Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


What is new with the Australian Novel?

Nicholas Birns

The impetus for us editing this volume came from two sources. One was the sense that Elizabeth Webby’s The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2001), a fine work for its era, needed updating, and that the Australian novel, as a genre, deserved its own Companion. This was especially true given not just new novelists, but the new ideas of fiction that had emerged in the intervening two decades. The second source was our feeling that the Australian novel was seen worldwide too much in terms of its content and not its form. Part of this phenomenon had to do with the particular route Australian literature took in reaching the world stage. When Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, the Swedish Academy praised him for “bringing a new continent into literature.” This may have been true in terms of being the first Australian to win the prize. But White was not the first significant Australian novelist, and indeed, as our Companion shows, he had important predecessors working in the nineteenth century. Moreover, White’s achievements must be understood in terms of form, too: he could be described as an expressionist novelist as much as an Australian novelist. White’s queer sexuality, not really public at the time he was given the award, is also marginalized by that description. A decade later, Booker Prizes won by Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey brought Australian literature to even greater prominence. But their reception was still characterized by a neglect of form, which did injustice to the skill of Keneally and especially Carey. Carey’s concern with fictionality, self-exposure, and his questioning the ethical and epistemic status of the Australian project itself, was well-known to his readers, but did not inflect characterizations of Australian fiction as a category.

 We wanted to call attention to the formal innovations and styles of Australian fiction, ranging from the “many-charactered” social reference of Christina Stead to the spare discernments of Helen Garner, from the metaphysical inwardness of Gerald Murnane to the scabrous satire of Christos Tsiolkas. Gail Jones and Michelle de Kretser, in very different ways, have revised inherited forms, giving new life to received paradigms. There are whole new styles of novelistic writing emerging from Western Sydney, led by writers like Michael Mohammed Ahmad. The internet and social media have given Australian writers world reach that they did not have before, while the threat of climate change has imperiled the ecological welfare of Australia itself. We also wanted to emphasize how diverse Australian fiction has become. This diversity includes the achievement of Asian diaspora writing and, in general, the literary production in Australia of People of Color and/or of non-English speaking background (or those who fall into the category sometimes called CaLD, or ‘Culturally and Linguistically Diverse’, in Australia). This diversity is not just in terms of writers, but also of readerships: it includes the diversity of those who study Australian literature. Our contributors include people of many different backgrounds and at different stages of their careers. We include several authors who are award-wining creative writers as well as academics, whose criticism becomes a hybrid genre of the creative and the expository. In addition to scholars working within Australia, it includes academics in the United States and in China (where Hong Chen, the contributor of our chapter on Patrick White, works and teaches). We seek a broadened conception of Australian literary space, recognizing that this space can, in the persons of visitors, emigrants, and migrants, extends worldwide and even include writer such as Behrouz Boochani, who was destined by the Australian government on Manus Island and prevented from entering Australia itself.

The most consequential change in Australian fiction in the past generation, though, has undoubtedly been the visibility and imaginative manifestation of First Nations writing. First Nations writers such as the Waanyi novelist Alexis Wright and the Noongar novelist Kim Scott, are now at the forefront of Australian fiction. They are also the most frequently assigned writers in college literature courses. Our book includes entire chapters on the oeuvres of both Wright and Scott. But, in recognition of the priority and unceded sovereignty of First Nations people in Australia, the book includes two overview essays on First Nations literature by well-known First Nations academics and creative writers, Jeanine Leane and Evelyn Araluen. These chapters provide background for readers seeking to educate themselves about the material and discursive contexts of First Nations writing, including the place of the 1992 Mabo High Court decision in the struggle for Indigenous land rights in Australia. Other chapters on specific themes, such as those on Anthropocene fiction and on the verse novel as a genre, also give considerable scope to First Nations writers, among them Ali Cobby Eckermann and Tara June Winch, while Declan Fry’s chapter addresses First Nations Transnationalism in the novel and beyond. There cannot be a conversation about the Australian novel today that does not engage seriously and deeply with First Nations writing.

Much then has changed in the Australian novel in the first two decades of the twentieth century. We are very grateful to Cambridge University Press. Dedication not only to our project but to three other books that will be published in upcoming months and years: The Cambridge History of the Australian Novel (edited by David Carter), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Poetry (edited by Ann Vickery), and The Cambridge History of Australian poetry (edited by Ann Vickery and Philip Mead). Together, these volumes show an Australian literature transformed both materially and conceptually from what it was a short time ago. We are very pleased that our book is at the forefront of this new vision of what Australian literature is and can, in the future, be.

The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel by Nicholas Birns and Louis Klee

About The Author

Nicholas Birns

Nicholas Birns teaches at New York University. He is author of The Hyperlocal in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Literary Space (2019) and Contemporary Australian Literature: A W...

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