At venerable Overland (just two years from its 60th birthday) in her Red Herring blog, the writer, editor and PhD student, Jane Gleeson-White has posted a thoughtful piece about that other thylacine, the “Australian classic.”

She talks about being on a panel at this years’s MWF to discuss the topic (along with Text publisher Michael Heyward, broadcaster Ramona Koval, all round litwhiz David McCooey and Wheeler director Michael Williams). She writes: “I was very excited by the prospect of this panel, with its provocative title – The ‘Real’ Australian Classics – and genesis in Text Publishing’s new classics series.”

Marketing exercise … or a vision?

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She recalled poet John Tranter at the Byron Bay WF “half-joking” that Heyward’s call for more OzLit in universities as a marketing exercise for the new Text Classics series; and noted how academics like Ken Gelder (MU) counter that OzLit is alive and well at unis, which she says is the case at her own shop, UNSW. So she went along “expecting to argue with Heyward … instead I found myself impressed by Heyward’s conviction, his vision of an Australian literature and the need for its concerted teaching.”

“I was particularly struck by Heyward’s answer to Williams’ question about why Text classics? Why now? Heyward said the new classics series is really part of a long-term project Text embarked on in the 1990s.” Heyward told a story about reading Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters in 1994 and stumbling across the mysterious name of Watkin Tench. He found and read and then published Tench’s Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, introduced by Tim Flannery. (Current “classics” incarnation pictured.)  This was the book of which Robert Hughes wrote, “not to have read Watkin Tench is not to know early Australia.”

Classic as living DNA, UK

Then JG-W points to her experience at a conference at the University of Worcester:

It was the first literary conference I’d been to in the UK, the font of our literary language, and I was struck during almost every paper by the embeddedness of the texts they discussed in both place and in their literary heritage. And by the scholars’ easy reference to their literary tradition. They were steeped in it, even while they probed and challenged it. The texts of England and of English comprise a richly composted culture. I think we do the literature of our own continent a disservice if we don’t study it in its entirety.

She concludes: “The question then becomes: What exactly is Australian literature, in its entirety? ‘Australian’, ‘literature’, ‘heritage’, ‘classics’ are loaded and contested words — and must be interrogated. But surely the best way to do this is to attempt to study it and mark out its territory.”

Discarding our dreaming

My interest in this — apart from the intrinsics — is that I’m the designer of this series (see the covers), 34 so far, 46 by December, more next year. It’s been the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done as a book designer; reading the “classics.” For me, many of these are “new” classics, I had not heard of them before, just for instance: Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower; Keneally’s very early Bring Larks and Heroes; David Ireland’s amazing (heretofore unknown to me) The Glass Canoe.

They are revelatory books. Not only did they introduce me to remarkable authors — I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower, and I confess, up till then I had dumped Tom Keneally into Earnest and Worthwhile, ie, delay for a very rainy airport day) — but also, of course, each of these three titles have opened up whole new kinds of Australia to me. Harrower’s visionary Sydney of the 1940s, Keneally’s eyebrow- and hair-raising portrait of very early settlement and Ireland’s extraordinary and utterly relevant picture of pub culture (the book justifies the term). It’s faintly embarrassing not to have read them, and shocking not to have heard of them.

So, reading (or re-reading, about half) 4o odd classics over the last 18 months has been more than salutary, it’s been, in that favourite word of talent shows, a Journey. Why are we not, as Gleeson-White puts it, “steeped” in the work? It’s as if non-indigenous Australians are casually discarding our dreaming as we roll on into the future.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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