OzLit for All!


A few months ago, I wrote an article for New Matilda on a literary scam in which a chapter of the novel The Eye of the Storm was sent, under a pseudonym, to various book publishers and literary agents by The Australian. The publishers and agents rejected it, and no one appeared to spot the fact that the chapter was written by Patrick White.

I argued that the reasons behind the declining health of Australian literary culture were much more complex than ‘publisher ignorance’ and that a key issue was the fact that it was being left to commercial operations to keep Australia’s literary culture in tact. Authors like White inevitably suffer under such conditions as their novels no longer sell in commercial quantities. (Though a relevant question might be: Did they ever? The definition of commercial success has also changed over the years.)

White popped back into The Australian a few weeks ago, in Rosemary Neill’s article ‘Lost for Words,’ which considered the implications for the teaching of Australian literature when Peter Pierce leaves his position as the Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University.

It seems the death of the author, first heralded by the French postmodern thinker Roland Barthes, has spawned the birth of the wannabe author. According to a recent overview by novelist Frank Moorhouse, creative writing is taught at all 37 tertiary institutions in Australia. Yet, as reported above, undergraduates can major in Australian literature at just one.

Pierce’s departure will reduce the number of permanent professorships of Australian Literature to one. That lonely Chair is currently held by Dr Elizabeth Webby at the University of Sydney, and after her retirement, will be taken up by Robert Dixon.

It’s a depressing article, and it was a relief to read that the feeling over at the literary blog Sarsaparilla   is that Australian literature is in a far healthier state than Neill believes. Laura Carroll wrote:

Although there may be only a handful of BA courses on offer specifically tagged ‘In Australian Literature,’ there are many places students can seriously study a range of Australian Lit subjects and materials [At LaTrobe University] it would not be particularly difficult to get an English major (roughly, one third of total subjects taken in the degree) which was 70 per cent Australian Lit courses. Also, of the other English subjects students are offered, wherever it’s possible Australian texts are taught alongside international ones (for instance, Patrick White is taught as part of a course on Modernism).

Her post was followed by an animated debate among commenters.

In a letter of reply to Neill that was published in The Australian, Professor Tom O’Regan, Head of English at the University of Queensland, was also cautiously optimistic: ‘The very things Neill sees as causing problems for the study of Australian literature creative writing, publishing studies, literary theory and cultural studies may also prove to be sources for its renewal.’

This hope is sustained by the Director of the UTS Centre for New Writing, John Dale, who has argued for   the standardisation of creative writing courses in tertiary institutions, and said such standardisation should make mandatory an analysis of Australian literature. ‘The problem with Australian universities is that creative writing programs have sprung up in a wholly disorganised fashion what is the future of creative writing in the academy? First, it lies in taking control of the design and content of our programs.’ This is relevant in the context of Neill’s suggestion which I would argue is too reductive that creative writing classes are becoming increasingly well attended at the expense of Australian literature courses.

This week, a project was launched which gives further cause for hope: The Centre for the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature will produce a 1500 page (600,000 word) anthology to be published by Allen & Unwin in early 2009.

The anthology is intended to bring Australian writers back into print, and ensure that others stay there. Speaking at the launch of the Centre at Sydney’s Macquarie University, David Malouf reminded us that, ‘There is a large body of what we used to think of as essential reading in Australian literature that is no longer readily available.’ According to the anthology’s General Editor, Nicholas Jose, authors who have works currently out of print include Helen Garner, Thea Astley, Christina Stead, Frank Moorhouse and this year’s Miles Franklin winner, Roger McDonald.

The anthology will include texts from the time of European settlement to the 21st century, with an emphasis on post World War II. Works will range from speeches to screenplays to letters as well as biography, memoir, drama, novel extracts, poetry and short stories. According to the Centre’s website,  ‘Consideration will be given to classics and familiar names that readers may expect to find.’

The Australian will be relieved to hear that Patrick White will be in it although his inclusion is unlikely to be the third chapter of The Eye in the Storm.

The anthology will also include biographical information and essays setting the works in historical context. As for that tricky question ‘what is an Australian writer?’ the answer is kept broad but simple: ‘ œAustralian  is defined as writing by someone born or living in or writing about Australia.’

There will be a 300-page spin-off anthology (which is actually likely to come out a year before the Anthology of Australian Literature) called the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Aboriginal Literature. Both publications have received a combination of Australian Research Council Linkage grants and private foundation funding to cover the considerable costs of permissions.

Nicholas Jose is the former President of International PEN’s, Sydney branch, and there he met the Project Editor, Literary Agent Mary Cunnane. Section editors include Dr Elizabeth Webby, Peter Minter, Dr Kerryn Goldsworthy, Dr Nicole Moore and Dr Anita Heiss. Presumably the arguments regarding who to include and who to leave out of the anthology will keep these editors arguing long into many nights and there will inevitably be bun fights once the anthology has been published. Its educational focus will force particular choices and 1500 pages is not enough to keep all deserving writers in print; but it’s a really good start.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.