When someone is clearly picking a fight, the temptation is just to ignore them. But after reading Peter Craven’s highly theatrical review of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (general editor Nicholas Jose) in the September issue of Australian Book Review, I’ve decided the fight needs to be had.

To say the review is — and here I quote James Bradley — “a bracing critique is an understatement; it reads more like the critical equivalent of a hand grenade, pointing out omissions, rubbishing the selection and questioning the logic of the anthology’s interaction with what Craven regards as the Australian canon.”

Indeed. Of course any review of an anthology, especially one as substantial as the 1500-page Macquarie PEN Anthology struggles not to read as a list of what the critic would have included if he’d had the chance. In this, Craven is not worse, or better, than any other reviewers of this substantial achievement.

But his representation of what he sees as the over-inclusion of Aboriginal work is, frankly, offensive. And I quote.

This leaves the final glaring failure of the PEN anthology. It overflows with Aboriginal writing, much of which has no literary value whatever … It is hard to see what can have possessed the editors … to publish reams and reams of everything from Bennelong’s letter to speeches by Marcia Langton — and every kind of doggerel and naive bit of memoir besides … The sheer quantity of Aboriginal writing included in the volume — much of it devoid of literary quality or even literary ambition — is an egregious mistake.

Craven then goes on to compare this situation to America by saying: “If someone were to publish this amount of African American writing in a comparable anthology of American literature, they would be laughed to scorn, though blacks constitute a much higher percentage of the US population and their objective literary achievement is considerably higher.” This comparison is particularly problematic, not just because it’s not true, but also because the African American situation is in no way analogous to the Aboriginal situation except that both groups of people are, you know, black.

I do understand that Aboriginal artists themselves resent the lack of rigorous critical appraisal that is sometimes a feature of white reviewers reviewing indigenous work. But Craven isn’t simply providing hard-nosed analysis. Let’s start with the phrase “No literary value whatever”.

There are several things to say about this. The context in which we read Australian writing is important. English was a language that was transported to this land on a convict ship. It’s morphing into Australian included the contribution of many people for whom English was not their first language, and many classes whose use of English was certainly not deemed literary. Since Craven mentions it, I’ll quote from Bennelong’s letter, which was written in 1796:

I have not my wife: another black man took her away: we have many murry doings: he spear’d me in the back, but I better now … Sir, send me you please some Handkerchiefs for Pocket. You please Sir send me some shoes: two pair you please Sir.

I find in those few sentences, that compressed use of language and grammar, the rhythm of those words, an extraordinary and complex range of emotion, as well as a sketch of a way of life being stripped away to be replaced with — handkerchiefs and shoes. It is not “Devoid of literary quality or even literary ambition”.

This notion of ambition is important. Craven seems to be suggesting that a writer is only a writer if they wake up one morning to write a novel that will someday find itself in the western canon — though the fact is that as an often erudite and no-bullsh-t reviewer he has often critiqued writers for displaying ambition and pretensions that outstrip their talent.

As for Craven’s use of the word “doggerel” and “naive bit of memoir writing” (in the same sentence as the name Marcia Langton) — would he say that about Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life? Is he also saying that memoir that originates as oral storytelling has no place in Australian literature? It seems he is. In fact, it seems that his definition of Australian literature is, in fact, English literature.

Craven also suggests the “overflow” is hard to justify given the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature — that is, he could take the doggerel when partitioned off in a ghetto, but takes umbrage at it being in with the “real” literature. Obviously what’s being contested here is the meaning of the word literature, and, as McKenzie Wark comments on Bradley’s post, the anthology “is a success, in literary terms, because it raises the central question of literature, which is of course the question of what literature could be.”

Kerryn Goldsworthy, who edited the post-1950 fiction for the collection, has stated (again, on Bradley’s post):

The “What is literature” question came up in the Book Show interview that Nicole Moore, Prof Rob Dixon and I did with Ramona Koval on July 31. We argued to Ramona that the documents in question had literary qualities, including the use of rhetoric to persuade and to move the reader, and that this was enough to make a place for them in an inclusive anthology like this one.

Craven wants the Australian canon to be built on exclusion. I, like the editor’s of the anthology, am interested in an Australian literary and cultural heritage that is based on inclusion.