relations). As the organisers of the ASAL mini-conference to take place at Monash U. next February put it: “national frameworks are being superseded and mediated by an ascendant transnational imaginary.” The number of TV programmes at the moment focusing on real-life border security and patrol is indicative of our cultural ambivalence about questions of national culture (heritage preservation) and international mobility (human and non-human, legitimate and illegitimate). Studying Australian literature within the frame of a “transnational” as opposed to a “national imaginary” might be an act of contemporary relevance (or new meaning-making). But in simple practical terms it could also see a reduction in the number of Australian texts able to be taught within the span of any one Australian Literature course.

    And then there is the question of the market, what’s in print, and whether one can rely on it staying in print for more than, say, a year. The loss of an agreed canon hasn’t helped in this regard. Publishers can’t rely on the same books being taught year in, year out, anywhere. (Ebooks and print-on-demand books might assist, but we’re not quite there yet.) So many times over the past ten years I have had to drop books from the course at the last minute, too late to introduce new ones, when they have gone out of print. In my experience, some publishers will bring them back into print, if you ask, but only if you can guarantee a large enrolment over a reasonable number of years.

    I’ll stop there.

    Russell McDougall

  8. Copyright Agency is underwriting a project called Reading Australia which initially aims to provide online resources to assist with teaching 200 Australian books chosen as representative by members of the Council of the Australian Society of Authors, a group representing some of our finest living authors.
    The teaching of writing offers another opportunity for introducing students to Australian literature. You cannot divorce the reading of texts from writing. I have incorported short stories by Australian authors in a writing short fiction unit I taught in first semester. The Publishing and Editing unit we teach here at the University of New England also includes case studies on Xavier Herbert and “Capricornia”, and Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Australian literature need not stand in isolation as a subject.

  9. Thanks so much for your thoughts from the coalface, Russell and Jeremy.
    I fully appreciate all you say, Russell, especially the way the division of the academic year shapes what can be taught – I took Australian literature in a series of year-long courses and tutored in a semester course last year, SO restrictive – and your point about transnationalism.
    I think thinking beyond the nation is important and timely, for many reasons, and it was much discussed at ASAL 2012 (and by Peter Minter at last week’s Emerging Writers’ Festival Roadshow). I also think that given Australia’s history, the fact it’s uniquely a continent nation and so different geographically from other lands of English literature, it’s also fruitful to consider our literature as something distinct. I’m interested in looking at the regional in context of the global.
    As for being restricted what’s in print – couldn’t agree more. Which is why I have to wholeheartedly support initiatives such as Text’s (and Allen & Unwin and others have also started similar programmes, now possible thanks to economic viability of small print runs and epublishing).
    And thanks, Jeremy, for mentioning CAL’s Reading Australia, which I should have mentioned here. I did mention it on my own blog in July
    And yes, excellent point, and I agree, that the teaching of Oz lit need not stand in isolation as a subject. I tutored in creative wiring last year and taught Kate Jenning’s ‘Moral Hazard’ (despite the fact it was out of print!) as part of that.
    Thanks to you both for your insights and knowledge, and for continuing the conversation.

  10. I read with interest the comments of Russell in particular. It seems from his observations that universities are finding it more and more difficult to ‘conceptualise’ a role for Oz Lit in the brave new world of ‘trimesters’! Having recently ‘exhumed’ some lecture notes from an old course run by UQ in the 70s & 80s., it also occurred to me that current (or, at least recent) theoretical fashions in ‘lit crit’ may also be a factor in the ‘globalisation’ of literary studies. And yet, it seems that at a non-academic level there is a strong sense of national identity among ‘ordinary’ people. It is this strong feeling of identity with the land and its stories which characterizes aboriginal writing (but also non-aboriginal literature). Perhaps, also, Australian literature needs to be more closely related to the people and their history, rather than focusing over-much on theory & the academy?

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