Australian Literary Classics – Why should we read them?

three old paperbacks

Good reads – three old Australian books.

Do we care enough about our Australian literary classics?  Publisher, Michael Heyward, thinks our literary canon is sadly neglected.  He says that Australian literature is neglected in courses at Australian universities and many Australian novels which were celebrated in the past are now out of print. This discussion coincides with the re-publishing of thirty Australian classics by Heyward’s company – Text Publishing.

It is easy to agree with Heyward’s concerns.  Last year students at the University of Melbourne were so frustrated at the lack of Australian literature taught by the English Department that they organised for local authors to deliver weekly talks to the students about their work.  Twenty of the fifty-three books that have won the Miles Franklin Award are now out of print.  We read more literature produced by authors from other nations than Australian literature.  Think about your own reading.  What percentage of books you read are Australian works?

It is easy to agree with those who are troubled by this issue, but I don’t think enough attention is being given to the central premise upon which this debate is founded.  At the outset we need to ask ourselves, ‘does it really matter whether we read Australian literature’?  If we can’t satisfactorily answer this question then no amount of reprinting Australian literature or university courses will attract increased interest in Australian literature. 

This is not about reading more Australian literature because it is Australian and we should support Australians.  That type of argument leaves much unsaid.  It leaves the impression that anything Australian is better than that produced by other nations – that we should support Australian work irrespective of quality.

This debate is about the insights we can gain by listening to Australian story-tellers.  A few years ago I noticed that I really enjoyed movies that were produced in other parts of the world aside from the United States and England.  On reflection I realised that I found them refreshing and surprising.  Everything was different to the mainstream English language movies I was used to – relationships between people were depicted differently, the stories they portrayed were different, the music was different.  I realised how much the Hollywood formula had dulled my senses.  I was subconsciously predicting plots, seeing the same characterisation of people from one movie to the next, encountering the cinematic techniques that I have experienced many times before, hearing similar soundscapes in most movies I watched.   I enjoy these movies but I have been soothed by sameness leading to a comfortable, but not a stimulating movie experience.

Diversity is an essential ingredient if the arts are to be beautiful or challenging, if they are to stimulate debate.  Each nation is different from the other.  The world needs Australian stories, not because they are inherently better than those of other nations.  The world needs Australian stories because they are different and therefore will promote thought and discussion, alongside the literature produced in other countries.  Will the world read Australian stories if Australians have not written them, read them and discussed them?  Will the world read Australian stories if we have not done some work in sorting out which are worth reading and which don’t need further attention?

In the comments on one of The Age articles about this issue a reader going by the epithet, ‘Killerpython’, bluntly stated, “[a]s long as recognising Australian literature is primarily an exercise in trying to create an identity, I’ll remain uninterested”.  This is another assumption that can be read into this debate.  Are we being urged to read more Australian literature so that we can agree on a list of national characteristics to which we should conform?

I agree with ‘Killerpython’.  I’m not interested in reading more Australian literature in a bid to come up with a definitive view of what is Australian.  Diversity does not stop at the national level.  Every nation has a rich array of diversity within it.  This may be diversity of gender, of beliefs, of ethnicity, of age, of language, of place, of….  Yes, there will be some broad characteristics that people from each nation possesses because a nation is a group of people living together in one place, but I don’t feel the need for us to provide a definitive list that can easily slide into a stereotype.

With respect to defining which works should be regarded as part of Australian literary canon, Professor Nicholas Jose of the University of Adelaide remarked, ”[i]t can become narrow, it can become coercive, and it can exclude people”.  One reason that I am sceptical about using literature as a means of understanding national identity is that we know that in the past English-speaking white men were much more likely to have the education and the opportunities to be published.  Aborigines, Chinese and women were among some of the groups who struggled to be heard, let alone published, yet these people have had an important place in our society.

While the Australian literature of the past is not a good guide to national identity we can gain some insights into the attitudes and the way some Australians lived in the past by reading these books.  Memoirs, diaries and other non-fiction books are often used by historians.  Think of Inga Clendinnen’s nuanced reading of the journals and books written by those who were part of the founding of Sydney in Dancing with Strangers.  Another example of the careful reading of Australian publications from the nineteenth century is Anna Johnston’s The Paper War which I reviewed recently.

Ultimately the arguments I have presented above will not convince many general readers to read Australian literature.  Helping to contribute to the diversity of the world’s literature may not be a persuasive reason to read  an old or not so old Australian novel.  Learning about Australian society in the past just doesn’t interest some people.

The most compelling reason that I can offer in favour of reading Australian literary classics is that they are really enjoyable to read.  I read Darcy Niland’s The Shiralee, when I was in grade seven.  While I struggled to finish any novel that we had to read for English, I found The Shiralee a gripping, vibrant read.  I loved Niland’s use of language, his intimate portrayal of the relationship between a man and his young daughter.

So make sure you include some Australian books in your reading.  There are some gems that you won’t be able to put down.

Further Reading

The following is a list of articles about this issue which have been published in the Fairfax press.  The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald seem to run the same articles in their books section.

You will be able to find more discussions about this issue on the web.  A couple of interesting discussions caught my eye:


3 thoughts on “Australian Literary Classics – Why should we read them?

  1. Honestly, I don’t read Australian literature for the same reason I don’t watch Australian movies: almost without exception they will be repetitive (empty outback; soulless suburbia), boring (c’mon, how many people would read “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll” if it wasn’t used as an English text ad nauseum?), preachy (“the tragedy of self deception and man’s inhumanity to woman”, to steal a line from John Clark), depressing (all I needed to read was a quick summary of ‘Cloudstreet’ and I could feel grey clouds settling over my day) and often, simply, not that good (let’s be honest, most of Henry Lawson’s output could be allowed to go out of existence and no body would notice).

    For that reason, I have to wonder how much Text Publishing is expecting to lose by printing a set of books for which there seems to be no demand.


    • I agree with you that no-one should read repetitive, boring, preachy, depressing or simply poorly written books. I too found Cloudstreet depressing and had to give up reading it about one third of the way through.

      This is why I conclude that we should read Australian literary classics if we enjoy them. Everyone has different views about which books they enjoy. The only reason I attempted to read Cloudstreet was that so many ordinary people really enjoy reading this book. I wouldn’t write off all Australian literature because you have not enjoyed the ones you have experienced. There are so many old Australian books that each person is likely to find a book that they enjoy. I was captivated by Darcy Niland’s, The Shiralee when I was in grade seven and thirty years later enjoyed reading it again. The list of Australian classics is far longer than the thirty that Text has republished.

      It will be interesting to see how well the Text Publishing series sells. They have been promoting it heavily with the assistance of The Age.


  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Classics | Bonespark~

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