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A Classic is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Publisher Michael Heyward, in this Sunday’s Age:

Out of print, out of mind? That’s hardly the way to treat Australian literature.

For a long time in this country it was argued that there was no such thing as Australian literature. As late as 1940, J.I.M. Stewart, professor of English at Adelaide University, declared that in the absence of appropriate books he would lecture on D.H.Lawrence’s novel, Kangaroo. In the year he said that, as if to mock him, Christina Stead published The Man Who Loved Children.

We like to think all that has changed. We live in the world of the home-grown literary bestseller, the world of The Slap and The Secret River. We love our new stars, and celebrate the success of Favel Parrett or Toni Jordan or Craig Silvey. Our writers have careers both at home and abroad. We no longer expect our life-changing books to be written in isolation and despair, against the odds, fulfilling what Henry Lawson came to believe was the destiny of the Australian writer.

So much for writing now. Because it takes just a generation or two, sometimes less, for us to lose the plot. We put our books and writers on the high shelf of the past, where we forget about them. Imagine if our art galleries decided to banish the works of Brett Whiteley or Fred Williams to their darkened basements. Not for a year or two, but a decade or two. That’s what we routinely do to so many significant writers whose books are out of print.

We seem not to care. In 1963, The Reivers by US writer William Faulkner won the Pulitzer. Half a century later it’s in print. In the same year the Miles Franklin was won by Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful, He Might Hear You. It became an international bestseller and a famous film. It has been out of print for many years.

Examples litter the place. In 1976, the Pulitzer was won by American Saul Bellow for Humboldt’s Gift. UK author David Storey won the Booker for Saville. I could buy new copies of these novels today. No such luck with David Ireland’s admired The Glass Canoe, which won the Miles Franklin that year. Ireland, by the way, was awarded the Miles Franklin three times. His books are entirely out of print.

It’s as if we think that good books burn down like candles, when the truth is that they get better and brighter. Liberated from the circumstances of their making, books become new when we read them again, more themselves than ever. ‘Literature,’ said Ezra Pound, ‘is news that stays news.’

Those of us who choose and influence what people might read - publishers, professors, teachers, journalists, commentators, editors - have done a lamentable job of curating the primary materials of our literary history.

Two reasons stand out. 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. And 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.

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.

Such educational poverty is consistent with the views expressed in 1935 by G. H. Cowling, professor of English literature at Melbourne University, who told readers of the Age that: ‘The rewards of literature in Australia are not good enough to make it attract the best minds … Good Australian novels which are entirely Australian are bound to be few … Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first class novels.’

The academic resentments enshrined in these views—philistine, anti-intellectual, hostile to literary achievement—run deep and strong today, though now they arise from a different set of fixed ideas. The effect is to enfeeble our understanding of our history. Our words, our deeds, our hatreds and our loves gave rise to these books. Reading and discussing them, we are part of a conversation that could never happen with the same inwardness or intensity anywhere else. We are contributing to the imaginative wealth of the place. ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did,’ someone once said to T. S. Eliot. ‘Precisely,’ the poet replied, ‘and they are that which we know.’ Well, not necessarily in this country.

It will take all kinds of effort to change these cultures. We do not adapt nearly enough Australian novels for film or TV, though the ABC is now emerging from years of slumber. The arrival of the e-book may liberate some writers from the dungeons of neglect but the problems we face are conceptual not technological. Inspired by a student reading group at Melbourne University, which in 2011 taught no Australian literature course at all, the Wheeler Centre is about to launch a program of lectures about Australian books. And this year, Text, where I am publisher, is releasing a series of Australian classics in cheap editions (Careful, He Might Hear You and The Glass Canoe among them).

When Professor Stewart reduced Australian literature to a single book, he had available to him The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Such is Life, My Brilliant Career, the stories of Lawson and Barbara Baynton. He had For the Term of His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms. He had the poetry of Kenneth Slessor. His comment reminds us that we are unlikely to find what we are not looking for. Stewart and Cowling had the excuse of being Englishmen marooned in what they understood to be colonies of the mind. What’s our excuse?

This May, Text will be launching a series of Australian classics: 30 books by our most loved writers, books that tell our stories. More information about the Text Classics will be available here in the coming weeks.


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