Is Australian literature suffering a slow and painful death? The study of Australian literature is certainly suffering a decline in popularity. Australian readers don’t feel the need to pick up local product over others. The idea of a national literature in Australia is fast becoming a very small idea indeed.
A glance at the latest Ladbrokes odds for the Nobel Prize in literature reveals a single Australian name - that of Gerald Murnane. The sparsity of Australian names is not surprising. Combined with a number of events in the Australian literary world in the past months, it is clear that the reputation of Australian literature in its home country is on the nose.
We’ve seen a couple of journalists submit a chapter from a Patrick White novel to various Australian publishers who all rejected it, apparently not recognising it as a hoax or appreciating the writing itself. The Institute of Public Affairs included Patrick White's Nobel award on their list of “Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes” as they believe it led to reckless and wasteful arts funding that reinforced political correctness at the cost of ability.
Within the space of a week, a car driver and a crocodile wrangler were granted state funerals while the death of an accomplished Australian writer was all but ignored.
The only high point has been the appearance of two Australian writers (Kate Grenville and M.J. Hyland) on the Booker Prize short list.
Aside from all this poor PR for Australian literature, perhaps a more salient development is the decline of the study of Australian literature in Australian universities, as a literature in its own right.
It has been known for some time that the study of Australian literature has lost popularity. There’s no future in studying it. At least, that's the message incoming students are given when enrolling in university English departments (or their equivalent).
In The Weekend Australian on September 30, 2006 - 1 October David Malouf expressed his concern that serious study of Australian literature is just not being taught:
Fifteen or 20 years ago, every university in Australia taught something called Australian literature. Now no university - there might be one left in the country - teaches Australian literature. That whole notion that there was a literature which you read has gone. A serious consideration of what Australian writing is has gone.
(The University of Sydney Department of English maintains Australian literature as an area of study and has a Chair of Australian Literature).
The story in publishing is much the same: a national literature is not a priority. As Malouf points out in his interview, readers are not as parochial as they once were, there is no automatic allegiance to local product. Of course, if it doesn’t sell, it’s not going to catch the eye of publishers.
There could be a number of reasons for Australians turning away from Australian literature: poor quality, poor publicity or lack of support from local publishers. The fact is, the readership is declining and serious study is almost non-existent.
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