Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2009

Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Edited by Peter Pierce

Cambridge History of Australian LiteratureMaybe 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
ISBN: 9780521881654
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library.


  1. I must admit I hadn’t heard of this. Who has written those chapters on the Aussie novel? Must admit that I’m not generally interested in such broad survey sorts of articles – unless, of course, they are written by someone really interesting!

  2. Susan Lever, Richard Nile and Jason Ensor are the authors – Lever is a Visiting Fellow at the ADF Academy, Nile is a professor from Murdoch and Ensor is doing a PhD at an unspecified university.
    And your question, which sent me to the list of contributors has revealed something rather interesting: not one of them comes from the University of Melbourne though there are three, including Pierce himself, from Monash. Old rivalries die hard?/

  3. Re. ” I don’t know who this ‘history’ is written for …”

    If the authors are using phrases like “texts and contexts” and “historical convergence,” and, oh hell, “creative writing” then I’m going to guess that it’s a) it’s written for academics and students, or b) it’s written for the general public by academics who have spent so long reading about text and context that they don’t know any better. I’ll probably still borrow this from the library when it arrives but after your review I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it. “Quite how this is clear from an interview with a 12-year-old child in a Marcus Clarke novel …” No, I’m not sure either.

    ‘Creative writing’ in that quote you’ve picked sounds like such a backhanded compliment too, like your Mum reacting when you’ve just come home from kindergarten holding an egg-carton glued all over with spray-painted raw macaroni. “Darling, how creative!” If creative writing isn’t literature then what does the writer mean by “creative writing” and what does she or he mean by “literature”? Do they explain? What is “creative writing” in an 1800s “context”? Letters home? Amateur poetry? Serial melodramas about New Chums falling off their horses? On second thoughts, I want to read the book just to find out.

    • Hi Deane,
      *chuckle* I think that contemporary academics have got themselves in a fine old tangle, trying to define literature. The PEN Anthology includes non fiction and speeches, and ever since authors have been messing around with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, it’s been difficult to use the label ‘literature’ as we used to know it (often defined more by what it wasn’t than what it was). (This is a problem I encounter here on this blog when I try to categorise books as Australian literature/non fiction; sometimes I tick both because it’s too hard to decide.)
      I like the definition my year 3 students use: literature is made up stories that are so good you’ll remember them all your life.

  4. Just to clarify, I’m doing my PhD at Murdoch University (which should have been mentioned in my bio but checking my copy it isn’t). You raise a very important issue though in terms of audience. History should be very accessible but often it is priced out of everyone’s reach. As the only postgraduate contributor (I think) to the collection and the one responsible for the graphs and lists, I found that section incredibly hard to write. It all makes sense to me but how do you make it make sense for someone who hasn’t lived with this material for three years? Your comments confirm my own problems with my writing. All I can say is that it is a work in progress and that reviews help writers / researchers like myself improve their future work. Thank you for this. It’s the first appraisal I’ve seen of this text and while some of your comments make me anxious about its reception, I am grateful nonetheless. In terms of the literacy and amount of reading done by Australians, I recommend which begins a retrieval of reading habits and literacy levels through colonial era library records.

    • Hi Jason,
      Don’t mind me, I think you’ve done very well to be included in such an important text when still a student and finer minds than mine will probably chortle at my ignorance, not to mention tick me off for making judgements without having read the preceding chapters. Audience is always a tricky issue for any writer, especially when tackling a field of study which isn’t really intended for the general reader. This is what editors are for: to ensure that the writing style is accessible for its intended audience, and as Deane says above, the Cambridge History is more likely intended for scholars than for dabblers like me. I think the price reflects the likelihood that sales will mainly be to university and municipal libraries, and to scholars rather than to general readers.

      Nevertheless, I would like to find an accessible overview of the Australian literary scene from its earliest days to the present and I hope someone writes one before long.
      Best wishes

  5. Thank you Lisa. If you don’t already have these texts on your shelf, in the past I’ve found the “Penguin New Literary History of Australia” (Australian Literary Studies, Volume 13 Number 4, October 1988) very accessible and an easy text to dip into. Likewise with “Canonozities: The Making of Literary Reputations in Australia” (Special edition of Southerly, Spring 1997) and “The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination” (UQP, Richard Nile, 2002). All three explore the Australian literary scene in some depth and, I think, in an accessible manner.

    • Hi Jason – these sound intriguing … I’ll have a hunt on World Cat to see which libraries might have them. Lisa

  6. Full respect to Jason Ensor for coming here and commenting.

    It wasn’t “literature” that got to me, really, it was “creative writing”. People in the 1800s didn’t do “creative writing.” George Eliot didn’t preface her career with a creative writing course, and Trollope didn’t get up at dawn saying, “How now, I think it’s time for a few hours of lovely creative writing before I tootle off to my job at the post office.” “Creative writing,” applied to people working in the 1800s, seems vague and incongruous and makes me want to go all Don Watson at someone. I know I’m in a position of ignorance, not having read the rest of the essay, but from that sentence it looks as if the writer is looking for a nice way to say, “Early Australian writers were few, amateur, and not very good, but we tried hard and got better. One moment rhyming fairy doggerel about tree ferns, ten decades later, Patrick White. Voila, Australian literature!”

    See, I should really read the damn book and find out for myself, but the library here has still got it “on order.”

  7. Thank you DKS. I confess it’s a little anxiety-provoking to participate in commentary about a review of a book I contributed to, however small.

    I see your point about “creative writing” though I don’t read it the same way. For me, this is because creative writing can be defined as “writing that expresses the writer’s thoughts and feelings in an imaginative, often unique, and poetic way. Creative writing is guided more by the writer’s need to express feelings and ideas than by restrictive demands of factual and logical progression of expository writing.” Similarly, another dictionary begins with: creative writing is “the exercise of creating imaginative drama, fiction, or poetry” though it appends it with links to courses of study. I take its use in the “Cambridge History” to indicate the first definition though I can see the second definition might be an unintentional meaning in how the term has become nearly synonymous with (even stigmatized by) contemporary study.

    Yes, very true about the English novelist Anthony Trollope (who wrote “Lady Anna” when he was 56 on a voyage to Australia). Likewise with English novelist George Eliot, though she perhaps encountered some issues in wanting her writing to be taken seriously which is suggested by her adoption of a male pen name. With Australian writers in the nineteenth century though, archival records in the Mitchell Library suggest it is absolutely a history of wanting to be taken seriously by publishers and readers alike. The “Tall Poppy Syndrome” and variations of “Cultural Cringe” have dogged Australian literature since before Federation. Even Henry Lawson, integral to getting Miles Franklin’s “My Brilliant Career” published by Blackwood in London (which was not re-published in Australia until 1965), was to remark in the Bulletin, 1899: “My advice to any young Australia writer whose talents have been recognized, would be to go steerage, stow away, swim, and seek London, Yankeeland, or Timbuctoo — rather than stay in Australia till his genius turned to gall, or beer”. Additionally, fiction as a genre strived for credibility against the puritan conscience of the nineteenth century and this continued well into the twentieth century. Q.D. Leavis in his seminal work “Fiction and the Reading Public” quoted a British view from 1927 that “One of the great evils of present-day reading is that it discourages thought”. He was, of course, talking about the novel which required the “minimum of exertion” for its enjoyment as opposed to technical, educational and religious books.

    I wonder what Q.D. Leavis would have thought of Australia’s most prolific and largely unacknowledged writer, Alan Yates (aka Carter Brown), who churned out in the 1960s novels with titles like “The Ice-Cold Nude”, “No Blonde is an Island” and “Nude – With a View”. Certainly, Australian novels like these fought rather competitively for attention within a market that also supported titles we recognize today like “Power Without Glory”, “Voss” and “Capricornia”.

    OK, off my soap box now :) Thank you for the opportunity to contribute.

  8. Goodness, did Henry Lawson really say that? How awful! How sad…
    Funny you should mention Carter Brown – someone suggested that I add him to our ANZLL Books You Must Read lists and I had to look him up to find out who he was. By the sound of his titles, it doesn’t sound as if he fits our criteria for literary fiction LOL.

  9. Yes, sadly, Henry Lawson did say that and he wasn’t alone in such views, reflecting a frustration with the near impossibility of Australian writers obtaining indigenous publication at that time. It annoyed Lawson and it certainly irked Miles Franklin, such that she commented in a 1946 talk that “Many people seem to be terrified that if Australian writing is given a leg-up it will ruin real literature here; also they begrudge any enthusiasm or encouragement of Australian stories as localised cackling and cocksureness. But we mustn’t be narrow and self-complacent!”

    Looking on my shelf, the first Carter Brown title I see is “The Flagellator” and it is definitely not a literary work, barely qualifying as a novel in fact (120 pages). But as George Ferguson of Angus & Robertson once said, “heaven knows how many poetry books ‘The Commonsense Cookery Book’ paid for” and so, in a similar sense, there is a place for writing of this nature in Australia’s literary history. Though few would be caught reading one of his works today, the novels of Alan Yates / Carter Brown remain one of Australia’s most successful exports though few would have ever heard of him.

    • Oh dear, I’ve led you astray, the nomination for the ANZLL Books You Must Read was Robert Carter, not Carter Brown. Sorry!

  10. I’m not surprised he said that. M Barnard Eldershaw, who won the Bulletin Prize in 1929 (I think) for their A house is built had to go to England I believe to get that published. Sad eh?

  11. No worries :) Is that the same Australian Young Adult author, Robert John Carter? If so, he won the 1994 Human Rights Awards / Children’s Literature Award for “The Collectors” and the 1984 Angus & Robertson Writer’s Fellowship for “The Sugar Factory”.

    • I don’t know! It was suggested by someone as a book we should add to our list (see the comments) and I Googled it without much luck. It’s in the NLA, but that’s about all I know. He’s not in my Oxford Companion to Oz Lit or Peter Pierce’s Oxford Literary Guide to Australia… The book recommended was Prints in the Valley.

  12. Just checked AusLit: definitely the same Robert Carter. “Prints in the Valley” was published as part of two anthologies (“The Pleasure Within : Short Stories” and “Not Drowning, But Waving : Fifteen Years of the National Short Story Competition”). “Prints in the Valley” also came second in the Canberra Times National Short Story Competition. Hope that helps.

  13. Thanks, Jason!

  14. I’m happy to send you a biog of my publications


    Robert Carter

    • Sure, Robert, what’s the URL? I’ll link to it so that people can find you…

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