review | Jean-François Vernay

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008


Jean-François Vernay

  • Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer (eds): A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (Camden House, ISBN 9781571133496, US$90)

Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer’s A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 is the first companion published since Elizabeth Webby’s The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000). ‘Simplicity, clarity, accessibility and verifiability’ (the four keywords Antoni Jach sees as the features much sought after by mainstream publishers at the moment in Australia) are the defining traits of this outstanding reader-friendly volume. What is more, I hail the Antipodes spirit which has a tradition of instilling in international readers the love of Australian literature and the determination to be kept updated with the latest trends in literary criticism. Like Antipodes, this collection features the work of an Australian painter (John Olsen) as the cover illustration. Like Antipodes, it welcomes essays by Australia-based scholars and international critics (outnumbered almost two to one), reflecting the editors’ claim that ‘Australianist literary criticism no longer means literary criticism by Australians’. If Nicholas Birns, through his editorship of Antipodes, has greatly contributed to the accuracy of this statement, some Australian publications, by privileging their local writers over overseas contributors, have restricted this process.

In terms of format, the editors had many options to choose from: they could have organised a companion with a selection of the highest profiles, within the framework of general literary trends, as John McLaren did in his Australian Literature: An Historical Introduction (1989). Birns and McNeer could have been content with a chronological account dividing authors into particular periods, as in Laurie Hergenhan’s The Penguin New Literary History of Australia (1988), but editorship then becomes a risky business because the various contrib­utors tend to criss-cross each other’s fields, resulting in redundant information. The editors could have split their volume into various literary genres, as in Elizabeth Webby’s The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, yet pigeonholing works of art does not always do justice to their complexity. Finally, they could have thought about thematic contents, but the overall picture may have been lost on most readers.

Interestingly, the editors have chosen a blend of these four approaches: a thematic section on identity-related writings; a section of chronological surveys; a focus on what they deem to be the highest literary profiles; and finally a thematic approach focused on regional writers. The concluding chapter presents ‘invisible’ alternative writing genres which have been given prominence in the past two decades.

The overall organisation of the volume works well, although the introduction needs updating. To be sure, Les Murray, Peter Carey, David Malouf and Gerald Murnane can rightly be included in the pool of potential Nobel Prize winners, though perhaps Katharine Susannah Prichard – the first Australian writer in 1932 to be nominated for the Nobel Prize – could have been added to the profiles of writers who ‘have been seen as contenders for the Nobel Prize’. It might also be noted that in Paul Genoni’s chapter, his comment that Murnane is no longer an active writer needs to be revised in the light of recent information. The author of The Plains confirmed at the Emeritus Award ceremony held at the State Library of Victoria last February that he was in the process of completing another fiction book.

Birns and McNeer have sought to put Australian literature on the world map by addressing international readers with a comprehensive array of works illustrative of the growth of a flourishing antipodean literature which may internationalise itself more with the generous help of American scholarly publishers like Camden House. Should we add to the list other foreign-based publishing houses, Australian literature will be well on the path to an international reputation. It is not difficult to foresee the next step: in a couple of years, perhaps, one can imagine witnessing a stampede at the Frankfurt Book Fair to obtain the translation rights of Australia’s best literary gems. And the safest way to reach this point is to encourage the globalisation of Australian Studies.

Jean-François Vernay is the author of Water from the Moon, Cambria Press, 2007 and the forthcoming Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours, a conspectus of the Australian novel due out in 2008/2009, published by Éditions Hermann.
© Jean-François Vernay
Overland 192 – spring 2008, p. 93

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