Maybe it’s taking a while for reviewers to plod through the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature, or maybe interest in it has been swamped by the fuss over the PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, but it seems to me that nobody is very interested in it. If anybody reviewed it, I can’t find it online, and there’s nothing about it in the ABR (Australian Book Review) either for September or October.
[CORRECTION 4.11.09 I’ve found another review online. It’s by Ian Reid from Flinders University].
I found out about it because I subscribe to newsletters about new titles at my libraries. I reserved it, picked it up, admired the painting of Patrick White on the front cover, and opened it expecting to find something to pique my interest. I am, as is self-evident, very keen on Australian literature and its development and I’m not at all averse to reading scholarly stuff that’s well-written and has something of interest to offer me. Alas, the Cambridge History of Australian Literature has lain beside my keyboard here for a fortnight, where I’ve dipped into it on and off while waiting for pages and programs and updates and whatnot to load. (High-speed network? Bring it on, Mr Rudd!) To my disappointment and dismay, I never found anything in it that’s made me want to invest any serious time in reading it.
It’s not just that the font is absurdly small, though it’s tiresome to need my reading glasses and a magnifying light. It’s the near-universal pomposity of its tone. I read all of the Introduction, and a bit of the first chapter ‘Britain’s Australia’ and moved on without a great deal of enthusiasm…
My main interest is the novel, but oh dear! the two chapters focussing on the novel since 1950 are hard work. Here’s the introduction to ‘The novel, the implicated reader and Australian literary cultures, 1950-2008’:
The origins of the novel and the settlement of Australia may both be located within the historical convergence of European industrialisation, colonisation and the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is uncertain what novels might first have been carried on board the tall ships with their human cargoes of convict workers and gaolers or how these were read within an Australian context , but it is clear that the exiles possessed higher average levels of literacy than the general population of Britain at this time. (p517)
Oh, ok. Quite how this is clear from an interview with a 12-year-old child in a Marcus Clarke novel, and why anyone would assume that there was near universal literacy because of the 1848 education acts when the indicator of literacy at that time was the mere ability to write one’s name, I do not know. The footnote at the bottom doesn’t seem any too convincing to me, with the title ‘Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past’ but the author goes on anyway to declare that
An Australian reading public was thereby established early, as the imaginative interaction between texts and contexts made its first tentative gestures towards creative writing and ultimately literature. (p517)
These tentative gestures are none too clear to me either, since the author then leaps from the first ‘Australian novel’ in 1831 to the 1960s when ‘an increasing number of novels by indigenous Australians have been published.’ Well, maybe if I waded through the previous 500-odd pages it wouldn’t be quite such a mystery to me, but surely a text like this is not meant to be read sequentially? I’ve had the Pelican Guide to English Literature on my shelves since I was at university, and I still dip into it every now and again, but I’ve certainly never read the whole series and don’t intend to either.
I know, I know, it’s a bit cheeky of me to categorise this post as a review when I freely admit that I haven’t really read the book. I made myself read all of ‘The novel, the implicated reader and Australian literary cultures, 1950-2008’ with its graphs and lists and meandering ideas, but after a page or two I decided to skip The Challenge of the Novel, Australian Fiction since 1950′. I don’t know who this ‘history’ is written for, but it failed to engage me altogether.
At about $140 , I recommend you borrow it and make up your own mind before you invest in your own copy.
Editor: Peter Pierce
Title: The Cambridge History of Australian Literature
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2009
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library.