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.