On the need for a canon of Australian literature

01 Jan 2013 // books

I never used to, but I now believe firmly in a canon – a bonafide list of Australian novels that everyone ought to read. My moment of conversion happened at, of all places, a literary event. It was an event organized by the literary magazine Meanjin to celebrate great women writers of Australia. A panel of writers and publishers was put together to discuss a list of novels written by Australian women, and to launch a literary American-Idol of said novels. Despite the overt nature of the event, I was originally skeptical of the idea of a canon. But during the event I was surprising converted to the necessity of embracing a canon, due entirely to some of the (deplorable) quality of discourse I witnessed on the stage.

The irony was that at an event celebrating a canon of women writers, half the invited panel were openly hostile to the idea. It seemed the more the individual panelist did not believe in a canon, the more moronic was the discourse. The makeup of the panel was five, three women and two men. Of the men, one was an established author who was openly contemptuous of women's writing, proclaiming that he does not read novels written by women, whilst making bitter quips about women writers who had beaten him to several literary prizes. The other guy was a comedian who proudly admitted that he wasn't much of a reader and when asked to read aloud a description of several novels, decided the best way to do this was by mocking the book. It felt not a little gross.

The ultimate irony was that one of the women panelists, a young children's author, explicitly proclaimed she didn't believe in a canon, and in the next breath, admitted she had read not one of the novels. As the list of books was rather large, her comment was revealing of the breadth of her reading, and as such, she was unable to make a single enlightening comment about any of the books that she had been invited to discuss. Sadly, the reason she had been invited to the panel was that she herself had won a prize for her own book, an active piece of canonization that she felt somewhat embarassed about, although she did admit that the prize did help her sell books.

As you can imagine, there were no books on the list that all the panel had read. But there were three members of the panel that had not read any of the books. The discussion degenerated into the most facile discussion of literature, not much better than a half-hearted social book club, where you have a bunch of people talking and critiquing books that they had not yet read. The very low point was when the comedian started making jokes about the books based on the blurbs he had been given. But really what was he supposed to do? And this was meant to be a high-point of the literature of Australian women writers. Sigh.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that if you want to discuss books, to really discuss them and get at the meat of them, you have to, you know, actually read them. At least you should be able to name the protagonist, be aware of the plot points, and then maybe dive into the poetry of the prose and the philosophical and social ramifications.

Now there is a world of books out there, and although the book industry may be dying, the number of books being published have not. From sheer numbers alone, it would be pure coincidence that any two random people will have read the same books. Obviously, a discussion requires at a minimum, two people. So to have a fruitful discussion, both conversationalists will need to have read the same book. Given the miniscule chance of any two random people reading the same book, there is really little chance that a meaningful discussion of literature can really take place. Contrariwise, this means that as a community, if we want to have a discussion of literature, we will need to define a small list of books that educated readers ought to have have read. We will need to define a canon.

It seems to me that as a reading public we have a choice. Either you disavow a canon and preclude any meaningful discussion of literature, or, if you want to actually discuss literature, you will have to accept the necessity of defining a canon of Australian novels. However, advocating such a list of books does not necesarily mean these books are the "best", or the most "literary" or even the most "australian". It's simply that we need to build a platform to support a serious literary conversation, instead of the half-baked simulacra of a conversation that often passes for one. If we do manage to put together such a list, and almost any half decent list will do, it should be understood these books are simply meant to mark out points on our shared literary landscape. It would be just as effective for someone to despise the books on the canon as to love them. But having actually read the book, our happy hater should be able to articulate why they hate them, and then we can begin a real conversation, about the >ahem< books themselves. And this Meanjin list of Australian novels is a very good place to start.