Who Cares About Australian Classics?

In a nice departure from the traditional Australia Day focus on flags and sporting heroes, the Sunday Age has marked the lead-up to the occasion with an editorial decrying our ‘tendency to anti-intellectualism’.

It lamented the fact that Australia’s ‘great writers, artists, soldiers, politicians and scientists … take second place to footballers, cricketers, swimmers and tennis players’.

‘As we approach Australia Day and make our plans for the beach or the backyard, it’s worth reflecting on what we are losing through this neglect of our classics. They are our stories written in our voices, and give us specific clues as to how we became the country we are today.’

In an opinion piece published alongside the editorial, Michael Heyward, publisher of Text Publishing, argued that while Australia has come a long way in recent decades when it comes to valuing and celebrating our homegrown authors, we ‘seem not to care’ about the great authors and books of our past, neglecting to keep them in print and to consistently teach them in our universities.

‘Those of us who choose and influence what people might read – publishers, professors, teachers, journalists, commentators, editors – have done a lamentable job of curating the primary materials of our literary history,’ wrote Heyward.

He said it will take ‘all kinds of effort’ to change both publishing and academic cultures. Increased adaption of Australian novels to film and television was one proposed solution, while he also suggested that the rise of the eBook ‘may liberate some writers from the dungeons of neglect’.

Making old books new

Text will release a new series, Text Australian Classics, in 2012, featuring titles such as David Ireland’s (currently out of print) The Glass Canoe, winner of the 1976 Miles Franklin Award, as well as earlier works by current favourites such as Kate Grenville and Peter Temple.

It’s not the first time Text has dabbled in resurrecting neglected works of Australian writing. In 2009, Madeleine St John’s debut novel The Women in Black (1993) – never before published in Australia, though set in Sydney – was published in a handsome new edition, packaged with accolades from much-loved Australians like Barry Humphries, Helen Garner and Clive James. The novel, a sharp-witted, affectionate portrait of a group of women working in the ladies department of a store much like David Jones, was embraced by both critics and readers; it was followed by new editions of St John’s subsequent novels.

The Late Great: Christina Stead

Christina Stead's work has enjoyed renewed interest thanks to some high profile endorsers.

The endorsement of a popular writer was also integral to the recent renewal of interest in Christina Stead, after The Man Who Loved Children (1940) was given a rave review by Jonathan Franzen in The New York Times. Melbourne University Press published a new edition, with a stylish cover and introduction by Franzen, shortly afterwards. This was followed by new editions of Letty Fox: Her Luck (with a foreword by Carmen Callil) and For Love Alone (with a foreword by Drusilla Modjeska).

Stylish new editions and canny endorsements or introductions designed to lure new readers seem to be an integral (and, it seems, effective) part of the publisher’s bag of tricks when relaunching forgotten or neglected classics – literally making the old new again.

Books on film

Another Australian classic, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), enjoyed a resurgence thanks to these tricks (an introduction by Peter Temple and afterword by David Stratton) when the 1971 film was restored and re-released in 2009. The film attracted a wave of media coverage and allowed an accompanying film tie-in edition (again, from Text Publishing, who had also published a 1993 edition).

Barbara Creed, head of culture and communications at the University of Melbourne, told The Age that she agreed with Heyward about the need for more Australian novels on the screen. She said, ‘Whenever a novel is adapted to screen … there is a boost in sales of the book as a result.’

Young appetites for Oz lit

Creed also said that a dedicated Australian literature course was back on the university’s syllabus this year. Last year, a group of students had started their own Australian literature studies, in the absence of such a subject. (‘An unusual situation,‘ Creed said.)

This enthusiasm from students so actively keen to steep themselves in Australian writing is, at least, a good sign.

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