Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2009

Why Australian Literature? MWF #3

Why Australian Literature?  was chaired by David McCooey (editor of the PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, a recent addition to my TBR) and featured the playwright Hannie Rayson, and authors Peter Goldsworthy and Thomas Keneally.

Australian literature is said to be in decline – there is less teaching of OzLit in universities and schools – and then there is the vexed debate about its place in a globalised market for books and what effect changes in parallel imports could have.  Nevertheless, the PEN Anthology has been published.   It’s an interesting time for Australian literature.

Peter Goldsworthy, a GP and author of Maestro, Three Dog Night, and Everything I Know (which we at ANZLL are to discuss in October) is a noted writer, some of whose work has also been adapted for the  stage.  Kerryn Goldsworthy (no relation) says his fiction poses What If? and follows that through to shocking conclusions.  Like his fiction, Goldsworthy’s presentation asked more questions than it answered.  What’s special about Australian literature?  It can be written by locals, by authors elsewhere in the world, or just be about Australia. What nurturing does it need? Why should Australian Arts Council grants support Australian writing?   He thinks there’s still a certain self consciousness about our writing – we don’t, after all, ask why US literature or why British literature.   Is that because ours is vulnerable, and at risk?   Is there an Australian temperament that can be captured?  He gave examples of the laconic, hardbitten male character which is an imagined, mythic Australian temperament.   What makes an Australian writer?  Shirley Hazzard hasn’t lived in Australia for a long time and occasionally uses American idiom, but she has an Australian sensibility.   Henry Handel Richardson’s ear for Australian idiom was perfect though she hadn’t lived in Australia for a long time.  These voices do need to be nurtured…

Hannie Rayson wondered if globalisation had made Australian literature redundant.  Is it in decline?  Rayson doesn’t think so, she thinks Australian literature is booming.  Her focus is on theatre,  but is a bit concerned that it can perhaps be a bit limited by a too-local focus.  She talked about the stereotyping of our cities in David Williamson’s plays  – the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne – would anyone overseas want to produce this?  It relies on shared cultural knowledge.  Plays that are place specific are less likely to make it overseas…they are about unique aspects of Australian life, with settings different to what she called ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ cities that can tell universal truths.  (Interestingly, someone in the audience asked what this meant.  It’s been such a long time since cigarette advertising that young people don’t understand the allusion!)  We’re not interested in plays about Dunedin, she said, so why should others be interested in plays about our places and allusions to local cultural ideas?  Will Melbourne ever become a ‘Peter Stuyvesant’ city, recognisable to readers or audiences all over the world, as Paris or London are?  That depends on the stories we write about ourselves. she says. 

(How do we resolve this, I find myself wondering?  We are interested in, and familiar with other places through literature.  People all over the world have come to know Dublin through James Joyce’s Ulysses.  We know Afghanistan through The Kite Runner  and India through A Fine Balance. If we in Australia have to write anonymously, denying what makes us special so that we can reach a global audience, do we lose our own voice?  Does it matter?  Writers want to make a living or be famous in a global market, but at what cost to our Australian sensibility?  On the other hand, books about us and our unique ways of doing things, (like Shane Maloney’s crime novels) have to be paid for.  There have be enough people who want to buy them to make them viable.)     

Thomas Keneally is one of our most successful novelists.  He is the author of books too numerous to list, including The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), the Booker Prize winning Schindler’s Ark, (1982), The Tyrant’s Novel, (2003), The People’s Train (2009),  and a new history of Australia.   He also has a long association with the human rights organisation PEN.

Keneally says this topic arises at festivals again and again but for different reasons – now it’s about globalisation.  He’s surprised that the PEN Anthology was actually achieved – but asking if there’s an Australian literature is like asking if we breathe.    It’s interesting to note that definitions of AustLit have now broadened to include colonial speeches and Edna Everage  – and this shows a greater security about what Australian literature is.  (I’m not so sure about this, not at all).

In the past, Keneally said, Australian Literature went through a phase of being ‘Commonwealth literature’, a bit like being part of the B Team.   The A team was Margaret Drabble and other significant British writers.  We have grown out of this now, but can Australian literature & writing survive in the globalised world?  The question is asked because US and UK publishing is so dominant, and the productivity commission wants to do away with 30 day protection for Australian books.  If our work is published by overseas editors who don’t know our idiom and culture, and it’s ‘universalised’ by them, a particular resonance is lost even if the ultimate result turns out to be a worthwhile book.

Keneally doesn’t think that being swamped by books from overseas is necessarily a threat but rather a challenge, but the quantity of published Australian writing will be reduced if the Productivity Commission gets it way.   Australians can write about any experiences –  here or overseas and about any issues – but the question that seems to persist is that there’s a questionable validity about our literature.  Why do we ask Peter Carey ‘are you coming home, or are we not good enough for you’?  Would anyone have asked this of Samuel Beckett or James Joyce?  

I left this session feeling a little disappointed by the ambivalence the speakers seemed to have about the topic.  Perhaps they didn’t want to seem parochial…


Blogged live, and tidied up at home…



  1. Fascinating. I tend to think of all non-American books written in English as one category, not really differentiating between Austalian books and British books, both offering different perspectives on not dissimilar life-styles. Kate Grenville has become very popular with reading groups here in England and rightly so.


    • Hello, Tom, I thought you were off to France! How interesting that we think so differently! While I don’t think I compartmentalise books, I tend to recognise Canadian, Indian, African, English and American as entirely different from one another both in terms of lifestyles depicted, preoccupations and even writing style. Because I read widely across so many sources I tend to see the books as snapshots rather than representative, but even so, I can make generalisations about them. (Of course I’m always open to discussion about my errant conclusions LOL). In contrast to US Literature pre 1960 which is often brilliant I find most contemporary American books quite dull because they tend to be structured as straightforward narrative, and no messing about with unreliable narrators and symbolism and so on, (Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson etc – though of course Toni Morrison is exempt from that! See my blog post about this at Like Indian Lit and lit from the subcontinent, (eg A Case of Exploding Mangoes) English lit today has preoccupations with postcolonial issues but from a different angle (e.g. Small Island, anything by Monica Ali) and sometimes there are European Union issues e.g. Two Caravans, and then there are class issues of course. African writers are getting a lot of pain and angst off their chests (Andre Brink, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche) and their literature tends to be beautiful but harrowing. Canadians do landscapes and isolation brilliantly, and they’re on about history, identity and belonging, something that bothers us too, in a much warmer climate. I would argue that Aust Lit is distinctive in its idiom, its symbolism, its landscapes, its uncertainty about whether we are a young country or an old one and a diffidence about national accomplishments because of the harm done to our indigenous people by European settlement. You can see this very clearly in books on the 09 Miles Franklin shortlist like Murray Bail’s The Pages, Ice by Louis Nowra or Wanting by Richard Flanagan, as well as in Grenville’s The Secret River and The Lieutenant. The other thing that’s very different about BritLit and Australian Lit is that Britain is permeated by its history. It seems to me that living somewhere where there are countless layers of history that can be unearthed by any careless bit of digging is entirely different to being somewhere where on the one hand in remote places there is cave art stretching back 60,000 years and on the other hand all our cities hugging the coastline are modern with hardly a colonial building left standing – and even those have barely got their paint dry by contrast with British and European buildings. There is much else as well, but I’m just home from the Melbourne Writers Festival and I need to go and do some catchup housework before work tomorrow! Lisa:)


  2. […] of writing a good novel, and his heart was in the right place.  When I heard him speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I bought the first of what will be his three volume history Australians, Origins to Eureka and […]


  3. […] And a summary of a debate about Australian literature here. […]


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