Australian Contemporary Fiction – Underexposed!

When we think “Australian Literature” an established canon of classics, as well as a standard stock list of  high profile, contemporary writers come to mind.  Unfortunately, that’s about it.

April is Aussie Author Month – 30 days of celebrating and exploring Australian literature across all genres.  For April last year, I put together a list of My Top 5 personal favourite Australian books (link currently unavailable). This year I wanted to explore what Australians are reading. What are the best Australian reads? Most importantly, I wanted to think about why, despite our thriving literary scene and interest in local content, there seems to be very little exposure to contemporary writers and works beyond these established standards of classics and high profile writers?  I even have an answer to this last point.

“Best Australian Books” I asked the oracle…. (Google)
Happily, I see my own short article celebrating 2011’s Australian Author Month on the front page of Google results. My Five Great Australian Books was an easy list to make – I just picked Five Australian books, including a picture book, that have touched me in some way.  I don’t claim these are The Best or in any way quintessential Australian books, just personal favourites.

cloudstreetYour Favourite Australian Book topped the Google results – a survey conducted by ABC Radio, ABC Online and the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) in 2004. Your Favourite Australian Book considered novels, short fiction and poetry anthologies and non-fiction by Australian citizens or permanent residents, and also included pre-Federation (1901) titles. Here are the results:

  1. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton (1991)
  2. A Fortunate Life – AB Facey (1981)
  3. Dirt Music – Tim Winton (2001)
  4. My Brother Jack – George Johnston (1964)
  5. The Magic Pudding – Norman Lindsay (1918)
  6. The Tree of Man – Patrick White (1955)
  7. Seven Little Australians – Ethel Turner (1894)
  8. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – Henry Handel Richardson (1917)
  9. Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden (1993)
  10. My Place – Sally Morgan (1953)
  11. Power Without Glory – Frank Hardy (1950)
  12. Power of One – Bryce Courtenay (1989)
  13. Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey (1988)
  14. The Harp in the South – Ruth Park (1948)
  15. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – May Gibbs (1918)
  16. Eucalyptus – Murray Bail (1998)
  17. The Idea of Perfection – Kate Grenville (1999)
  18. The Ancient Future – Traci Harding (1996)
  19. I Can Jump Puddles – Alan Marshall (1955)
  20. Voss – Patrick White (1957)

The titles on this list are for the most part, quite old and many of them, even the contemporary titles are centered on Australia’s past.  Is this an accurate representation of Australia’s writing and reading habits? Given also this survey is now eight years old, I wanted another opinion.

In January 2011, the Booktopia Book Guru, also known as John Purcell, published a similar survey list on the Booktopia Blog. Booktopia conducted the survey through social media with its 5500 Twitter followers and 40,000+ Facebook fans.  Booktopia, clearly no small force in the Australian book world, came up with The 50 Must Read Australian Books  – (The Popular Vote 2010)

Alternative-Cover-the-book-thief-by-markus-zusak-5682092-250-3851. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton (1991)
2. Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay (1967)
3. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak (2006)
4. Seven Little Australians – Ethel Turner (1894)
5. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin (1901)
6. The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas (2008)
7. My Brother Jack – George Johnston (1964)
8. The Magic Pudding – Norman Lindsay (1918)
9. The Harp in the South – Ruth Park (1948)
10. The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Stead (1940)
11. Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks (2001)
12. For the Term of His Natural Life – Marcus Clarke (1870-1872)
13. I Can Jump Puddles – Alan Marshall (1955)
14. Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey (2009)
15. Power Without Glory – Frank Hardy (1950)
16. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – Thomas Keneally (1972)
17. The Spare Room – Helen Garner (2008)
18. The Getting of Wisdom – Handel Richardson (1910)
19. The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay (1989)
20. Eucalyptus – Murray Bail (1998)
21. True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey (2000)
22. The Broken Shore – Peter Temple (2005)
23. We of the Never Never – Jeannie/Aeneas Gunn (1908)
24. The Bodysurfers – Robert Drewe (1983)
25. Tirra Lirra By the River – Jessica Anderson (1978)
26. Shiralee – Darcy Niland (1955)
27. The Boat – Nam Le (2009)
28. The Secret River – Kate Grenville (2005)
29. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough (1977)
30. Ride On Stranger – Kylie Tennant (1943)
31. Ice Station – Matthew Reilly (1998)
32. Voss – Patrick White (1957)
33. Maestro – Peter Goldsworthy (1989)
34. Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan (2001)
35. Praise – Andrew McGahan (1992)
36. Dog Boy – Eva Hornung (2009)
37. The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony – Hal Porter (1963)
38. After America – John Birmingham (2010)
39. Butterfly – Sonya Hartnett (2009)
40. A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz (2008)
41. Things We Didn’t See Coming – Steven Amsterdam (2009)
42. It’s Raining in Mango – Thea Astley (1987)
43. White Gardenia – Belinda Alexandra (2003)
44. Ransom – David Malouf (2009)
45. The Timeless Land – Eleanor Dark (1941)
46. I Came To Say Goodbye – Caroline Overington (2010)
47. Diamond Dove – Adrian Hylands (2007)
48. Disco Boy – Dominic Knight (2009)
49. Cocaine Blues: A Phryne Fisher Mystery – Kerry Greenwood (1989)
50. After the Fall – Kylie Ladd (2009)

There is never going to be a list of novels that appeals to ever reader’s complete tastes, and readers, myself included, do read other Australian books not listed. We’re dealing here in generalisations based on observations.  However, lists such as this one do reveal certain tendencies in reading habits.

High profile names keep cropping up – Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Patrick White.  This list also reveals that same connection to history either in classic novels or in modern novels rooted in the past, like Cloudstreet or The Secret River. In both lists there is also a considerable number of tales of struggle and hardship, especially connected to the land and a rural setting.

Even with these similarities, Booktopia’s list is a lot more varied than the ABC ASA survey results, even just comparing the Top 20, and does include some more popular modern titles, including The Book Thief and The Slap, and more generic diversity. It is a far more satisfying presentation of the Australian literary scene, but still not nearly a complete picture.

I put the question into Internet-Land. “How Many of these ‘Must Reads’ Have You Read?”  34 people responded over two days, which isn’t a large sample, but certain interesting patterns have emerged in the results.

With little exception, few had read more than 10 and the same titles kept cropping up. Cloudstreet, The Book Thief, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Magic Pudding, and Seven Little Australians, took the most votes with Picnic at Hanging Rock taking the overall lead.  Most of the read titles were from the Top 20. Most responses mentioned at least one title they had started but not finished, though the results here only include complete reads.  Similar patterns to my small survey can be seen in the reader comments on the original Booktopia Blog post.

Many readers who left their comments expressed a sense of regret at the number they had read.  Many expressed they “should read more,” or “I ashamed to admit…”.  I’m included in this, a curious sense of guilt emerging when I see I’ve read only 4 novels from this list (and 2 from the previous list – both by Tim Winton), and I admit, had not even heard of some of them.  This emotional response is interesting in itself – we somehow expect ourselves to be more invested in our national literature and make apologies when we’re not. Why aren’t we? Why do we feel bad about it?

Australia celebrates a wide cultural diversity, and there is an enormous range of Australian novels out there that do reflect this.  Our reading habits however are drawn to standards, familiarity and classics. Cultural diversity seems to be lacking in our national approach to national literature, not the content of the literature itself.  And this is not something that is confined to my own reading habits or these surveys.

The Goodreads discussion forum for the reading group Aussie Readers, reflects these same patterns with frequent discussion of classic and high profile authors as favourite Australian reads.  This group does at least have some talk about some less well known authors.

The Australian Government website has a page discussing Australian novels. With the exception of Tim Winton and Peter Carey, only novelists from bygone generations are given any attention. The page also discusses the importance of the Australian landscape, the development of national tales through our convict history, and a brief mention of the verse novel. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive analysis of Australian novel scene but as a page on the official Australian Government website, shouldn’t there be more of an attempt to highlight some of our literary diversity or give more attention to contemporary writers besides those we are already familiar with? Not only for our own exposure to local content, but also how Australian literature is perceived overseas.   One response to my online discussions came from a writer connection from Portland, Oregon in the United States who said she had read a Garth Nix (fantasy genre) book in 2004, but when I asked her about having read anything straight fiction, she replied: “I feel like I very rarely even SEE Australian literature!” This is hardly surprising.  I feel the same way, unless I actively seek out a particular novel, author or something “Australian” to read.

Recently, ABC’s Radio National started an Australian Classics Book Club following a feature on Text Publishing, an Australian publisher currently running reissues of previously out-of-print classic Australian novels. The report, which you can download and listen to here, was greatly focused on preserving the history of the past Australian literary scene and lamenting the demise of classic Australian literature being taught in schools and universities.
Understanding of our national history of and through literature is indeed vitally important for understanding how the country has grown and changed, yet without the same level of exposure to our contemporary literature, we’re not going to understand what we have grown into, where our literary voices have taken us,  or get an idea of where we might be headed next.
Understanding literature is understanding the world and Australian reading habits for the most part seem to have that world rooted in some vague sense of past. Where our reading does take us into more modern lives, it is generally the same high profile names that guide us.

If we keep reading these same books by these same writers, if we keep only discussing these same high profile and classic books, keep reading books in the same themes, we’ll never learn anything new.
Recommendations from friends or in reviews or in lists like these, inform a lot of our choice of what to read next as they set the mark of what is worthy of reading.   Many of the more modern and diverse title from Booktopia’s list won prestigious local literary awards, achieving notoriety at least in their year of release, even if their stars have dimmed a little since.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but when the same books keep getting highlighted, the same authors keep getting exposed, the lesser known works which may be just as deserving of attention become obscured to the point of invisibility. My Own Top 5 list from last year is also guilty of this, as is my personal reading habit.

It is not as though there is no interest in contemporary or even less well known Australian literature. If there was the numerous writing festivals held around the state capitals every year would not be nearly as popular as they are, there would not be as many Australian literary journals, there would be no Australian authors under 60 (who aren’t Tim Winton).  Are all of these literary minded Australians only reading Cloudstreet and My Brilliant Career? Of course not.

What are Australians reading besides books on these lists? Again I consulted Internet-Land.  Even among my international connections, Australian speculative fiction has a dedicated following.  Authors including Alison Goodman, Sean Williams, Jennifer Fallon, Glenda Larke and Sara Douglass kept popping up.  The speculative fiction scene in Australia is thriving with numerous small and independent genre specific publishers and a strong community of writers and readers supporting a print and digital novel industry, as well as journals (print and digital) and anthology publications.  There was also a strong response to other genre fictions, chick lit and romance especially.  Matthew Reilly’s action adventure spy novels are particularly popular and do appear on Booktopia’s survey.

2012 is Australia’s National Year of Reading and in celebration of this and Australian Author Month, I am urging a change in Australian contemporary reading habits, and a change in the way Australian Literature is written about.
I’m not saying do away with the established canon of classics and the High Profile names, just that classics and these already familiar contemporary writers are only one part of our literary landscape.  Tim Winton, while absolutely deserving of his accolades and popularity is not the be all and end all of contemporary Australian writing.  So, let’s all look a little deeper into our own backyards and outside of these lists for the next novel we pick up to either read or review – some of the images in the second half of this article may be a start. This is, after all the only way to find new classics of Australian Literature.

What do you think? Is Australia’s contemporary literary scene underexposed?

What are your favourite Australian reads, and how many of them are not on these lists?

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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