Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Australian Canon

I am trying to put together a list of Australian books for my Reading Australian Writing class that would help to give a sense of Australia's 'canon'. I am also teaching a Novels class, and we discussed the cultural cringe in that class too. A few names came up as quintessential Australian writers (Tim Winton and Bryce Courtney mainly), but many of these readers had never, for example, encountered some of our brilliant urban writers. So I want to offer a range of choices and voices, including some more urban literature. Short stories and poetry are important too of course, though I feel like it's easier to access a 'canon' for short stories and poetry because of the number of anthologies available that can point you towards an author's body of work.

So far I have, in no particular order:
Something by Patrick White (suggestions? I've only read The Vivisector)
Something by Peter Carey (suggestions? I'm a bit underwhelmed by Peter Carey's writing, but I do think he's part of our 'canon'. Perhaps True History of the Kelly Gang*?)
The Grisly Wife by Rodney Hall
Lillian's Story by Kate Grenville
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin*
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (though anything by her would go on my list)
Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
Monkey Grip (and The Spare Room) by Helen Garner
Three Dollars by Eliot Perlman
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
The Plains by Gerald Murnane*
Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Capricornia by Xavier Herbert*
The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
The Boys in the Island by Christopher Koch
Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardsonm (or should that be Fortunes of Richard Mahoney*?)

Okay I'm flagging. I want to include Susan Johnson in this list, but I'm not sure which one, maybe Hungry Ghosts? Should I put Beverly Farmer down, or should I acknowledge that her novels, though sparkling with the same prose as her stories lack something (when her short stories are often perfect). Randolph Stowe - Merry go round in the sea? Ivan Southall, Eleanor Spence are two more definites...but again, not sure which title. And there's so many more of course. Oh yeah, Richard Flanagan.

Anyway, join in. Australian recommended reads for emerging Australian writers and scholars. And if you also don't read Australian books, then why not? I will compile a more definitive list using your suggestions. If you think any of the above should be removed, make a case for that too.

*The ones with stars I haven't read but I know enough to know I should have.


  1. How about Janette Turner Hospital? I really love her books.

  2. Oh yes, wow, that was quick!

  3. Love it!

    I must, however, say that I feel that an "Australian Canon" seems somewhat paradoxical, given the implied elitism when it comes to the concept of The Canon, which relies on there being an "authority" on literature, given an arguably anti-authoritarian nature that is very much intrinsic to our culture.

    At what point do we draw the line? What defines whether, say, "Praise" makes the cut, but "He died with a felafel in his hand" doesn't?

    That said, I think there's a lot of important and excellent literature that we can be proud of, and deserving of being put in an "Australian Books You Must Read Before You Die" kind of collection, but it's not necessarily the same as having a definite "canon" per se...


    This is an article that favours a trash canon. He Died With a Felafel in his Hand definitely belongs in someone's canon.

    I agree, I have a problem with the whole notion of the canon too, which in a way has created this cultural cringe. The reason Australian books end up on the fringes is at least partly because of this conception that nothing important happens here, because all the real books were written overseas. I love that Australian literature is so filled with possibilities because its constantly reinventing itself and searching for another voice.

  5. Anonymous3:50 PM

    Henry Lawson's short stories or poetry.

    Barabara Baynton's 'Bush Studies'

    For urban writing Christos Tsiolkas.

    You have a lot of what I'd say already. Um, some Robert Drewe?

  6. Don't suggest the History of the Kelly gang by Peter's CRAP! Innacurate - of course and flawed in many other ways, namely yawn factor. I read Oscar and Lucinda many moons ago and remember enjoying that one.

    He's not really my cup of tea but what about Tom Keneally? Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Schindlers Ark fame amongst others. Wish my books weren't packed in boxes then I could suggest some more.

  7. Penni, good luck with this. Capricornia is a bit of a potboiler, IMHO. How about Christos Tsialkos (first book)?

    With Gerald Murnane I like Tamarisk Row, his first book.
    Murray Bail (Eucalyptus)
    Peter Carey's short stories are really good and I think the young 'uns in your class will get a kick out of their weirdness and politics.

    Randolph Stow's Tourmaline is a beautiful book. (Not so long either!)

    Tim Winton...I'd go That Eye, The Sky. (Couldn't finish Cloudstreet, it's the real reason I had to leave WA.)

    Is there anything funny? Barry Dickins? We're not vry funny, are we? (He Died With a Felafel in his hand is a great suggestion!)

    Boy, good luck!

  8. PS, my wife taught a non-fiction calss at Melb Uni. The students hadn't heard of Helen Garner, let alone read her. Post First Stone and all. Go figure.

  9. Frank Moorhouse, Grand Days and Dark Palace

    Amy Witting, I For Isobel

    Margo Lanagan - anything

    Patricia Wrightson? Ivan Southall? My bias is showing, I know...!

  10. I would include Loaded or The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and definitely Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey rather than the Kelly Gang. There's also a collection of Peter Carey short stories, the name of which eludes me that was terrific when I was studying. Also maybe something by Richard Flannagan - not Gould's Fish (urrgh) but maybe The Sound of One Hand Clapping or The Terrorist. And although she's proabably not considered all that literary I really enjoyed Nikki Gemmell's Cleave.

  11. The Fat Man in History is a good Peter Carey short story collection.

    David Malouf? I remember enjoying Fly Away Peter years ago. But there's plenty of other ones.

    Dorothy Porter? Sam Watson? Helen Garner's fiction? Luke Davies's Candy - that's very urban.

    And I love Voss of Patrick White's, but it's not exactly getting away from the rural mythology now is it?

  12. The Secret River by Kate Grenville
    Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
    and our very own thirdcat's book has just been released - 'Black Dirt Dancing' (I haven't got my hands on a copy yet but I'll bet it's ace).

  13. Hal Porter, Shirley Hazzard, Thea Astley?

    My box of Aus lit was lost in transit, I can't think clearly without them in front of me but agree That Eye, The Sky.
    LOVED Monkey Grip.

  14. Ok.... (Ooops, I'm just about to take over your comment box.)

    I second Barbara Baynton and Henry Lawson - I'm not terribly familiar with them but should be. Actually I'm terribly read in early Australian fiction. Also yes to Oscar and Lucinda. I'm not a bit Carey fan either but he is terribly clever. (I also like his short stories.) I couldn't get into The True History but plan to try again because loads of people I respect think it's awesome.

    My favourite David Maloufs are Johnno and An Imaginary Life.

    Definitely The Merry-go-round in the Sea. Yes Tourmaline is gorgeous and incredible but Merry-go-round is beautiful and accessible (and actually quite a lot more complex than you might initially think). Merry-go-round would pair very well with Johnno because of the Second World War stuff. And while we're there we could throw in Midnite, which parodies Voss brilliantly.

    Yep I'd have Voss. (My supervisor at Leeds, incidentally, teaches Voss, Lilian's Story, Cloudstreet and Merry-go-round in the Sea as part of a Masters level Australian/New Zealand literature course.)

    I'd also include something like Vance Palmer's The Legend of the Nineties. I know we're a long way away from that view of things now, but it's really interesting to see where they were coming from fifty years ago, and it would give them something to deconstruct. (It's also quite short and fun to read.)

    And POETRY!! I guess you should mention Patterson. But especially Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Les Murray, John Forbes (strange and brilliant), John Tranter, there's a lovely anthology called 'Bridgings: Readings in Australain Women's Poetry'... That's really only the tip of the iceberg but I'd better get out of your comments box now!

  15. ps. in response to your twitter: nooooooooooooo! iphones are the best! i'm so envious of michael's.

  16. Maestro by Peter Goldworthy
    The Aunts by Patrick White
    Timeless Land by Eleanor Dark
    Come in Spinner by Cusack and James
    My Place by Sally Morgan
    It would be great to include at least a couple of Indigenous writers

  17. I loved "A Fringe of Leaves" by Patrick White. It's the only PW I have read so far.

  18. Anonymous8:54 AM

    Well, be sure to share your final list because I am pretty ignorant of Australian writers -- other than a few fabulous Young Adult authors I have stumbled across. I would love to be acquainted with more!

  19. I'm not quite sure what canon means in this context, but if we're looking at 'important' or defining Australian books, I'd say:

    My Brother Jack isn't there, or A Fortunate Life, which I think would be seen as Australian 'classics'.

    Praise I think was part of that new generation of what is a bit casually called grunge. But it's a fine and wonderful book. And urban.

    It strikes me the list is a little light on Indigenous authors. Mudrooroo was a breakthrough Indigenous author, I think. For my money, the Wild Cat books are important, or Dr Wooreddy's Prescription for Enduring the End of the World.

    For a female Indigenous perspective, My Place or Ruby Langford Ginibi's Don't Take Your Love to Town.

    And, can I just say, Felafel probably sums up a classic stage in many people's lives, and should be included. Lot's of people read it.

    Personally, hated True History - Oscar and Lucinda is better; and would go for Richard Mahoney, although it's scary fat for students.

    No Colleen McCullough, I see. Thorn Birds was a staple of the bookshelves of every adult in my childhood. How quickly we forget ...

  20. Something by Elizabeth Jolley? Helen Garner's Monkey Grip?

  21. Anonymous6:44 PM

    Here's my bit.

    My favourite Patrick White is Riders in the Chariot. I have tried to finish Voss many times.

    People have got so far away from the bush there's always a chance some will enjoy going back or discovery. I really like Such is Life (very funny to me) but it's not for everyone - a bit of hillbilly in your soul helps.

    The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd and the other novels of the Langton family saga offer a fascinating picture of soiety and travel.

    Kylie Tennant, I prefer Ride on Stranger to the Battlers. The Communist literare is worth a look and aspects of censorship in Oz.

    With the Fortunes Of RM, the first book Australia Felix can be read alone.

    Another funny book is Three Persons Make a Tiger by Dal Stivens. The chief character is the Monkey King.

    What about Jonah by Louis Stone or Redheap by Norman Lindsay?

  22. Anonymous7:04 PM

    Robert Desaix, Night Letters
    Ivan Southall, Hills End
    Shane Maloney, any of the Murray Whelan books
    Richard Flanagan, The Sound of One Hand Clapping or Death of a River Guide
    Seconding Monkey Grip.
    Ruth Park, Poor Man's Orange or Playing Beattie Bow
    Amy Whiting, I is for Isobel

  23. How about "The fat man in history" by Peter Carey. His very early book of short stories are unbeatable, I think.

  24. Anonymous3:47 AM

    Oh, and I forgot 'The October Child" by Eleanor Spence.

  25. I don't know what became of him, but "Out of the Line of Fire" by Mark Henshaw is one of my favourite Aus books ever.

  26. Puberty Blues.

    Tee hee.

  27. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

    (otherwise I agree with all that has been mentioned already)

  28. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Elizabeth Jolley's The Well

    Thea Astley's It's Raining in Mango

    Eve Langley's The Pea-Pickers

    I love Patrick White's Eye of the Storm.

  29. 'Coonardoo' by Katherine Susannah Pritchard (1920s) and 'Butterfly Song' by Terri Janke (2005) are books I studied on an Australian course and enjoyed. Plus the May Gibbs gumnut stories.

  30. Anonymous3:25 PM

    Praise by Andrew McGahan is great, but so are his more recent ones like The White Earth and Last Drinks. Or anything by Georgia Blaine.

  31. Anonymous8:57 PM

    the tree of man by patrick white- transports the reader-
    poppy by drusilla modjeska, and maybe some dorothy hewitt

  32. the magic pudding!

    kate llewellyn is a beautiful writer (especially the waterlily and the mountain)

    moneky grip kept me sane when i was almost suicidal with culture shock homesickness in canberra

    amanda lohrey camille's bread and vertigo

  33. I haven't read much Eleanor Dark, but Waterway, one of her less well known books, seemed quintissentially Sydney to me.

    Also Harp in the South (Ruth Park) as someone else said. Possibly also the Shiralee, by Darcy Niland, and Oscar and Lucinda gets my vote from Peter Carey.

    Interesting list. I'll have to try some more of them.

  34. Ruth Park's 'Harp in the South'

    and Australia's best selling author:

    Max Walker - 'How to Hypnotize Chooks'

  35. George Johnston...My Brother Jack
    Kenneth Cook...Wake in Fright
    Tim Winton...Breath
    Randolph Stow...Tourmaline
    Andrew McGahan...1988
    David Malouf...12 Edmonstone Street
    Nene Gare...The Fringe Dwellers
    Alan Moorehead...Cooper's Creek
    Janette Turner Hospital...Oyster

    These are some of my favourite and most memorable novels.