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The Real Australian Classics

In a panel discussion as part of the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, publisher Michael Heyward, Jane Gleeson-White, Ramona Koval, David McCooey and the Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams considered: what is an Australian classic?

In a great piece in Overland, Jane Gleeson-White reflects on the discussion and the arguments in favour of teaching entire courses on Australian literature in our universities:

I think these literary connections between writers across time—and which we discern as readers—are the best argument for the teaching of entire courses on Australian literature at universities.

If I had any doubt that universities should be running courses devoted to Australian literature, like the one I took at the University of Sydney, then they vanished at a conference I went to this month at the University of Worcester, called ‘Composting Culture’. 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.

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.

Text Designer and creator of the Text Classics covers and series look WH Chong has written a response on his blog:

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.

Read more about the Text Classics and see the full series here.

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