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.