I suppose it’s not surprising that I should provoke outrage for suggesting that the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature includes a lot of Aboriginal material that has no place in a collection of its kind and has the appearance of a shocking lapse of judgement.

Nor should I be surprised that my friend, Sophie Cunningham, is up in arms about my objections: as I recall she did research on Aboriginal culture and she has every reason to be on guard against blimpish objections to black writing not conforming to Western standards of literary decorum or whatever. (Objections that might mask every kind of condescension or racism.)

I’m a bit surprised, however, that she should leap into the fray in the way she has, assuming that there is nothing but a benighted rationale for my objection, without looking at the material, except for the odd quotation she has seen in reviews.

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An example of the latter provides the basis for what she has to say about Bennelong’s Letter. Well, she might be surprised to hear that I agree with her that you can make a case for including Bennelong’s Letter and the way it happens to dramatise the encounter of Aboriginal and settler just as you can for Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, which is also included.

You might have thought that Sophie might recollect my own habits as an editor of the old Best Of anthologies for Morry Schwartz. Although I believed that every story or poem I published has to be of high literary quality, I was famously open in my approach to what constituted a “best” essay: John Clarke’s apology to the Aborigines on The Games, the news coverage of 9/11 …

So Cunningham does not have a monopoly on latitude and she is leading with her chin a little to think I lack it. What she fails to realise — in the first instance because she hasn’t bothered to inform herself — is that something crazy has happened to the quality control with the Aboriginal sections of the PEN anthology.

She simply doesn’t realise that the anthology is full of things such as this, from Maggie Morbourne:

“Petition to D.N. McLeod Vice-Chairman of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines.
Mission Station
Lake Condah

Februrary 27th, 1900

D.N. McLeod Esqre. M.L.A. and Vice Chairman


Having returned in September last to the Mission Station with the object of endeavouring to live in peace and in accordance with the rules of the Station I am sorry to inform you that Mr Stahle seems to take every opportunity to find fault with us …

And this is not an isolated example of where the Aboriginal writing is in the football sense of the word “ordinary”: the PEN anthology is riddled with this sort of thing and it defies comprehension that anyone, proceeding according to any flexible literary criteria, would include them.

I suspect that Sophie imagines I am being very high and mighty (and narrowly canonical) about the relative merits of the natural Aboriginal representation.

I am not. She asks if I would have excluded Facey’s A Fortunate Life from a volume such as this. Well,  I might have — because I happen not to think it’s helpful to be slack about “literature” in this of all contexts — but if I included him I would certainly not have objected to Sally Morgan’s My Place: they each have the advantage of being vivid, moving bits of writing even if you don’t think they’re ‘literature’.

But it doesn’t seem helpful to have letters from Doug Nicholls or Charlie Perkins or every other possible variety of “mere” writing and pretend that it constitutes that part of the heritage of the Aboriginal people of this country that we want to say is integral to the literature of Australia. To do this is to degrade the Aboriginal heritage and to offer them a fig leaf of affirmative literary action, which is actually the merest pretext for condescension. Imagine if someone were to fill out the Australian section of an anthology of literature in English with material of which, let’s say, Paul Keating’s and Robert Menzies’ speeches, the Fitzgerald Report in Queensland and the journalism of David Marr and Miranda Devine respectively were representative examples.

It might have some documentary interest as writing but any literary value would be incidental. And spare me Kerryn Goldsworthy’s strictures about how ignorant I am about how canons get constructed in the first place.

Nothing has in fact changed about the way books are valued and reputations are established — Jack Hibberd, Peter Temple, Larissa Berendt, Nam Lee, Julia Leigh, Joanna Murray-Smith, James Bradley, the Craig Sherbourne of the memoirs, Shane Maloney: all of these writers (none of whom happened to be included in the PEN anthology) owe their reputations to time-honoured processes just as Don DeLillo and Antonia Byatt, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith owe theirs. The difference is that the Australian academic world is much less quick on its feet about keeping up with this.

The exclusion of at least some of these writers in the context of so much non-literary Aboriginal writing is, I think, scandalous.

It’s easy to be confused about these questions as Sophie Cunningham is when she takes me to task for talking about some of the Aboriginal writings being “devoid even [of] literary ambition”. Yes, she is quite right, that I don’t subscribe to notions of intentionalism. A book may show manifest literary ambition yet not realise those ambitions but most works we place a high value on do have these ambitions. And the exceptions, like the Book of Isaiah or the Aboriginal Song Cycles, are works that have higher ambitions (religious or metaphysical truth) not discernibly inferior means of expression.

Obviously it doesn’t help that the word “literature” means two things. When the PEN anthology is dealing with Christina Stead and Kate Grenville, the implicit meaning is that writing that constitutes the best that’s thought and said, the permanent legacy of writing that shows the impression of the imagination at its highest level. The other meaning is “mere writing”, as when we talk about “the literature on the subject”.

The Aboriginal writing of the PEN anthology is often in the latter category. And it is a perilous form of naivety to imagine that you can turn the one into the other with a touch of the anthologist’s wand. That remains as true for the intelligent relativist as it is for someone who likes flexibility about genres and categories while adhering to traditional notions of values.

Sophie is simply confused about these things. When Northrop Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism performed his great critique of evaluation he was displacing value from a narrowly conceived canon (say of the Leavisite variety) onto the wide range of works that maintained the interest of humankind. He wasn’t saying that literary value inhered in laundry lists or letters to bureaucrats.

Sophie Cunningham puts her money on inclusiveness rather than “a canon to be built on exclusion”. But every anthology is by definition built on a principle of exclusion, like every canon and every football team that takes the field.

It’s our Australian tendency to be wooly-headed about this that gets us into trouble. The doggerel and mere letters we get, over and over in the Aboriginal sections of this volume, have cost us Hal Porter’s stories, Jack Hibberd’s drama, and have — let’s not mince words about this — radically devalued the inclusion of the authentic Aboriginal writers of talent who are included.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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