I have a confession to make. I am not an Australian. More correctly, I am a naturalised Australian, not one native-born. The sordid truth of my origins is that I was born on a South Sea island and raised as an Englishman. The island was the North Island of Aotearoa. The English bit came from the books I read as a young child. The Just So Stories by Kipling and Captain W.E John’s Biggles were favourite. My Englishness was reinforced by the texts I studied at primary school and the culture I absorbed in the suburbs of a staid Auckland. At school we sang “God Save the Queen” and saluted the flag each day. My father drove a Standard Vanguard. We had a Corgi because the Queen had one and we didn’t think twice about our place in the world.
Then, when I was almost 10, I came to Australia. Australia was not England and definitely not New Zealand. Australia was another country. Mine. It was a very strange feeling to realise one was home when you had arrived at a place to which you had never been before. Perhaps it was something in the books I was reading. Cerainly, the literature I started to read almost as soon as I set foot on Australian soil had much to do with transforming me form an Englishman to an Australia. Ivan Southall’s Ash Road was one of the first books to show me the towns, cities, people and empty landscapes of this magnificent continent. The different, dry air of Australia floated out of its pages. This air had miraculously cured the chronic asthma of my New Zealand childhood. Ironically, my asthma had made me a voracious reader. I read above my age. Soon I was reading Tom Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Through them, I learned more about our convict past and religious divisions than history lessons could ever teach me.
As I grew older, I studied the works of Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Randolph Stow, Bruce Dawe and even the dreaded Patrick White without question. Why wouldn’t we want to know the words of these great writers? Studied along with Yeats and Eliot, Wright shone because she spoke to us with a language and imagery that was our own dialect. I’m quite happy to slouch towards Bethlehem, but I’d like to do so beside my heavy shouldered team of bullocks.
Then Paddy gave us my personal favourite of his works, The Vivisector, and Tom gave us The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, both written in the same dialect, albeit with their own accents, Paddy’s ironic and patrician, and Tom’s passionate and forgiving. A year after Jimmy Blacksmith was published I was at university studying Australian literature. I was fortunate to have Thea Astley to guide me in this subject. Thea made us read Ralph Rashleigh and The Pea Pickers, tore Frank Hardy’s structure apart and made us appreciate that good writing was good writing no matter where it came from and some of the best was from Australia, and Thea herself was one of the best. Years later, I read Drylands wet-eyed at the beauty in every sentence and the luminosity of the complete book.
Admittedly, university and I are now many years apart. A lot of books have been published since those days when Thea taught me Australian literature with no doubt in her mind that it was something worth teaching. Many of those books are what I would consider “Australian literature”. But apparently that phrase now is academically on the nose.
Why? Cultural theorists regard it as too specific, or too amorphous. In the post-modern world of textual studies, the word “literature” is a dirty one anyway. Now, literature is replaced by “communications and culture”. It is understandable that the academy should study more widely than the worlds of books and writing, but surely this does not mean literature, especially the stories that nourish our culture, should be totally ignored?
Over the past 30 years, the Australian publishing industry has developed into Australia’s most profitable and self-sufficient creative industry. It has done so on the basis that Australians wanted to read books about themselves. These books have been novels, but they have also been histories, biographies and cookery books. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, Sally Morgan’s My Place, Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion and Margaret Fulton’s Cookbook are as much a part of our culture as any Miles Franklin Award winning novel. They are worthy of the attention of academia, too.
But books like these don’t appear to be under threat at present. It is the stories of our imagination which have difficulty, first, in finding a publisher, and, second, in finding a readership. Many first novels struggle to sell 600 or 700 copies. Such sales make publication very marginal and few publishers want to take the risk without some support. The Literature Board of the Australia Council assists with funding to defray production costs, but it is still up to the publisher to market the book, distribute it to bookshops and promote it to the industry. Some small publishers like Giramondo have done this well. Others have been much less successful. And less fiction is being sold. The 236 or so publishers identified by the ABS published 1347 works of fiction 2002-03 and 1367 in 2003-04. But sales dropped to from $43.92M in 2002-03 to $38.44M in 2003-04.
The window of opportunity for first-time novelists is very small given the small sales of first novels and their brief shelf life. They are soon out of print and forgotten. They rarely make reading lists for schools or universities, let alone get reviews.
This has a flow-on effect for our culture. As Josie Emery of the Literature Board of the Australia Council wrote in the December 2006 issue of Australian Author “literature is the mother of the narrative arts”. Without literature, we would not have films, television and other forms of story telling. Australia’s film industry is in crisis at present. Most of it exists as a form of cheap labour for Hollywood. A film like Happy Feet, as good as it may be, can’t really be claimed to be part of Australian culture. Its director, George Miller, noted as much recently when he announced his desire to make another Mad Max movie (very much part of Australian culture) when funding made it possible. He has since argued about the funding given his "Wolverine" project.
However, without literary narratives being read and absorbed much as I did with Ash Road so many years ago, we risk losing our special cultural identity, the one that took me in its embrace when I came here as a 10 year old.
And as for that South Sea island I left, well, it is now a bilingual nation very proud of its Maori and pakeha heritages and with a wonderful literature of its own. For evidence, read Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, which was the 2007 South East Asia and South Pacific winner of Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2007 and winner of the 2008 Kiriyama Prize.
But why has the country where I have made my home turned its back on its own stories?
Parts of this article first appeared in the April 2007 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.