THE Miles Franklin award is arguably Australia's most prestigious literary prize. It was won three times by David Ireland. His books are out of print in this nation. This seems absurd, a cultural shame, as does the fact that Miles Franklin's celebrated My Brilliant Career can only be bought in Australia in an American edition; it is out of print here.
Ireland and Franklin are but two of many writers of stupendous Australian literature whose work is out of print in Australia.
You can't buy a new Australian copy of a lamentably large number of works that are a fundamental part of our heritage and are as fresh and enticing and engaging as they were at their creation.
Michael Heyward: "We are readers who the writer could not have imagined. We belong ... to the unimaginable future." Photo: Simon Schluter
This week's guest in The Zone has decided to do something about it. Michael Heyward is founder and publisher of Text Publishing, which is poised to release - in paperback and e-book - 30 Australian classics, many of which are at present out of print.
Each book in the series contains an introduction by a guest writer. The full list can be found here. As well as Franklin's My Brilliant Career and Ireland's The Glass Canoe, it includes Peter Corris' The Dying Trade, Watkin Tench's 1788, Shane Maloney's Stiff, Kate Grenville's Dark Places and Elizabeth Harrower's The Watch Tower.
In explaining the project during our interview, the full transcript of which and a short video are at theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone, Heyward gives a definition of what makes a book a classic.
''There is something about them that remains new, fresh, shocking, challenging, confronting and energising.
''The thing about old books that I find mysterious and interesting is that reading them now, we are readers who the writer could not have imagined.
''We belong, from the point of view of the book, to the unimaginable future, and it's when a book passes that test of moving beyond the circumstances of its publication, where people are either cheering it on or they're howling at it or whatever, and it encounters readers who have no prior interest in the book, no preconception about whether it's good or bad and different, that's when you get a really fascinating reading experience.''
Australia is a nation of readers; we have long had a relatively high consumption of books per person. Paradoxically, though, we publish a relatively low number of books compared with other industrialised, rich nations.
A key reason is that Australian publishing began to emerge quite late. The industry remains dominated by European and US publishing houses.
''Our book publishing, in its modern incarnation, is not really old - it's about 30 years old, maybe going back to the '70s. Before then, there was really one great Australian company, which was Angus & Robertson.
''So we have a history of being intensely curious about things with our reading, but of our writers often having to go overseas … to have their books published. And what that has meant is that over time for a range of reasons we have lost track of some of the great books that have been written by Australians.''
The other key explanation for the unavailability of Australian classics, as Heyward would have it, is that our universities are failing to offer enough courses in Australian literature.
The first chair in Australian Literature was created by public subscription at Sydney University in 1962. Fifty years later, there are only three such professorships in the entire nation, he says. ''This goes to a question of what is the view inside cultural studies departments, as they are called now, about the primacy and the primary necessity of kids encountering the literature of their own country when they are doing their degrees.
''Kids are studying Australian books at school and then they get to university and unless they go out of their way to find these courses, they may do an arts degree and not read any Australian books at all.
''While the publishers have often not done a very good job to keep these books in print, I am mystified myself why Australian literature does not have a bigger footprint inside our universities.''
Heyward's epiphany about older literary works came long ago when he discovered the writing of Watkin Tench, a lieutenant-general who arrived with the First Fleet. He came across references to Tench in Tim Flannery's The Future Eaters, and finally tracked down in a library an academic hardcopy that had been published in the late 1950s, the first reprint since 1792. ''I read the book and it blew me away. I thought every 15-year-old should read this book, because here is an incredibly readable, lively account of the primary encounter between European and Aboriginal culture that the British encountered, and the environment.''
He contacted Flannery, who has written the introduction to the edition Text is about to publish, and suggested editing a version for paperback. They did, and it sold tens of thousands of copies. ''Penny Hueston, my wife, was in Readings the weekend that we published the book and she came back and said, 'I couldn't get out of the bookstore because someone had bought a copy of Watkin Tench and he was standing in the doorway reading it and he wouldn't move.'
''There is something so distinctively modern about Tench's engagement with a place that he's trying to understand absolutely for the first time that he really showed us how we could take older books - and there is a history of us doing this at Text - and present them to a readership now in ways which will really entice readers to pick them up.''
The digital revolution is creating opportunities for publishers and media companies, even while it disrupts their traditional business models to the point of driving some out of business. It might be difficult for producers and distributors of content, but it is unambiguously positive for consumers. People can now buy an e-book at any time of the day or night, and Text is feeding this growing market by producing all but two of the 30 books in the classics series in digital form as well as paperback.
Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston launched Text Publishing in 1994. They have four children. When Heyward speaks of publishing, he does so almost with the same passion as when he talks of childbirth and fatherhood. Almost. The first book they published was Maloney's Stiff, and it has not been out of print since.
Heyward says many people he talks to about the project are astounded that so much great Australian literature is out of print. Is there some sort of cultural cringe going on? ''Cultural cringe is an extraordinarily potent phrase, because it not only identified a reflex in our culture that things had to find cultural approbation outside Australia before they could be accepted inside Australia. It's extraordinarily potent because 'cultural cringe' has, with the fame of the phrase, helped to engender the thing that it's meant to merely describe. But I think that that is a common reflex. In some ways it's an understandable reflex.
''We are a recent literature, but there is nothing in literary history that says that recent literatures are not dynamic, fully formed and as challenging as older literatures.''
Heyward describes his project as ambitious, something that is about much more than his little publishing company. He is on a cultural mission, seeking to create a rightful place for works that capture our passions, our fears, and that link us to our past and can inform our future.
''These books add to our stock of available reality … We simply won't be fully culturally alive if those books are not part of the cultural ether.''
The Sunday Age is preparing a series on whether we have neglected Australian authors, and whether it matters. Nominate your favourite Australian book and in 100 words or less tell us why you love it. Send entries, including your phone number, to firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday, May 3. The winner receives a set of 30 Australian classics from Text publishing.