Yes, ok, the headline is trolling.
Alternatively, it might have been:
The Return of the Cringe
It might make trouble no matter how it’s contextualised. But it’s what he said — check it out on their video page next week; it should be posted by then.
Yes, we have no classics
The who is the estimable Michael Williams, director of the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, the chief outcome of Melbourne’s City of Literature status. (His interview with Alan Hollinghurst, Mulchered here.) He was talking to Ramona Koval, ex-RN Books Show host (so unceremoniously and stupidly “let go” by the idiots-that-be at the ABC), who is presenting the Centre’s series on Australian Literature 101. The inaugural cab off the rank was 1788, the account by Capt. Watkin Tench of the first four years of settlement in Botany Bay and Port Jackson.
(Right: Watkin Tench)
Koval explained the reason for the series: because we didn’t get enough focus or discussion of our Australian classics, or our local canon, (insert preferred formula). She brought up the remarkable case of Stephanie Guest, who last year organised a reading group of her own because Melbourne University, where she studied, failed to offer a course in AusLit.
As an experiment Koval asked how many in the audience — a well-read crowd who had come for the topic — had read Watkin Tench. A whole lot less than half the audience put up their hands. (If the author had been Ian McEwan, every hand would have been up.) She and Williams went on to make the case that Tench is a foundational source for Australian literature; among its latest fictional offspring is Kate Grenville’s historical trilogy: The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill. And in non-fiction, for instance, he can be spotted in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters and Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers.
Making that point, Williams quoted Robert Hughes on Tench:
‘Not to have read Watkin Tench is not to know early Australia. An eye that noticed everything, a young man’s verve, a sly wit, an elegant prose style — all brought to bear on an unimagined place and a very strange micro-society. This is the most readable classic of early Australian history.’
Ramona said that one thing her many years of interviewing writers taught her was to see if she trusted the author. In the case of non-fiction, if s/he was grumpy, she began to wonder if all the problems brought up in the books were maybe not more about the author than external circumstances. She said, ‘I trusted Tench.’ Here was someone who was willing to insert a letter from a convict about to be executed, not because it would flow into the narrative — it was an interruption — but because it gave a sense of the variety of lives and feelings that obtained in that new, strange land. That was the ‘eye that noticed everything’.
What the director said
It was a very lively and engaging session. After a while, Williams invited the audience to ask questions and make comments; the shy crowd warmed up and went on to challenge the presenters on certain points, one woman saying that they were making large claims (can’t read my notes on what), to which Williams charmingly surrendered, Yes, yes, you are quite right. They are large claims and we can’t defend them.
(Right: Michael Williams. He quipped: ‘If you’re having a child, consider the name Watkin.’)
It was in that spirit of openess that Koval and Williams had a mini debate with a couple of people as to whether there really was a cultural cringe. Koval pointed again to Stephanie Guest. Williams crowd sourced an answer: How many of you have read a new Australian novel in the last month? Evidently, not many.
So, reassuringly, Williams confessed: I have cultural cringe. I often look forward more to some foreign writers than locals. Why is that? I throw myself on the altar of shame.
(This isn’t verbatim, but it’s pretty close. Check the video.)
Well, I say to that: Fantastic! Williams was saying what I often think. And what I have no doubt that many of the book-reading folk around us thought. (And clearly, what the syllabus-setting commitee at Oz unis think.) More truth-telling is good, more frankness in public utterance. And it’s a pertinent question, why is it that we often feel that way?
The last refuge; and Kinsella: yes, we have no canon
Patriotism is a curious native plant, rooted in self-preservation and seasonally offering blooms of pride and inevitable strange crops of shame and guilt. It has the same emotional logic as barracking for a team. Because your team is St Kilda (my ancient father-in-law’s burden), does not deny you the pleasure of watching with admiration the games of Geelong. Or, at least, it shouldn’t. It won’t lessen the hope and loyalty one has to St Kilda, anymore than you would love your child less because s/he is not as a good a mathematician as the neighbour’s.
(Right: Ramona Koval)
John Kinsella, the Australian poet and American professor has just published a piece in the Guardian: a complicated (ie, hard to understand) take on the value of teaching “Australian classics”. He objects to having a canon at all:
. . . history proffers its . . . literary highlights . . . But once we start declaring what they should be, especially when foisting a national literature on students/readers, and how and why they should be taught in universities, we are blatantly gatekeeping: setting agendas of control and manipulation.
. . . I have nothing against the teaching of “Australian literature . . . But not teaching those “classic” texts doesn’t mean one is doing a disservice to Australian writing.
Australian English-language authors have often looked to Britain (and the US) not only because of a cultural cringe or a belief that the authority of the entire English canon might filter out and give them a minuscule amount of space in the Grand History, but because Australia’s is such a small literary market: you don’t sell as many books.
I think Kinsella is running an idealist, theory line, not much to do with thou and I and the readers at the Wheeler. But there is a point about reading English. For instance, Slovenia (pop. 2m) has standard Slovenian literature classes. Apart from the global Slavoj Zizek, every student knows their Preseren, the national poet. That’s simply because no other tribe is going to care about the Slovenian language.
As Australian Anglophones we can look forward to works from, say, the UK (pop. 62+ m); the US (300+ m); Canada (34+ m); S Africa (50 m), and a whole swath of Africa; India (1.2 b); NZ (4.4 m); Ireland (5m); even ignoring south-east Asia. The Anglosphere is a truly vast cornucopia of literary stuff, exuding more everyday. We might drown in such riches.
Is it not reasonable to look outward in anticipation? And is it not then entirely reasonable that we should also make an effort to protect our heritage — the only stories about us? Down under, we are the Slovenians.
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Coda: How Watkin Tench was rediscovered
Michael Williams spots Michael Heyward in the crowd and asks him a question. In 1996, Heyward reissued 1788:
How we came to publish the book sixteen years ago. . . I had been reading Tim Flannery’s contentious book The Future Eaters and kept coming across the name Watkin Tench. So I went to the State Library and dug around and found this book Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay. I couldn’t believe I had never been told about him. I went around and asked my friends, all of them much better read than I am, had they heard of this person? None of them had. And so we published it, we had Tim edit and intoduce the book.
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Disclosure: Michael Heyward is the publisher of Text — I design their books.