TRUE BLUE BOOKS
enjoys an engaging guide to Australian literature Australian Classics: 50 Great Books By Jane Gleeson- White Allen & Unwin, 342pp, $ 29.95
ISET out to write Australian Classics with a simple intention,’’ Jane Gleeson- White says in her introduction. She wanted, she says, ‘‘ to make a book on Australian literature as there are books on Australian art. I wanted to create a book that would give a broad overview of Australia’s writing and introduce some of its key writers to a wide audience.’’
Australian Classics is quite an unusual book: it’s not an anthology but a thorough readers’ guide, a kind of photographic negative of an anthology. In this follow- up to her 2005 Classics: Books for Life , Gleeson- White has chosen an Australian list of 50 great books ( although this subheading is immediately problematic, as some of her chosen books are single poems and others are individual short stories) that she thinks will provide this overview.
On each of the 50 works chosen, she writes a short, lucid, informative essay, plus 10 extra such essays on various background topics and issues, such as the Ern Malley affair, the Sydney Push and the glory days of The Bulletin in the late 19th century. She provides simple, clearly put plot summaries, biographical information about the authors and interesting scraps of anecdote and information.
This kind of thing is surprisingly difficult to write and make interesting — or, sometimes, even to make coherent — and it’s to her great credit that she has made this book so easy and engaging to read.
There are many readers who will immediately take issue with the term classics and there are good intellectual reasons for that: the canonising impulse, while irresistible, is often blind to its own internalised values, and a critic claiming classic status for this or that book will often simply be unconsciously reproducing their own educational history, which of course is also true of those who scorn all such ventures.
In any case, this book was written less as an intellectual exercise than as a pragmatic one, an exercise in providing information for the common reader, those loyal book buying, reading group joining, writers festival going punters who are the lifeblood of royalty statements everywhere, and who want a quick, readable guide to Australian literary history. I’m guessing it will also be a godsend for teachers and for international visitors with a literary bent.
Then there’s the meaning of classic itself and the question of how to decide what makes one. Sales figures? Publishing history? Presence on school and university curriculums? Transcendence of literary and critical fashion? Or simply passing the so- called and much- vaunted test of time? Nobody could deny a place on this list for books and stories such as My Brilliant Career , The Drover’s Wife , The Lucky Country or The Man Who Loved Children , but Gleeson- White’s list also includes several far more personal and less well- known choices, including Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers , Christopher Brennan’s Lilith , and Arthur Mailey’s 10 for 66 and All That .
But a book review probably isn’t the place for these discussions, and in any case Gleeson- White has made it clear in public statements, as well as in the way she has put this book together, that she understands the arguments about this kind of list- making exercise. It’s something that all teachers and anthologists of Australian literature have wrestled with: the problem of compiling a reading list or other collection of material that does not implicitly claim to be an impersonal, authoritative summary of Australian literature, and that does not necessarily exclude from consideration everything that you have been obliged to leave out.
Gleeson- White deals with this problem of implicit exclusion very cleverly: she has asked 38 people noted for their various contributions to contemporary Australian literature and culture to list their 10 favourite Australian books and these lists are interspersed with Gleeson- White’s short essays on her chosen 50. The cumulative effect of this is a genuinely broad and inclusive list of Australian literary texts of all kinds, acting as a corrective to the idea that there’s some kind of official top 50 and emphasising the personal and subjective nature of everybody’s choices, including Gleeson- White’s.
So what emerges is a kind of list and counterlist. Many of the extra contributors include Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony among their 10 choices, but Gleeson- White’s Richardson pick is The Getting of Wisdom ; the most popular Helen Garner choice among the extra contributors is The Children’s Bach , but Gleeson- White’s choice is Monkey Grip .
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to someone who wanted a crash course in Australian literature, but there’s also more to it than that. Gleeson- White’s earliest choice is Adam Lindsay Gordon’s The Sick Stockrider ( 1869), a poem I thought I knew well, and in her account of Gordon and his poem she tells a wonderful story about what he was like. Caught in a storm and sheltering under a tree with a friend while they waited for the storm to pass, Gordon recited all the storm poetry he knew, concluding with the entire tempest scene from King Lear . This story, which I’d never heard or read before, plus the inclusion on the list of The Sick Stockrider , which I once knew by heart, sent me back to have another look: first at the poem, then at Gordon’s work and life in general, and finally at the wonderful anthology Australian Bush Ballads that Douglas Stewart and Nancy Keesing
compiled in 1955. Here I rediscovered Henry Lawson’s , which, I’m slightly embarrassed to report, still makes me cry.
clearly has its uses not only for beginners but also for those who already know the field.
Gleeson- White also has included nonfiction and children’s literature in her list; among her 50 chosen classics there are 10 poems, three children’s books, two short stories and six books of generically assorted nonfiction. She has opted to include only one work for each author, which must have been difficult; anyone trying to compile a similar list would probably be hard put to choose just the one Patrick White novel, for a start, especially since everyone has a different favourite and since favourite doesn’t necessarily equate to classic. In her introduction, GleesonWhite addresses this distinction briefly, but only to collapse it, referring to the hardest task of all: choosing 50 Australian books that would both reflect some generally recognised set of Australian classics, as well as my own idiosyncratic literary tastes’’. Gleeson- White’s White choice, for instance, is
, which I would agree probably has the best claim to classic status, but my favourite among White’s works is . Critic
Ballad of the Drover
Riders in the Chariot Peter Craven, one of the people asked for a list of 10 favourites, includes all of White except
. Because the individual lists of 10 apparently were intended to be of favourites rather than classics, this has opened the way for some idiosyncratic and quirky choices. These extra contributors include not only writers — Garner, Frank Moorhouse, Gideon Haigh, Les Murray and many others — but publishers, critics, journalists, academics, artists and filmmakers. There’s a particularly interesting contribution from academic Margaret Harris, who provides some detailed commentary on her choices, as does writer and publisher Sophie Cunningham. Film producer Margaret Fink likes autobiographies, Moorhouse and Louis Nowra both include Watkin Tench’s
A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson
The Chaser’s War on Everything
, Andrew Hansen from lists two novels each by Thea Astley and White, artist Jeffrey Smart is a big Richardson fan, Harris lists Drusilla Modjeska’s groundbreaking
and Emily Maguire likes David Marr’s .
It’s the inevitable fate of anyone who compiles any kind of anthology or list of choices to be immediately besieged by protesters and objectors vinsky’s Lunch
Patrick White: A Life
Stra- shouting But what about X, Y and Z?’’ So, in that vein, I’d perhaps ask why there’s no drama; surely there is room on a list of 50 for at least Ray Lawler’s , if not also Alan Seymour’s , David Williamson’s and Jack Hibberd’s .
If one of the criteria for classic is popularity and sales figures, where are, say, Nevil Shute’s
, Colleen McCullough’s and John O’Grady’s I’m not arguing that any of these should have been on the list, only pointing out that certain categories of writing are inevitably rendered invisible by exercises such as this.
In her introduction Gleeson- White gives an endearingly personal and autobiographical account of her experience of Australian literature, one that seems designed to get readers musing about their comparable experiences. And of course the selection of 50 classics and the smaller individual lists of favourites will also immediately have readers working on their lists, if only in their heads. This book isn’t just a handy guide to Australian writers, it’s also highly conducive to introspection and reminiscence in its Australian readers.
‘‘ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll The One Day of the Year
Don’s Party A Stretch of the Imagination Town Like Alice Thorn Birds Weird Mob? A The They’re a
The last word: Clockwise from far left, top, Thea Astley, Patrick White, Colleen McCullough, Watkin Tench, Drusilla Modjeska, Henry Handel Richardson, Helen Garner, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Les Murray