All occasions provide an opportunity to reflect — upon achievements as well as failings — and in the lead-up to Australia Day there was a focus upon the recognition and preservation of our literary history.

On Sunday, Fairfax provided an interesting editorial that noted our “tendency to anti-intellectualism and … veneration of physical achievement” and published a rousing call by the head of Text Publishing, Michael Heyward, for a return to Australian literary classics.

Heyward bemoaned the loss of many canonical Australian texts due to their being out of print, “our publishing has always been dominated by British houses, which have not always felt the need, simply because a book is part of our national heritage, to keep it available” and wrote of the dire need for more film and TV adaptations of classic Australian novels that might boost awareness of our cultural heritage. Of most concern, however, was universities’ lack of Australian literature courses:

“Our universities have failed for more than a century to create any kind of enduring tradition for the teaching of Australian literature. We are so familiar with this failure we hardly notice. […]

“In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France. It is a rampageous scandal, to borrow a coinage from HHR herself. If I tell you that Patrick White’s The Tree of Man was prescribed on two courses last year, or The Man Who Loved Children, which MUP recently put back into print, on just one, you start to see the extent of the problem.”

I share Heyward’s sadness at this situation, and am reminded again of A. A. Phillips’ famous essay on our cultural cringe. Sophie Cunningham wrote of Phillips’s piece in an editorial for Meanjin’s 70th anniversary issue — “[it] could have been written yesterday”. While I don’t think it’s true that Australians experience the same level of cringe at their literature and culture now — we only have to look at the literary celebrity of many of our contemporary authors, and even freelance writers and essayists to see how far we have come from Phillips’s time — we still tend to look outwards for literary classics and canonical texts.

The Age noted in its recent editorial: “On this Australia Day, most of us know — through fiction and film — American and British stories more deeply than our own.” It is in this that I feel we have not fully dispensed with the dreaded cultural cringe. As Phillips wrote all those years ago, “the dismaying circumstance is that …in any nation, there should be an assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article” and this “dismaying circumstance”, as Phillips put it, remains. Studying literature at university usually involves a focus on the canon, but when asked to name literary classics, it is inevitably to international names that we immediately turn. “Above our writers — and other artists — looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture.”

Peter Fray

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