Why Australian literature is alive and well and living in our universities
IN THE Sunday Age and elsewhere over the past few months, universities have been accused of failing to teach enough Australian literature. So Melbourne's Wheeler Centre has been running an Australian Literature 101 series, in a strange kind of mimicry of what it thinks English departments like mine do, or don't do, selling its audiences ''the university education in Australian literature you never had''.
Michael Heyward, of Text Publishing, says that students can make their way through universities ''and not read any Australian books at all''. To address this problem, he has published a Text Classics series of 30 ''great books by great Australian storytellers''.
The first thing to say is that these complaints could not be more wrong. Australian literature is alive and well and taught right across the country. It is taught in more than 300 subjects in about 40 tertiary institutions. I know this because of the AustLit database, one of many university resources designed to increase students' knowledge of their national literature, which is taught not only in English departments, but in indigenous studies, creative writing, theatre and performance, Australian studies and children's literature.
So why the fuss? Well, public bodies outside the universities have their own axes to grind, I suppose, and Australian literature has always been something Australians have invested in and squabbled over. The world of Australian literature is both remarkably productive and rather fragile. In colonial times, literary critics routinely assembled lists of Australian writers they thought would last into the future. A few did, but most didn't. Who nowadays has heard of Louise Mack or Roderic Quinn or Ernest Favenc? Some were bestsellers in their time, and national icons. But now they're forgotten; you won't see them talked about at the Wheeler Centre and none of them made it into Heyward's list of classics. Few teachers teach them.
This simply means we have to come to terms with the fact that some of our writers don't last the distance. When their historical moment is over, they disappear - until, perhaps, some researcher digs them up and reminds us of how we once used to live.
Last week, The Sunday Age editorialised about Australian literary canons - lists of ''classics'', works that people invest with some sort of significance. It thought that Australians have a public duty to ''identify'' a national literary canon and preserve it, but what that canon is, the paper couldn't say.
The lists we've made of our most valued writers have changed considerably over the years. New writers appear, many older ones drop away. Some writers are lucky enough, for now, to inhabit a kind of popular national consciousness: think of Tim Winton, especially Cloudstreet. But often even our most significant writers are read by only a few. Who reads Patrick White these days? Or Christina Stead? Even their greatest admirers admit that numbers are small. We teachers often remark that many older Australian writers are read only inside universities and schools, as if this, or oblivion, is their inevitable destination.
Of course, when academics teach Australian literature we, too, assemble canons, lists of works we think are significant. But what ''significant'' means here depends on all sorts of criteria, some important, some accidental. The simple fact of whether or not a writer is in print, for example, can make a difference. These days, universities are building digital archives of printed material, making rare and forgotten literature accessible, and usually free. I've been involved in one of these myself, a digital archive of colonial Australian fiction that can be read online or downloaded in book form. But we teachers still rely on publishers to keep some writers in print.
The Text Classics series is a bit of a mixed blessing. Some of its writers are not Australian. (There are two New Zealand novelists in the list, for example.) The rest are Anglo or Irish-Australian, which is not much of a reflection of the remarkable diversity of our writing. With a few exceptions, these books are also not ''classics'' as academics would understand the term. There is no White, no Stead (and no Lawson, Praed, Cambridge, Prichard, Herbert, Scott).
No academics or teachers were involved in the list's preparation. The Text Classics series aims for a popular, not a student, readership: which is why it includes books about ''strine'', Aussie humour, and so on. That's a shame, because it means an opportunity has been missed to build what a publisher does into what teachers want and need. The Text list also reminds us that simply reprinting a few older Australian works can look a bit random. A few writers get a brief second (or, in some cases, third or fourth) life, then they expire all over again. If they get onto a school or university syllabus, then at least that life can last a little longer. But this only happens when publishers and teachers talk and listen to each other.
I also don't have an answer for The Sunday Age about the future of an Australian literary canon. But I do know that when institutions like the Wheeler Centre or Text take a shot at the universities here and go it alone, the outcomes, although worthy, are limited. It's surely much better for a national literature when public institutions co-operate a bit more to support it.
■Ken Gelder is a Melbourne University professor of English.