The debate about the Macquarie Anthology has so far emphasised its impact within Australia; what has been less discussed is the considerable effect it will have on the burgeoning study of Australian literature abroad.
We in the US are familiar, for instance, with the idea of “individual Australian writers of merit”, many of whom have received rapturous reviews and robust sales in the US market. But we are less familiar with the “body of Australian literature as a whole”.
This is above all what the Macquarie Anthology gives us, with its inclusiveness, copious and informative head notes, and sense internal rhythms and echoes. We understand from it that there is an entire literary world in Australia, with institutions and interconnections.
Inevitably, even in such a large book, there are exclusions and omissions, good stuff is left out, and questionable choices are made. This is true even with the Bible — there is a lot of good stuff that could be in the Bible, especially the Protestant Bible, which is not.
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I would have preferred to see a bit more work by Australia’s truly world-renowned writers, such as Les Murray, whose “quality of sprawl” can never receive too ample a space, but a project such as this will always fail to include everything. Peter Craven, though, has strongly objected to the anthology, especially to its alleged neglect of British and European connections. Craven is a discriminating (in the best sense of the word), and profoundly learned critic, but some of his complaints are difficult to understand.
One would think from his comments that Martin Boyd was excluded from the anthology, and if he had been one might have riposted that his family-chronicle novels are difficult to excerpt — but if one looks in the book, there he is. One would also think, from Craven’s plaint, that Craig Sherborne was omitted, but in fact he is represented, though by poetry, not by the memoir Craven lauds. But if we are down to criticising what genre by which a writer is represented, then the stakes here are frankly too trifling to generate national controversy. Craven is saddened by the exclusion of the fine playwright (and poet, and translator) Jack Hibberd. But there is, alas, always a good writer excluded from a book like this. One needs to stop somewhere; unfortunate omissions are inevitable. Craven also says there is an “overflow” of Aboriginal literature.
To this there are two answers. In strictly literary terms, perhaps so, but anthologies are never a snapshot of the strictly literary, there are too many contingent factors. And estimations of what is literary can change. Shakespeare was the least literary of all the prominent writers of his day. As Lionel Trilling memorably asserted in Art and Fortune, Balzac was in his lifetime considered a producer of mediocre potboilers. Secondly, there are many Aboriginal writers who deserve their inclusion; who would quarrel with Kevin Gilbert’s Tree? It might have provoked to have Archie Weller, whose claim to Aboriginal ancestry has been denied, included. But ultimately why there is so much Aboriginal writing is because the ventilation of the indigenous question has enabled Australia’s coming to terms with its past.
Understanding the role that Mabo and Kevin Rudd’s apology have played in Australian culture is vital, and the anthology is startlingly successful in communicating this pressing importance to a worldwide audience. Craven rightly points out that Australian literature had a rationale in the 1980s that was later disrupted. But disruptions are an inevitable part of literary history and are indeed what make it historical, and it could be argued that the disruption was as much a result of neoliberal globalisation as of politically correct cultural pluralism.
The way the anthology has been compiled will help it be taught, linking it to other literatures popular in global academia. And the tail will wag the dog here; the existence of this anthology as a teaching text will, of its own momentum, cause Australian literature to be much more taught. Some of the anthology’s content is, yes, extra-literary, but the experienced reader of literature knows there are always extra-literary issues involved in reading, and it is our moral choice to determine which ones those are. In this respect, the editors have chosen wisely. In addition, the international reader will find their way to the writers Craven laments as excluded much more readily now that this volume exists to champion Australian literature as a whole.
That said, I do believe in literary merit, and one of the delightful aspects of the anthology is one can open it and look for works that one just knows will be there — pleasingly familiar yet waiting to be rediscovered. Slessor’s South Country and Wright’s South of My Days have their evocations of the distinct qualities of the Australian landscape are only deepened by the awareness of the wounds of Australia’s history, which the anthology so vigorously confronts. If presented as a fortunate conjunction of adept individual work, a few Australian writers may shine internationally, but the concept of “Australian literature would not be viable. The Macquarie Anthology makes it so, and, though imperfect, it will mark a major step in garnering Australian writers the world recognition they have deserved since the days of Furphy and Brennan.
Nicholas Birns lives in New York and teaches at Eugene Lang College of the New School, is editor of Antipodes and co-editor of A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900, His book Theory After Theory will appear from Broadview in 2010.