Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles





The Literature of Australia


Nicholas Jose (ed.)


London & New York: Norton, 2009, xxxviii, 1464 pp.

Hardback, US $49.95. ISBN 978-0-393-07261-7.


The Cambridge History of Australian Literature


Peter Pierce (ed.)


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009, x, 612pp.

Hardback, AUD $140.00. ISBN 978-0-521-88165-4.



Reviewed by Jean-François Vernay


Back in November 2005, Australian creative writer Nicholas Jose observed in an essay retracing the genesis of the PEN anthology project that ‘An earlier generation’s commitment to putting Australian literature on the world map has waned, leaving it pretty well off the world’s map, except for the representative writer or two who fills the slot. Australian literature has been squeezed by globalisation in the marketplace, intellectual fashion in the academy and opposition to cultural intervention in the public sphere’ [Australian Book Review 276: 27]. Jose’s comment is an elaboration of the alarm bell that has been sounded earlier in the century. In his ‘General Introduction’, Jose lists the causes for the backdrop crisis in one recapitulative statement: ‘The reasons for this state of affairs can be summed up as a combination of changing intellectual approaches in the academy, including resistance to nationalist constructions of literature; shorter term, market driven publishing arrangements in an increasingly competitive and globalised media environment; reduced responsibility for cultural heritage, especially literature, in public policy, and the changing habits of new generations of consumers’ [2-3]. In 2006, this inconvenient truth which had so far circulated within Australianists’ circles was thrown to the face of a wider readership when Rosemary Neill’s controversial piece in The Weekend Australian pointed to 'the neglect of Australian literature’. Admittedly ‘Lost for Words’ caused quite a stir, and some scholars even wished that it had never been written, but by acting as a resonance chamber to ‘the chorus of concern that Australian literature was losing its place’ [2], Neill might have brought greater awareness to the necessity of globalising Australian literature.

There is no denying that the last couple of years show an impressive production of encyclopedic knowledge of Australian writings. Take for instance Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer’s A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (Camden House, 2007), the first companion published since Elizabeth Webby’s The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), and – may I be forgiven if it sounds pushy – my modest contribution: Panorama du roman australien (Hermann, 2009), the first comprehensive single-authored literary history of the Australian novel ever published. And now two further additions to this prolific output are The Literature of Australia (2009), the Norton edition of Nicholas Jose’s Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, and more recently, Peter Pierce’s The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

When a book that daringly attempts to cover the wide diversity a country’s literature has to offer is finally released, you imagine a stampede for bookshops with readers grabbing the long-awaited conspectus to eagerly find out who is in and who is out. Inevitably, this will translate at the back of their minds as who is up and who is down. Creative writers who find their names down on the page will probably take it as something to be expected while those who discover in shock that they have been left out will probably anathematise for life the anthologist or literary historian bogged down in this no-win situation.

Sadly, few people will get the measure of how time-consuming, painstaking, and sometimes ungrateful the task might have been for these scholars. Those who are keen on pecking orders and defining categorisations will inevitably wonder why, say, three scripts of Michael Leunig’s animated cartoons are included as poetry in The Literature of Australia when there is no tribute to Amy Witting (a glaring omission already identified by Peter Craven) who, in her university years, associated with James McAuley and Harold Stewart – the authors of the Ern Malley jape [mentioned on page 626]. Editor Max Harris who bore the brunt of this hoax, prophesised that ‘time will explain the fact that the myth is sometimes greater than its creator’ [quoted in Heyward: 189]. A prophecy that turned out to be partly true because if James McAuley’s more personal work has not been eclipsed (given that he has an entry of his own), Harold Stewart is only mentioned in reference to the infamous literary hoax.

Additional annoyances would be to find out that Australia’s finest novelist David Malouf is represented through his poems and short stories, and the same goes for Tim Winton, whose style is illustrated by a short story taken from Scission, or that Kerry Goldsworthy has chosen to present Andrew McGahan with an excerpt from 1988 rather than one from his Miles Franklin winning novel, The White Earth. One might also bemoan the fact that a senior fine writer like Christopher Koch (whose bionote excludes his last novel The Memory Room published in 2007) is granted less space – three pages altogether! – than a young and comparatively much less renowned dramatist like Chiu Vu – up to five pages. Such observations sound legitimate if we acknowledge, as General Editor Nicholas Jose did, that anthologies inevitably end up establishing a canon ‘for better or worse’ [Australian Book Review: 28].

Having said this, readers should keep in mind that ‘The first and foremost aim of this book is to make available to readers and students a sampling of the range of Australian writing, putting striking works from recent times together with works from the past that have become less familiar’ [2]. And this contemporary (1) eclectic selection of creative writing serves its purpose by bringing to date what The Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature (1985) and The Macmillan Anthology of Australian Literature (1990) have missed out on since their original publication. No matter how good a guide this anthology will be to inform the general reader and the specialist alike, a more thorough analysis of the major trends and shifts in Australian literature would have been much appreciated. While the large majority of the contributions by the sub-editors are enlightening by successfully conveying the big picture, Nicole Moore’s introduction to ‘Literature 1900-1950’ gives the blurry impression of taking readers on a literary walk, striding or pausing now and then to review a writer or a piece of creative writing without seeking some sense of unity. And one sure way of getting away with it is to confess ‘it is not possible to trace a single national story from that complexity’ [30].

Readers on the lookout for a more comprehensive critical approach to Australian literature will have to turn to Peter Pierce’s The Cambridge History of Australian Literature. Like Nicholas Jose, Peter Pierce is well known for his laudatory appreciation of the international dissemination of Australian Studies. As he put it to Rosemary Neill: ‘Sometimes it seems to me that a vigorous interest in and enthusiasm for Australian literature, including the teaching and translation of it, is to be found more offshore than onshore’ [Quoted in Neill]. While this might appear at first to be a disagreeable comparison, Peter Pierce made the crucial point that Australian Universities do not seem to give scholars in Australian Studies more than their due and also acknowledged in the same breath – and this is too rare not to be noted – the international efforts abroad in geographical areas such as China, Hungary, France, Singapore: countries that are often eclipsed on the Australian Studies map. Bearing this statement in mind, The Cambridge History of Australian Literature – which, incidentally, contains no chapter by non-Australian academics – is perhaps an attempt to redress this imbalance. Another way of seeing it is the impression one gets from the overwhelming majority of the contributions written by pundits in the field (Jason Ensor’s participation in a co-written article being the odd one out) that some kind of legacy is being passed on from one generation to the next. It is as if these senior scholars are offering their lifetime dedication and achievement ‘lest we forget’.

Two contributors from Jose’s anthology, Elizabeth Webby and David McCooey, have been put to task again to express themselves on similar topics, respectively colonial literature and non-fiction. And there is heaps more: all centre-stage genres (fiction / poetry / drama / the short story / non-fiction) are being discussed and even backstage concerns like print culture, book publishing, patronage, literary life, to name a few. As with any multi-authored collection, you can expect a diversity of prisms and interpretations providing with an engrossing and lively rhythm – an incentive that certainly makes up for the ridiculously small font of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature that readers will strain to peruse. Some scholars, like Tanya Dalziell, have engaged creatively with their literary histories by drawing a parallel with other fields (the movie industry in her case); others, like Peter Pierce, have opted for a kaleidoscopic presentation of Australian literature (by surveying works ‘by novelists, painters, poets, art historians, polemicists, lexicographers among others’ [137]). David McCooey’s fascinating discussion reveals ‘Australia as a haunted place’ [328] in autobiographical depictions while David Carter’s rigorous analysis of the major institutional changes in Australian fiction since 1950 is inspiring in its demonstration of poised judgements, tactful reservations and cautious statements, like:

The same charge might be made against publishers – in a twisted way it was when, in May 2006, the Australian newspaper hoaxed a number of publishers and agents by sending them a chapter of White’s The Eye of the Storm pseudonymously; unsurprisingly, they ignored or rejected the submission. What that proved is unclear [385].

Despite such a mixture of styles, this literary history still retains a sense of unity through occasional cross-referencing; even though the chronological clustering of chapters gives at first the impression of a mixed bag. There is such a fundamental difference between an anthology and a literary history that some readers might find it odd that I review both in the same breath. An anthology is a bit of a reader’s digest – and the challenge is to digest 1500-odd pages. First you read the authors’ bionotes, then the selected excerpts, and you finally decide whether you have had an elegant sufficiency or you will spoil yourself beyond these moreish appetisers. The literary history is even more prescriptive, very much like a recipe book: it gives you all the ingredients (the bulk of literature is dealt with) and tells you how to associate them (with what schools or streaks) and finally cook them (somewhat by offering a prism to favor a particular reading). But in both cases, the editors aim at whetting readers’ appetites and guide them through the crammed shelves of bookshops and libraries.

All quibbles aside, and given the extraordinary amount of work it has taken the editors of The Literature of Australia, I can only fall in with Thomas Keneally’s opinion who feels that they ‘deserve praise for having so skillfully found a balance between disparate presences and for generously including so many voices’ [xxxi]. I can also highly recommend Peter Pierce’s The Cambridge History of Australian Literature for its sheer textual and bibliographical comprehensiveness. Thanks to their most recent commendable contributions, both Nicholas Jose and Peter Pierce live up to their reputations of being authorities in Australian literature. In the current trend to globalise Australian Studies, these compendia are a welcome effort to put Australian writing on the world map.



Neill, Rosemary. ‘Lost for Words’. The Weekend Australian (2-3 December 2006): 4-6

Jose, Nicholas. ‘A Shelf of Our Own: Creative Writing and Australian Literature’. Australian Book Review 276 (November 2005): 25-29

Craven, Peter. ‘Obscuring the heritage’. Australian Book Review 314 (September 2009): 7-8.

Heyward, Michael. The Ern Malley Affair, NSW: Vintage, 2003 (1993), xxiv-367 pp.


(1)  ‘Texts for Our Times’ – as their editorial motto has it.





All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.