The Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature has stirred up a hornet’s nest — as it was always going to do.
Sophie Cunningham admires its broad inclusiveness and decries Peter Craven’s desire to see the parameters of the anthology narrowed. By all means make inclusion a plank of Australian literature but please may we include examples that enrich the national literature rather than make it seem (as sometimes in this anthology) a political construction. But to the attack on Craven.
There is no doubt that Peter Craven has been a gatekeeper for Lit Land — or considered himself so — for a long time. He has tended the canon rather like a gardener, weeding out the ordinary and the adventitious, encouraging variegated blooms and hardy perennials both. Which makes it, naturally, Peter Craven’s garden. He would not be so egomaniacal to suggest otherwise.
What he would say about my garden and your garden and Sophie Cunningham’s garden is that any garden is enhanced by judicious shaping.
Contrast is not the least quality of the literary garden as it sets up resonances which help us appreciate the uniqueness of each contribution. This last the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature sought to achieve by going out of its way to break the mould of a canon set in stone or aspic.
Unfortunately, the editors have permitted their selection to be overrun by the literary equivalent of oxalis. Which is about where we should abandon the metaphor. The point is that for all its admirable intention to reshape our preconceptions about literary output in this country, the anthology in the end does not reinvigorate the notion of the national literature but arouses the suspicions of the reader instead.
Suspicions that are chiefly prompted by the inclusion of inferior material, particularly in the area of Aboriginal literature. What the anthology marks are important milestones in the inclusion of Aborigines into the polity. But that is not the business of an anthology of literature, surely.
The reader wants to be introduced to outstanding examples of the genre of Aboriginal writing to promote further exploration. All the Macquarie Pen Anthology succeeds in doing by including mediocre or inappropriate examples is creating the distinct impression that Aboriginal literature is a very poor thing indeed. W.H. Auden once defined the chief criterion for reviewing poetry: Pleasure, he said, is not an infallible guide but it is the least fallible.
The anthology in the area of Aboriginal writing does not give much pleasure. Political pieties, you feel, have been allowed to intrude upon the project.
As for Peter Craven, as a canoniser (pun intended) he will know to anticipate the brickbats. But really all Craven is doing is offering an opinion, backed up, of course, by voluminous reading and a polemical prose style. More power to him.
While you might not agree with certain aspects of his assessments (the prose balloons flatulently with some pet enthusiasms) at least he provides something to react against.
Too often the Lit Biz is left in the hands of publicists who regard book reviewers as part of the publicity machine. One consequence is that we are swamped with the worthy second-rate, as Cyril Connolly termed it, or the frankly bad.
Craven sets a standard with which we are free to disagree — and that without, in this case, inferring he is racist.