Lost Australian literary heritage

Excerpt from an article by Imre Salusinszky that appeared in "The Australian" on July 29, 2006

The recent experiment perpetrated by The Australian, in which a chapter of Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm was submitted to 10 publishers and agents and rejected by all of them, tells us little if anything about literary genius, or about some purported decline in modern civilisation that means genius is no longer recognised.

It tells us something that is both more mundane and more interesting, which is that young commissioning editors in Australian publishing houses - those who did not simply bin Eye of the Cyclone after a glance but offered Wraith Picket remedial writing advice - have not read Eye of the Storm or sufficient Patrick White to recognise his style.

Have a look at a range of school and university curriculums across Australia and it is easy to see why. In the Victorian Certificate of Education, for example, students of English are presented with a range of perfectly worthy contemporary Australian texts but study no classic Australian literature, apart from a few Henry Lawson stories.

Meanwhile, in universities you will find plenty more contemporary Australian texts, this time grouped. explicitly according to the organising categories of cultural studies: race, gender, sexuality and class. What you won't find are courses with boring titles such as "19th-century Australian fiction" in which the organising feature is canonical; that is, these are important writers with whom any Australian student of literature should be familiar.

In a sense, we have returned to the situation of 30 years ago. When I was stumbling around the corridors of the University of Melbourne stoned out of my gourd in the 1970s, Australian literature was considered a minor offshoot that could be studied only around the fringes of the core courses in English (British) literature. The situation was not quite as bad everywhere, but neither was it good. All this changed in the late '70s thanks to the activism of a group of energetic young academics who formed the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. For a while, Marcus Clarke, Henry Handel Richardson, Shaw Nielsen and, yes, Patrick White loomed large in the window of Australian undergraduates.

But who was to know what a narrow window it would turn out to be? The study of classic Australian literature in universities thrived only during a brief interval - say 1975-90 - sandwiched between cultural snobbery (no Australian belongs in the canon) on one side and cultural studies (there is no canon) on the other. Unless the readers of the publishing firms caught out by The Australian were educated in that interval, I can easily imagine they would not have read The Eye of the Storm or much White.

Responding to a complaint by John Howard that the teaching of history in our schools has degenerated into a "stew of fragmented themes and issues", federal Education Minister Julie Bishop has convened a history summit to meet in Canberra next month. I would suggest that the teaching of literature has degenerated into the same kind of stew, partly courtesy of cultural studies, and that a national strategy to address that situation (with a special emphasis on the teaching of Australian literature in schools and universities) is long overdue.

Cultural studies is a perfectly legitimate area of study but one that should come after, not before, an immersion in literary works studied for their own sakes as imaginative structures. Proceeding in that order, students can make their own educated investigations into the ways that literature, along with other forms of symbolic expression, reflects cultural values. Taken in the wrong order, however, categories such as gender and class themselves become canonical, and education narrows into indoctrination.

As former NSW premier Bob Carr has argued in connection with the study of history, the study of literature, too, is a vocational necessity in an information economy where the ability to organise arid express complicated ideas is at a premium.

While I am a non-believer at the church of "national identity" and the cultural protectionism based on it, I certainly believe there are such things as cultural traditions. Unlike an identity, which cannot lead to a liberal education, a tradition is inseparably a part of all that comes before it and exists alongside it.

Just as Howard and Bishop have asserted that the study of Australian history requires a sound understanding of European history at least as far back as the Enlightenment, so the proper study of Australian literature requires a grounding in European literature as far back as Shakespeare. Bring on the literature summit!


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