Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Decline in Australian Literature

Driving to work I listened a radio program about the decline in Australian literature.

Apparently one of Australia's major universities that had been experiencing a dramatic decline in both the absolute number and proportion of English students studying Australian literature tried to introduce an honours course in the area. This failed because it did not attract a single student.

An academic complained that the only thing keeping Australian literature alive as an area of study was the interest in certain overseas universities. The solution offered was to increase Australian content in the higher school courses.

Whys should we be surprised that all this had happened?

There are general systemic factors at work that have affected all classes of literature. But here we are talking about a decline within a decline. So other things have to be at work.

Crudely, in rejecting the validity of the Australian past in the way so many have done, we have cut the underpinnings out from our literary tradition. Why should anyone study the literature coming from a narrow, provincial, racist past? What relevance does it have for modern multicultural Australia today?

This is a tragedy. I love Australian studies. I love the texture of Australian life over the years.

I understand the injustices that we have done to, for example, our indigenous people. Obviously we need to understand this. But I want to capture the indigenous experience too, focused on them as people, not as victims forever buried in an European paradigm of past black white relations. What do they have to teach me as an Australian living in 2007?

In all the decline in Australian literature there appears to be one growth area, and that is young peoples' literature.

I have read a fair bit of this, in part because of my daughters, in part because I have enjoyed it. This does deal with contemporary issues. But it also writes to the Australian experience. Long may it continue.


Neil (Ninglun) provided a thoughtful comment on this post and also put up a post about the issues on his blog. This includes a link to his own OzLit writings as well as to Matilda and Wilson's Blogmanac, both worthwhile sites.

One of the difficulties in this time poor world is to find the time to trace through the material to test my own assessments. I will try to do so. In the meantime, a challenge to all.

To help educate me, what do you think the main trends and patterns have been in Australian writing over the last twenty years? How does this relate to other trends in Australian society and culture? What does it tell us about ourselves?


ninglun said...

Jim, this sort of analysis keeps on surfacing and tends to remind me on fashionable pronouncements of the "death of the novel" going back thirty years or more. The novel of course has not died.

Similarly, OzLit. I am at the moment reading The Secret River, as good an Australian novel as I have ever read, and technically much better than, say, Robbery Under Arms, though I doubt it is better than The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, to name something roughly parallel. But I am not really about setting up a literary pecking order in this comment. There are many good Australian novels being published, and even more bad ones, but that has ever been so.

As for university study of Oz Lit, when I began in 1960 there was none! By 1964 I and five -- yes five -- other eccentrics enrolled in Gerry Wilkes's pioneer Oz Lit course at Sydney Uni. I was the only male.

Later on it took off for a while under Leonie Kramer, and has I gather suffered a decline in relation to other offerings in the past decade; but these things come and go. I am sure it will be back.

The recent "culture wars" have in fact given novelists much fresh material to engage with, so I wouldn't despair.

Some Australian content, often substantial, is included in all school English courses in NSW.

Just two weeks ago I was teaching "The Man From Snowy River" and "My Country" to a Chinese coachee who has only been in the country for eight months: an interesting experience...

ninglun said...

PS: Try the Oz Lit tag on my Big Archive.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks Neil. That's helpful. I was hoping to draw a comment from you.

I thought that part of the discussion I heard with its focus on including more OxLit in the school curriculum was probably special pleading.

I know that there is some inclusion of Australian writing in the school curriculum in NSW.

I did find it interesting, though, that when I cross-checked the story by asking my daughters I found almost zero comprehension of Australian writers or writing as such. Beyond, that is, a capacity to quote parts of I Love a Sunburned Country.

Now all sorts of things come into this.

I know that the kids have in fact read a fair bit of Australian writing, John Marsden is an example. Clare has even been to a writers camp at his farm. But they don't think of this as Australian writing, simply writing by an Australian.

I need to think further. But a question to you in the meantime.

What book would you recommend that describes and analyses post war Australian writing? Not literary criticism, but themes and trends,relating this to changing Australian life.

I have the impression that, like Australian history, Australian writing has fragmented. Now this is partly a matter of increased volume. Partly, too, that my own interests have changed so I may simply not know.

But I would be hard pressed at the moment to make any sensible comments at all beyond very broad impressions should I be asked by, say, an overseas vistor to describe Australian writing.

Lexcen said...

Confession, I haven't read much Australian lit since I was forced to read it at school. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony was excruciatingly boring for example. I do read quite a lot but tend to stay away from Australian literature. Could this be the result of school curriculum?
I do recommend DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little.

ninglun said...

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is perhaps an acquired taste and is very long, but I still think it is a brilliant recreation of life on the gold fields.

Clare was lucky, Jim. I once taught John Marsden's nephew and through him we had John come and do a workshop in my class. He is a brilliant writing teacher, as well as a very nice man.

Anonymous said...

Clare is indeed lucky, Neil. She also had access to two workshops run at the school by Marcus Zusak.

I see that you have put up a post. I will add a postscript to my post.

Lexcen, I have a sneaking fellow feeling with you on the fortunes of RM! Thanks for the suggestion.

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