Australian Literature: ‘Death’ or a Transformation?


A significant change is coming in the way we see ourselves as teachers of literature. Whether we see it as a ‘death’ or a ‘transformation’ of our discipline rather depends upon where we stand as it arrives. I suspect that more teachers than I will experience a kind of vertigo, even nausea (in the Sartrian sense) in the process. To use a rather melodramatic metaphor, we may find ourselves clutching to the ways of thinking, of understanding, of construing meaning, that our own teachers taught us, much as we might clutch a railing in a gale, and perhaps should be warned or reminded that one of the possible consequences of resisting the gale in this manner is having our arms ripped off, or our clothes torn from us (a nod to Hans Christian Anderson), or the railing itself torn away. But what might it be like, alternatively, to let ourselves into the gale? And what gale is it? What constitutes it? What are its consequences? These are the questions we are going to have to face, and perhaps that arguments such as the one that has lately beset Australian teachers of Australian Literature, about the purported ‘death’ of the very subject they propound, are ultimately going to make us face.

But I am racing ahead of myself. What is the problem I am addressing in this paper? And what is that purported ‘death’ to which I have just referred?

For some months in late 2006 and early 2007 there smouldered a debate in the arts pages of some of Australia’s leading newspapers concerning the putative ‘death’ of Australian Literature, though that word itself has been more a matter of verbal than printed circulation. The debate began with an article by Rosemary Neill in the Weekend Australian of December 2/3, 2006, less an overt opinion piece than a set of interviews with various academics concerning the decline in numbers of courses in Australian Literature being offered around the country, and the decline in enrolments for those courses, in passing bringing to public notice that one of the two (and only two) dedicated professorships in Australian Literature in the country was about to evaporate.[ii]

The explanations provided by those consulted did not really leave the impression that the teaching of Australian Literature was a thriving concern. Perhaps only the jaded were sought out. The point of this current paper is to present some answers that I did not find others presenting as this useful debate smouldered. I say useful because it did, at least, draw to public attention that there were only two chairs of Australian Literature in the entire country, that numerous important works of Australian literature were out of print, and that Australian Literature as an academic subject seemed to be far more popular and respected outside the country (witness this IASA conference: a glowing example!) than inside it – things that some of us had been pointing out for decades but obviously not loudly enough. But in general we (i.e teachers of Australian Literature, in Australia) have been (a) worked off our feet, and (b) nervous, apparently, about the funding of our own research projects, and in some cases even our tenures, successive Australian governments having long established an environment not very conducive to freedom of academic expression on such and other matters.[iii]

And somehow, of course, the debate, spilling beyond the matter of university teaching and course enrolments, became a debate about a putative ‘death’ of Australian Literature more generally. A catchy phrase, certainly, but also, from one angle, quite ridiculous: Australians will not stop writing, and writing very well, regardless of what some academics or some journalists in pursuit of a story may think.

There has, nevertheless, been an indisputable decline in the number of courses and enrolments in Australian Literature at Australian universities over the last decade[iv], and while there are several other factors in this decline – the rise and fall of Australian Studies; an international trend away from anything smacking of nationalism; a progressive neglect of Australian literature by mainstream publishers taken over by multinational corporations abandoning the practice of cross-subsidy that enables a well-selling title to support a lesser-selling (read ‘literary’) title, etc. – the greatest and most immediate of them is the one just alluded to: the consistent and delinquent tightening of tertiary funding since the early 1990s by Federal Governments, Labor and (more aggressively) Liberal alike. For some time now Australian universities have been locked into a counterproductive endeavour on the Australian government’s part to make education – tertiary education especially – pay its own way and become less and less dependent upon ‘government’ finance (which is, after all, the people’s money), so that the government can allocate more of its budget to what it sees as more worthy matters such as assisting invasions of other countries’ sovereign territories, repelling legitimate seekers of asylum from its shores, etc.

This financial tightening has impacted upon us in several ways. I will comment upon only two. When I moved, in 1991, from the Australian National University to teach Australian Literature at the University of Sydney there were seven full-time positions at the latter institution dedicated to this area of study. For the five years between 2001 and 2006, owing largely to retirements for which the university, because of these ever-tightening financial constraints, was unwilling or unable to fund replacements, there were rarely more than two and a half, albeit most of the time doing the work of five.[v] A large part of the underlying problem of Australian Literature at Australian universities, in other words, is in their failure to replace that rump of appointees in the discipline from the late 1960s to the early 1980s – the boom time in Australian literary studies – as they have reached retirement age, died or left the profession for other reasons (burn-out, exhaustion…). And this failure has been a direct consequence of the aforementioned neglect – a neglect that can sometimes seem like deliberate punishment – of the university sector, and indeed education more generally, by successive Australian governments. How could anyone think it possible to teach the same number of specialist Australian Literature courses as we were able to teach fifteen years ago? There is, amongst other things, a critical mass involved. Reduce the staffing and number of courses to a certain point and overwork, declining morale, and a basic disappearance from the radar, will produce an apparent failure to thrive.

Economic restraints have also meant that great emphasis has come to be placed upon the pursuit of research grants, to preserve or advance one’s university’s place in the pecking order for what government funding remains. Research has thus become increasingly defined as a matter of bringing money into one’s institution. Australian Literature has been no exception in this regard, and is therefore, as if it were a service industry, dependent upon and increasingly determined by fashion and by the suasive power – read corporate savvy – of researchers and research administrators rather than the needs of the discipline itself. This is questionable enough. Worse, however, is the effect upon the research/teaching balance within the institutions, a key and destructive factor in which is the idea of teaching relief paid for by one’s research grant. Teaching has come to be seen less and less as a noble calling and the point of one’s institution, and more and more as something to get out of. The effects of this upon the quality of teaching, which is, after all, the way in which the discipline strengthens and perpetuates itself, are as incalculable as they have been catastrophic.

And, of course, there are some other factors beyond these financial ones – although, in the current tertiary climate, it would be hard to argue that any factor was quite unconnected to the financial. The turn towards – rise in popularity of – Cultural Studies, for example, has drawn staff, resources and students away from Australian Literature studies. Some are inclined to see this rise as a fashion that has now passed its time. I am not sure that this is the most helpful way to understand it, but there is no question that Australian Studies, after an initial surge, has also started to experience a decline in popularity.[vi] And yet, of course, the damage is done. A problem with establishing departments and making appointments in response to changing fashion is that one is then likely to be stuck with them for the tenure of those one has appointed, and so has tied up resources unproductively. And yet, of course, one must follow fashion if, in the decline of government support, one is increasingly dependent upon the student dollar. It is a Catch-22 situation, and Australian Literature/Australian Studies walked straight into it. To a certain extent – in some places more willingly than others – Australian literature, as a tertiary discipline, divided itself.

A further factor in the decline of each is that each has the word ‘Australian’ in its descriptor. This – the difficulties increasingly posed by descriptors of this kind – is, I suspect, an international problem, rather than an exclusively Australian one, though we are speaking of a national effect. And very ironically, as it happens, for the word ‘national’ is part of the problem. You don’t have to be particularly insightful these days to realise that anything that smacks of the national – that carries the name of the nation – is likely to assume, in the public eye, the taint of nationalism, and that we live, intellectually at least, in a time of the decline of nations.

I’m not sure that there are any silver linings to the situation that these various factors have created (although – as in a game of cricket! – things can turn around dramatically at any point[vii]), but it has provoked some interesting strategies that in their turn must be seen as having impact upon the ways in which Australian Literature might now be defined and assessed. I can and will only speak of those at the University of Sydney, but there are indications that others, elsewhere in Australia, have begun to think along similar lines. A distribution, this is to say, or disbursement, of the study of Australian literature in at least two directions – in that of Creative Writing, and in that of Comparative Literature.

At the University of Sydney we have a thriving postgraduate program in Creative Writing. We employ – it is one of the advantages of living in the country’s largest city – some thirty Australian writers, on various kinds of casual contract, each year[viii]: writers of Australian literature. And they teach, mainly, about themselves. These are largely in our ‘Writers at Work’ courses and our various genre workshops; but we also have more traditionally literary courses – ‘Major Movements in Contemporary Poetry’; ‘Major Movements in Modern Fiction’, etc. – the content of which is, quite clearly and strictly, fifty percent Australian – all to the extent that there has at times been more Australian Literature, overall, taught at this level at the university, and under the badge of Creative Writing, than in the official undergraduate Australian Literature courses. And yet, of course, it does not wear an Australian Literature label, and is not readily seen from the outside.

Similarly Comparative Literature, a fledgling field at the University of Sydney, but one which has grown from one to over a dozen courses in the last five years, and one in which – all of these courses being modular, so that four different language departments can participate equally – Australian Literature is almost always present. (I do approximately 40% of my teaching in Creative Writing – mainly in the literary courses – and 10% in Comparative Literature, and yet, I would argue, 90% of my teaching is in fact of Australian Literature.)

One of the ways of looking at the ‘decline’ of Australian Literary studies, this is to say, is that they may be going elsewhere. Not dying: transforming. And not just for economic reasons. It may be that something deeper and more fundamental is happening.

In the aforementioned salutary debate concerning the decline of Australian Literature there were some very significant lacunae. It was never asked, for example, which Australia was being talked about, and in this complacency – the complacency that somehow just assumed that we all knew what Australia was being talked about in the first place – was a significant part of the problem. We are dealing, after all, with a changed and changing culture, a culture that may be outgrowing and rendering increasingly obsolete the very concept of ‘Australian Literature’. By which I mean, amongst many other things, that while Australian Literature is held up as a mono-lingual literature, and a literature marked by certain themes and preoccupations that have their roots in the white, Anglo-Celtic settlement of the Australian continent, it is inevitably going to seem something less and less relevant to more and more people who now call themselves Australians.

We have, for example, to re-think the language-base of Australian literature, accept that, while it might quite defensibly be seen as something which employs the English language as the agreed language of its market-place, it is a literature written in many languages: that there are emergent Australian literatures written in Vietnamese, Mandarin and Arabic, for example, coming to join longer-established, but still largely invisible in the mainstream, Australian literatures in Italian, Dutch, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, etc. In one sense this phenomenon is hardly news: the idea of a multicultural Australia was in fact government policy through most of the 1990s, but it was seen, I think, from a complacent and paternalistic power-base – the multiculture as supplement – and its reality is finally catching up with that base, changing its cultural, as in intellectual and artistic, complexion. The implications are just beginning to be thought through. Changes in the kind of courses offered – ampersandal courses which look at ‘Australian Literature & South-east Asia’, ‘Australian Literature &  Europe’, ‘Australian Literature & the Middle East’, etc., provided that they begin with the initial assertion and understanding that each side of the ampersand is under erasure – may be the place to start, indeed in some places are already established.  And then, perhaps, an acceptance that translation may be one of the arts most central to the literature, and that we cannot operate any longer without Translation Studies somewhere within our field of vision.  Australia – and that thing, very close to its cultural centre, which we call ‘Australian Literature’ – must wake up to itself as a shared space. In more complicated ways than I think have yet been examined, it is not a white settler property any more, and its deepest assumptions have to be identified and held up to this light. Australia, and its literature, can no longer be thought of as pre-existing and quintessentially Anglo-Celtic cultural entities which will host other, more recently arriving cultures so long as it is always recognised who is boss. The scales are tipping. The boss is being increasingly ignored or outvoted. It has taken some time for this process to move ‘up’ into the cultural boardrooms, but it is there now, and those who cling to an earlier state of things will find themselves more and more obsolete. It’s not necessarily a violent process. It’s a matter of numbers, moving away.

We also, this is in part to say, have to re-think our conceptions of Australian literature as turning about a certain set of fundamental assumptions and preoccupations – with and about the harshness of the land, for example, or with that foxed question, and very old song, of Australian identity, or of the human relation with the landscape (what do most recent immigrants – and I mean those over the last three or four decades – care for landscape? Is this their obsession, or merely an obsession of landed privilege?). Or that old and almost sacred story (what do we use the term ‘sacred’ for, if it isn’t to place things beyond examination?) of Australia’s coming-of-age through war. Which war? Whose? At the time of the particular war in question – the First World War – Australia had a population of five million. It now has a population of over twenty million, most of whom arrived, or are the descendants of people who arrived, in the sixty-four years since the second world war ended. They have come from so many wars, and for a great many of them war has hitherto meant the end, not the beginning, of their nation. No, even that sacred beast has to be corralled somehow, somehow enclosed.

But this corralling of what earlier generations of Australians have been used to being, this re-thinking and re-positioning, can be tricky. Turning away from these things, what do we turn toward? The conception of Australian Literature as post-colonial, for example, quintessentially useful and understandable as it is, is also full of and, in the contemporary context, deeply flawed by its unconscious cultural hegemony, its Anglo-centrism. So too, perhaps, we have to be wary of the conception of multiculturalism itself. What does it mean to be multicultural? Can there be, for example, a ‘multicultural’ individual who has not relegated his/her original culture in order to be so? Can there be a multiculture? In one sense it is a term we all seem almost intuitively to understand, but in another sense it is a very strange term indeed, a one-word oxymoron, with implications – demands – we may not have anticipated. It is, perhaps, a term that comes, and can come, only from the governors, not the subalterns. Much recent Australian Literature, similarly – to turn to a further and very tricky area – has been preoccupied with the issue of redress and reconciliation with indigenous Australia – and, again, although these are issues of paramount import and indisputable urgency, are they not also – the assumption that they are central to the literature itself – hegemonic, presumptuous, even (dare I say it?) arrogant, vis-à-vis that large and increasing proportion of Australians whose ancestors did not – to be excruciatingly reductive – poison the waterholes, steal the land, or sell the tjuringas on the open market?

Australia is also a post-holocaustal country, a country post-Cultural Revolution, a post-Communist country. It is also a country post-Saddam Hussein, post-Pol Pot, post-Milosevic, post-Pinochet. And its literature has to be also. Can all of these things be held together in the same cultural mind? The same frame? It is a challenge, there is no question about that; perhaps it is the challenge. Australian Literature, as we have been defining it, is a literature – and a company of teachers of that literature – obsessed with the question of national identity, but isn’t that, in a very deep and serious sense, also an oxymoron? I have a hunch that the more we pursue it the more, inevitably – in an age in which, internationally, we are witnessing the eclipse of nations – we marginalise ourselves.

But I can’t help but feel – to return to my perhaps rather mysterious opening statement – that there is something else in play here. That gale I referred to. A change in the nature of understanding, a change in the construal of meaning, a change – more pertinently – in the nature of reading. Increasingly over the last decade I have been becoming alarmed by what seems a kind of illiteracy at the highest levels – the M.Phil and PhD theses – of student production, a development which presents itself over and again as a failure of close reading. Arguments seem half-constructed, on impressions rather than understanding of texts; students do not seem aware that they must read a text carefully – that it can be read carefully, to narrow in upon and even corral its meanings. Rather than being read for themselves and what they have to say, texts are raided for what seems to support a wider argument, regardless of whether, in actuality, the wider texts do support the argument. Very often, since in some people’s minds we are only just emerging from what we might later call an Age of Theory, these students, or their theses, have been raiding the literary texts for material to support a particular theoretical approach, and in so doing – another contemporary malaise – privileging theories of the text over the text itself. And yet even here, as often as not, when one looks at the theory (or theorist) about which a particular thesis turns, one finds that this, too, has been raided and only half-read, half understood.

But here is the rub. It recently and suddenly occurred to me, reading in annoyance and frustration yet another PhD thesis dogged by this kind of failure, that, justified as I still felt myself to be – the practise is deeply engrained indeed – it may be that I was missing something, mis-construing this situation somehow, and that what I was observing was a kind of post-modern thinking, post-modern arguing, and post-modern reconceptualizing of meaning, a new way of reading that had been coming-to-be about me for some time (an embarrassing amount of which time I had been ‘teaching’ the ‘theory’ of postmodernism, ‘teaching’ the ‘theory’ of multiculturalism!), and that what I had been doing was asserting a kind of reading and meaning-making/meaning-finding that represented the very authenticity and essentialism that, with another part of my brain, I had been quite happy for decades to speak of postmodernism as challenging and eclipsing. This is the gale I was speaking about in my opening – call it a gale, call it a tide: they can both be very strong and dangerous to those who do not allow for them – and I open and close my paper upon it because I do not think we can separate, in any insular, provincial, parochial fashion, the fate of Australian literary studies from it.

[i] This essay originated as a keynote address to the Indian Australian Studies Association biennial conference in Kolkata in 2008. It was revised for publication January 2010, at which point some further footnotes were added. I have added two more in the process of preparing the essay for web installation..

[ii] [2010]The debate had a salutary effect. Even as this paper was being prepared (November/December 2007), the Federal Government was formulating a plan to establish a new Chair of Australian Literature at whatever Australian university made the most attractive bid for it, a key consideration in which – since the government had no intention of funding the chair fully – was the amount of money that the bidder was prepared to contribute. This chair went to the University of Western Australia. This plan, originally proposed by the Howard government, perhaps as a pre-election strategy, was subsequently honoured by the Rudd government.

[iii] [2010]             (1) It should be noted that this paper was written during the last months of the Liberal government of John Howard, and that that long government (eleven years) had been particularly unhelpful to higher education in Australia. The new, Labor government has given tertiary education a higher priority, though there are signs already of capitulation to what it would no doubt term realpolitik and a return to leaner times and attitudes.

(2) The reader interested in this point will find a useful and concise presentation of the problem, made quite contemporaneously, in Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, Ch.08:

[W]hat universities suffered during the 1980s and 1990s was pretty shameful, as under threat of having their funding cut they allowed themselves to be turned into business enterprises, in which professors who had previously carried on their enquiries in sovereign freedom were transformed into harried employees required to fulfil quotas under the scrutiny of professional managers.

[iv] [2011] Just recently, teachers and advocates of Australian Literature around the country greeted with some alarm a newspaper report that there was now no dedicated unit, let alone course of study, in Australian Literature available at the University of Melbourne, and that students who wished to learn more about the literature of their own country were having to organise a seminar of their own.

[v] [2010] This situation has, thankfully, improved since the appointment of a new Professor of Australian Literature in 2007 and the re-absorption, after a dramatic decline in enrolments in that area, of the university’s Australian Studies program into Australian Literature. There are now [January 2010] five positions in this area.

[vi] See previous footnote.

[vii] At the time that this paper was delivered Australia and India were playing out the fourth of a four-test series in Australia.

[viii] [2011] Although it ironically only serves to support my point about cricket, it seems that I spoke too soon: already some of these courses have been cut, for economic reasons that have nothing to do with the Creative Writing program itself.  A more accurate number now (September 2011) would be twenty, rather than thirty.