The state of OzLit

No doubt with an eye on the upcoming Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Sun-Herald this morning editorialises thus:

AUSTRALIA can be very good at honouring its high achievers. Sports champions, medical pioneers, philanthropists, artists, entertainers – even politicians – are generally awarded due recognition. And, of course, as witnessed so movingly last Wednesday, the nation acknowledges the extraordinary sacrifices and heroism of the men and women of our armed forces.

But the country’s novelists have been largely neglected. Of the 53 books that have won the Miles Franklin prize for literature since its inception in 1957, 20 are out of print in Australia. David Ireland won the Franklin three times but until a recent rescue mission his entire body of work was out of print.

In 2011, Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony appeared on no curriculum anywhere in the country…

Michael Heyward, a publisher who laments his own industry’s abandonment of so much great Australian literature, lays some of the blame with academe. Too few Australian novels, particularly those from earlier times, are studied in schools and universities.

Certainly, Australian novelists have fared poorly on high school curriculums compared with writers from Europe and the US.

The shabby treatment of our novelists appears to be another example of the dreaded cultural cringe. How could a story set in young, irrelevant Australia compare with the works of Dickens, Tolstoy or Faulkner? Quite favourably, actually.

The first 220-odd years of European settlement of Australia have been remarkable, yielding a huge diversity of backdrops for compelling literature. Australians have fought in wars, built cities, experienced political and social upheaval, performed and competed on world stages and made scientific and medical breakthroughs. As the country grows and its population broadens, those backdrops will expand.

Why so many Franklin winners have been forgotten will be the subject of much debate. There can be an argument that the Franklin judges often erred, making decisions based on esoteric parameters far removed from general appeal.

Respective merits aside, Australian literature is a vital component of our national identity. So much of the country’s history is preserved in the works of our writers. Sometimes their work is dense, difficult and dated but it’s unarguable the stories are valuable windows on life in Australia.

Heyward’s quest to rekindle interest in home-grown storytelling deserves support. There is no suggestion the works of Australian writers should be imposed on readers, but it’s vital their work remain affordable and available.

You can download The Fortunes of Richard Mahony for free from a number of places, including the University of Adelaide.

Michael Heyward has been vigorously publicising the new series of Australian classics from his imprint, Text Publishing – and nothing wrong with that as it is a laudable venture. Whether it will make any money is a moot point, however; but I wish it well. See Australian Classics Re-emerge, Full transcript: Michael Heyward in The Zone, The nation that lost its own stories.

I would have thought that here in NSW OzLit is quite well served at the school level. As the then Minister said back in 2008:

Australian literature already features strongly on the HSC English Prescriptions list which is the focus of HSC English study for all students. Selected texts are studied in depth. On the new 2009–2012 HSC Prescriptions list, of the 101 print medium texts listed, 33 are Australian and students may study Australian novels, poetry, drama and nonfiction works. Among the internationally renowned Australian writers whose works are listed are Peter Carey, David Malouf, Patrick White, Tim Winton and Gail Jones…

The publishing industry, believe it or not, is mainly about making money, and if punters don’t buy then publishers don’t reprint. That as much as anything explains why really fantastic writers like Thea Astley haven’t been reprinted.  And then there’s the whole fluid state of the business nowadays.  Another story in today’s Sun-Herald:

GENERATION Y is leading the paperless book revolution, a new study has found.

A study released by London publisher Bowker has found that Australia and Britain have the second-highest e-book consumption, with 21 per cent of respondents saying they had paid for an e-book in the past six months. India took the top spot, with 24 per cent of respondents buying e-books.

In Australia, young adults aged 18 to 24 were the most prolific downloaders of adult fiction, the study found.

Online book store Amazon says the most popular adult fiction e-book downloaded on Kindles in Australia was Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L.James.

The survey also revealed 19 per cent of Australia’s population had purchased an e-book – the highest proportion of a country’s population in the study. Britain came second with 17 per cent of its 62 million population purchasing an e-book, followed by the US with 16 per cent of its population of 313 million.

The research should act as a warning for those in the book business, said Kelly Gallagher, the vice-president of Bowker Market Research.

”Publishers and retailers must adapt to a very changed landscape. This research is essential for effectively navigating that new landscape and creating successful business models,” she said.

My own mostly freebie collection of eBooks now stands at around 1,800 titles — which I think is wonderful, but you can’t help wondering about the book business.

Meanwhile, go to YouTube to be educated on OzLit – from India!

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2 thoughts on “The state of OzLit

  1. Neil, it is amazing that you found this clip. How on earth did it come to your attention? This is part of the IGNOU distance education initiative!

  2. It’s remarkable perhaps that it is on YouTube, but not that I found it. Just searched “Australian Literature” on YouTube! There is a lot more there from IGNOU.

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