Monday, August 03, 2009

Window into a nation’s soul

August 1, 2009 - Sydney Morning Herald
A 1500-page ‘wonder book’ sets out to capture the essence of Australian writing.

There is no cult of writing here, few professional writers. Writing is rarely done in book-lined studies. Our incomes don’t run to them. It is done in the intervals of living, a literature of action, drawn from life, very very rarely escapist. The continent in all its natural aspects plays a large part in it. Because our world is still new and strange, background is important and intriguing. We are absorbed in our wonder book.
From Australian Literature, Marjorie Barnard, 1941.

‘‘It's not what people are really expecting,’’ Nicholas Jose says of his 1500-page wonder book. ‘‘There will be surprise and puzzlement: is this Australian literature? It’s a category that has shrunk or faded in people’s perceptions.’’
But that will change – or so Jose and his editors hope. The new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature – the largest and most comprehensive anthology of its kind, featuring more than 500 works from more than 300 authors – is aimed not just at libraries and classrooms but at domestic bookshelves.
‘‘A must for every home,’’ says the blurb. At $69.99, it’s a reasonably priced window into our culture and history. Jose hopes it will help us navigate unfamiliar territory. ‘‘I often speak of it as a kind of Lonely Planet guide to Australian literature.’’

The anthology is being launched with great fanfare, (publisher-Allen & Unwin),with support DVDs, an online teaching guide and a limited collector’s edition for $295. There are long-term plans to make it available online. In September, W.W. Norton & Company will publish the anthology in the US and Britain, and that edition will be available worldwide.

Australia is a sunburnt land
Of sand and surf and snow;
All ye who do not love her
Ye know where ye can go.
From Edna’s Hymn, Barrie Humphries, 1967

Just looking through the many unfamiliar names in the book is an indication of how much our literature has shrunk in the popular mind. Beyond Lawson and Paterson, Patrick White, Dorothea Mackellar and a few more recent writers such as Les Murray or Peter Carey, do we even know the names, let alone the writing? Who has heard of Tasma, Ricketty Kate or Frank the Poet?
The editors’ research suggests our memories are short. They asked 40 young graduates about to become English teachers to name some Australian authors. More than 80 per cent named only writers from the past five years. When even the teachers are not familiar with the territory, Jose says, there’s a problem. In his introduction to the anthology, he says there has been ‘‘a sense of crisis, real or imagined, in the standing of Australian literature’’.
The full review at the SMH.

1 comment:

Reg Leverarch said...

Dear BBB: Do any Australian crime writers get the nod in Jose's collection? Any sighting of Cleary, Corris, Maloney, Disher, Temple?