Decline of Australian Literature revisited

20 Aug

Jim Belshaw has posted again today on the “decline” in Australian literature. Note I am keeping the quotation marks, as I still question the concept, which is after all a relative one. He cites in evidence a recent Bulletin article by Peter Pierce, former Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University. I read that article myself last week, but had not yet commented on it. Jim and I had also had a discussion on the topic on comments here on 11 August.

Peter Pierce writes:

…The number of academic courses in Australian literature has sharply fallen. Less and less of it is taught in schools. The quantity of Australian titles in print (the vital resource for course planning) has shrunk. The number of novels published fell from 60 in 1995 to 32 in 2004. Sales of Australian fiction declined from $123m in 2001 to $73m in 2004. Last year, there were two chairs of Australian literature – only two, and one of them mine – now there is one. Against this parlous background, and in the spirit of regenerating the teaching of our literature in schools and universities, a roundtable, organised by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, was held in Canberra this week.

… To the roundtable came former NSW Premier Bob Carr (who dedicated such energy to securing the place of history in his state’s school curriculums), education controversialist Kevin Donnelly, critics and publishers, professors past and present.

With no deep ideological divisions and with goodwill to the ailing patient – Australian literature – what might such a roundtable achieve? Among other things, to assert the historical and cultural benefits of the study of our literature. This does not mean that – in the approximate words of a famous literary husband and wife team, Bert and Dora Birtles – “that anyone who does not acknowledge Henry Lawson as a kinsman will go on the downgrade”. However, that genial egalitarianism is well remembered at such times as these, as is Lawson, one of our greatest authors. And so are the Birtles: Bert, expelled from Sydney University for writing an erotic poem to Dora; she famous for her outback book, The Overlanders.

For literary history is a complex and illuminating kind of social history. The study of Australian literature is one of the key means to understand our wider culture and history. But how is that study to be fostered?

Bob Carr also made sure that Australian content was mandatory at all levels of secondary English in NSW. As for the rest, it is true that demand for Australian literature at university level has declined. Some reasons for that are alluded to in those 11 August comments, chief among them being the attractions of other options and the current cost of university education. There I cited Sydney University Professor Elizabeth Webby:

Interestingly, I was just listening for a few minutes to the previous program about aging and the point was made that education now is very expensive. I think that is one of the factors that has led to declining undergraduate numbers because in the 80s of course universities were free and we saw a lot of older students coming back, particularly women who hadn’t had the opportunity to attend education before, and quite a lot of those students were students who were interested in Australian literature. Even until comparatively recently we had quite a lot of mature age students. In fact we had a group a few years ago who called themselves the ‘Aus Lit grannies’, and thinking about that, we just don’t have those sort of students anymore, which is a great pity.

Jim rightly questions the publication data given by Peter Pierce: I do wonder about the definitions used. Do they, for example, include young people’s fiction? There has always been an academic snobbery as to what counts as “literature” or, for that matter, “novels”. Do they include books written by Australians, but published internationally? That last point is interesting, as quite often now serious Australian fiction is first published overseas; to be eligible for the Booker Prize, for example, a novel has to have been published by a UK publisher.

When the Birtles were having their adventures no Australian university taught Australian literature, a point implicit in Pierce’s article but not linked to that story. This was still the case in my own undergraduate years; it was not until I did an Honours year in 1964 that I was able (along with five others) to study OzLit at Sydney University. At high school we did very little — most of the OzLit I knew had been taught in primary school, and most of that was poetry, and whatever was offered in the NSW School Magazine which I know continued well into the 1980s to promote Australian literature (I knew one of the editors then) and, it seems, still does:

The School Magazine is Australia’s leading literary magazine for students, with a distinguished 90-year history of providing an engaging, quality reading experience with a strong Australian flavour and absolutely no advertising. 

Each month of the school year the Magazine provides a diverse mix of short stories, poems, plays, Indigenous tales, fables, nonfiction articles, puzzles, cartoons and activities, all illustrated by leading Australian artists.

So I read the situation as one where there have been ups and downs, but I would be far from writing off OzLit yet. Little magazines ranging from old warhorses like Southerly, Meanjin, Quadrant, Overland continue, albeit with tiny circulations as was the case even twenty to thirty years ago*, while new kids like Heat, The Monthly and Griffith Review have entered. Further, new technology has given rise to such phenomena as Jacket, a literary magazine published solely on the Internet. A somewhat out-of-date list appears in OzLit@Vicnet.

By odd coincidence, I taught the Birtles’ grandson or great-grandson a few years ago at SBHS…

* More people read such things in libraries, perhaps, than buy them, and more tend to contribute (or try to) than subscribe. The latter was certainly true of the magazine I was associated with in the 1980s, Neos, which only survived thanks to Gleebooks and various private individuals, and the Australia Council, despite plaudits from Patrick White, Judith Wright, and others.

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8 responses to “Decline of Australian Literature revisited

  1. Jim Belshaw

    August 20, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    There are different issues in all this, Neil, that need to be disentangled.

    One of them is the validity of our individual experiences and the extent to which they provide a base. I say this because I seem to have had a lot more exposure to Australian writing than you did in the same period. I may be unrepresentative.

    Just to test all this, I will put up a post.

  2. ninglun

    August 20, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    I seem to have had a lot more exposure to Australian writing than you did in the same period. I am not really so sure about that, as by the end of primary school I had certainly been exposed to the main bush balladists and some earlier — I am talking 1949-1954 remember, and even though in high school the emphasis was on English literature, by the end of high school I had read more poetry, some drama, and a fair swag of the short story writers up to the 1940s, as well as novels like For The Term of His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms, not to mention Seven Little Australians, and of course May Gibbs and The Magic Pudding

    My mother and grandfather were very knowledgeable about the OzLit they were aware of — essentially anything before 1920; my grandfather even had a ballad or two published in The Bulletin when he was younger.

    Fact is, though, that in the last two years of high school the “best” English class did less Australian literature than the other classes, as OzLit was felt to be less challenging, I suspect. The B class did Australian poetry, the A class did not. But we did do The Fire on the Snow.

    As a kid I regularly read The Bulletin and Walkabout because my grandfather bought them. And I was an Argonaut…

    At Sydney U Gerry Wilkes took us through the Australian “canon” they were seeking to construct: Brennan, Furphy, Richardson, White, Wright, A D Hope (who I had dinner with on one memorable occasion)… When I began Neos I had to play catch-up on OzLit 1965-1980! I had some good guides… Even corresponded with Judith Wright from time to time between 1967 and 1985… Along the way I have met quite a few Australian writers. The cheekiest thing I ever did (with their permission and with the help of my Neos friends) was to rewrite a couple of pieces by Frank Moorhouse and Les Murray!

    I guess another point is that OzLit has gone on, by and large, outside the academies, for much of its history; one strand indeed, for a period very productive, was connected to the Communist Party — Judah Waten, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Dorothy Hewett, Dymphna Cusack, Eleanor Dark, and so on…

  3. Jim Belshaw

    August 20, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    Interesting Neil. I hope that I did not offend with my comment. It was an observation. In responding, though, you have drawn out something that I want to comment on in terms of my own experience. The way in which Australian writing has moved from an integral element to something peripheral.

  4. ninglun

    August 20, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    No offence taken, Jim, despite the rather fiery comment I wrote…

    Australian writing has moved from an integral element to something peripheral. The truth is we felt quite peripheral as 6/15,000th (or something like that) of Sydney University in 1964. Neos achieved at its best sales of about 1,000 to maybe 1,500, and that was actually good compared with other lit mags at the time. Yet that wasn’t (isn’t) the whole story. Poetry in the Pub boomed in the 80s as well.

    Another element today may be that aspects of OzLit may seem nationalistic — telling our stories in our own voices is even more important than ever and goes beyond what traditionally is thought of as literature. I endorse all that. At the same time I think writers, artists, and similar, see themselves also as not confined to the national, but rather as part of an international community. Things like the Sydney, Brisbane or Adelaide festivals show that clearly. And doesn’t the undoubted strength of such festivals tell us something too?

    I resist “decline” still because I think it is a matter of what you look at, what you compare it with, and what indeed you think should be the case. I don’t think we will know whether we are living through decline, transformation, or even indeed renaissance for a very long time…

  5. Jim Belshaw

    August 20, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    Glad I did not offend, it was a fiery response. OzLit may have been peripheral, but Australian writing broadly defined was not, I think. More later on my own blog.

  6. ninglun

    August 20, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Broadly defined — and I have no problem with that — it may still be true that Australian writing is far from peripheral: love or hate them, think Peter Singer, John Pilger, Clive James, Tim Flannery…

  7. Jim Belshaw

    August 21, 2007 at 6:19 am

    Still thinking on the issue overnignt, Neil, I may be wrong but I do want to tease out and test the question. One key issue may be Australian writing vs writing by Australians.

    I think, for example, that I would classify Clive James and Tim Flannery as Australian writing, John Pilger and Peter Singer as writing by Australians in that I do not think (I stand to be corrected) that there is anything distinctively Australian about their writing. Mind you, I have only heard Singer interviewed.

    I also make a distinction in my mind between Australian writing as a a natural sometimes distinctive part of life and the more nationalist interest in Australian writing as a form.

    I also remember the orations at Alez Buzo’s funeral and the subsequent TV program on him with their explanations as to why his plays fell out of favour when they did.

    All very confused, perhaps. But we shall see.

  8. ninglun

    August 21, 2007 at 8:06 am

    All four of those writers are international, three of them expatriates. I would see Pilger and Singer as retaining a distinctive Australian-ness, even if it is only a shared intolerance of what they classify as bullshit… By the way, Singer’s autobiographical work is well worth reading; it is in the realm of migrant story where Australian writing now has quite a proud record.

    I understand what you are saying about Buzo’s drama career falling on hard times as it did, partly because he broke the mould people had come to associate with him through his successful earlier plays. Yet David Williamson and others continued to have success.

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