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vendredi 5 août 2011

Opinion: “American Friends” and the Globalisation of Australian Studies Through the Looking Glass of an “Outsider”


“American Friends” and the Globalisation of Australian Studies Through the Looking Glass of an “Outsider”.




First and foremost, I wish to address my heartfelt thanks to Pr. Robert Dixon for granting me a travel scholarship, which made it possible for me to present my paper at this high-caliber international conference. This financial aid is the first I have ever received within the 14 years I have spent researching Australian fiction. As such, I take it as being an additional token of recognition of my work, which – incidentally – is often perceived as that of an outsider.

When reviewing Water From the Moon, my monograph on Chris Koch’s fiction, C.A. Cranston declared it to be “a work by someone situated outside the literary and geographical context of ‘Australia’.” (Cranston 117) Not that she was trying to make an uncharitable observation of any kind, but every time an Australian singles me out as a “French scholar” or anything else along these lines, I always find myself guilty of not having been born and bred in Australia. From such awareness derives the feeling that anyone writing in the field of Australian Studies beyond the boundaries of Australia would lack some kind of legitimacy.

Luckily, Australian journalist Simon Caterson bolstered my morale and helped me discard this hang-up of mine when he started his column in which he presented my monograph on the evolution of the Australian novel by saying: “It may be that only an outsider can fully appreciate the big cultural picture. Irish literature was put on the global academic map in the 1950s not by the Irish but by pioneering American scholars such as the great Joycean critic, Richard Ellmann.” (Caterson 21) While the belief that the work by external observers being as valuable as anything written by local academics is a solace to me, I do not go as far as to feel that non Australians necessarily show a more insightful and impartial appreciation of Australian fiction. Having said this, I believe that expressing yourself from the margin is very much like being a jester at the king’s court. While you enjoy greater freedom of speech, the onus of the thankless but essential task of touching the raw nerve rests with you. So allow me to apologize in advance for having to touch the raw nerve, as I will, without further ado, put myself in the jester’s shoes.

Back in November 2005, Nicholas Jose observed in an essay retracing the genesis of the PEN anthology project that “An earlier generation’s commitment to putting Australian literature on the world map has waned, leaving it pretty well off the world’s map, except for the representative writer or two who fills the slot. Australian literature has been squeezed by globalisation in the marketplace, intellectual fashion in the academy and opposition to cultural intervention in the public sphere.” (27) While Jose and Rosemary Neill (I’m here referring to her controversial piece in The Weekend Australian) touched the raw nerve by joining “the chorus of concern that Australian literature was losing its place” (as Jose has it in his general introduction to The Literature of Australia, p.2), they should be given credit for bringing greater awareness to the necessity of globalizing Australian literature.

On the face of it, the efforts, which are currently being made by American publishers and journal Editors in this respect, are nothing short of commanding admiration. Three New York-based publishers (Cambria Press, Camden House and Norton) have all decided at one stage to open up their series to English-language literatures of countries other than the US and the UK. But they have done it with different strategies that might reveal various degrees of interest and faith in Australian literature. I remember Cambria Press issuing in 2006 a call for writers to submit their manuscript to be considered for their new Literature, Film and Theory series. Among the long list of high-profile English-speaking writers they were interested to publish monographs on, were two Australian names: Peter Carey and David Malouf. As I had a manuscript on Koch almost ready to be submitted at that time, I got in touch with Paul Richardson and made a case for considering my work on a neglected but fine Tasmanian writer with an international profile. A couple of months later, the Review Committee accepted my study, which was finally released in August 2007. When I came to the 2007 ASAL conference in honor of Elizabeth Webby, I brought a stack of leaflets to both announce my forthcoming publication and promote the publishing opportunities offered by Cambria Press. What followed is now an open secret: Susan Lever had her work on David Foster published and was appointed Series Editor in the same breath, Bernadette Brennan managed to place her study of Brian Castro’s fiction, Ouyang Yu was able to produce a handsome monograph on Chinese in Australian Fiction, Paul Sharrad joined the growing pool of Australian Cambria writers with his Postcolonial Literary History and Indian English Fiction as well as Nathanael O’Reilly with his Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature. This opening up to Australian literature is all the more crucial since Robin Derricourt, former managing director of University of New South Wales Press, contends that “Arguably, there is no scholarly book (‘academic monograph’) publishing industry in Australia. Australian academics turn to overseas publishers to publish their specialist monographs and (sometimes via local distributors) to supply their libraries with their reference needs.” (Carter & Galligan, 225) Given that scholarly book publishing is on the wane in Australia, it is a remarkable feat that Cambria Press, a commercial publisher adept at selling its titles to university libraries around the world, is able to publish quality monographs without asking for matching funds and can offer up to 15% royalties to their authors. As a token of recognition for their risk-taking venture, their quite expensive books (I assume that quality does not come cheap) are usually held in less than 15 libraries in Australia. As a student or researcher, expect photocopying and inter-library loans to make up for this, and as an Australian Cambria writer, expect no Educational Lending Rights and Public Lending Rights compensation because your work will never ever be held in a minimum of 50 libraries in Australia. Could this minimal investment that kills the market for academic monograph production be a valid reason why Australian university presses are cutting down on their academic titles list, why most of their releases are now heavily subsidized and sometimes only made possible through matching funds – a disguised form of vanity publishing, some would say? Local publishers might have the answer to this! When I submitted the translation of my Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours to Penguin, Bob Sessions replied in succinct but striking words: “For a book like this to succeed in Australia, we would need to get significant support from the schools, colleges and universities. We have been canvassing that possibility since you sent me your material, and I’m afraid the result is that support would be at low level – not because of any reflection on the book, but rather because of the amount of choice available, and the lack of educational funding for wide book purchases!” (15/10/2009). Now how are we to explain that our bold American friend Cambria Press is prepared to take up the challenge and even manages to make a profit on monographs dealing with Australian writers when Australia-based publishers give up all too easily on publishing national heritage?

The Camden House venture is another story altogether given that there was a pre-existing intellectual connection with Australia. Former US director Mark Klemens, who is no longer with the company – I’m told, has spent time in Australia and developed over the years a scholarly interest in its culture. The independent academic press he ran in New York, in addition to having a strong focus on German literary and cultural studies, started publishing English-language literary studies in 2000, building its list in American literature mainly. So when Klemens and Nicholas Birns got together, their elective affinities were bound to result in the publication of A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900. Editorial Director Jim Walker tells me that they have “had a good response to the volume in terms of sales and reviews – which continue to appear – and [they] are proud to have the book in [their] list.” While revealing that a couple of books on JM Coetzee’s works are in the pipeline, he even adds that “I think there is a possibility that we would be interested in publishing other books on broad aspects of Australian literature in the future if the topic was right – not narrow studies of single works or authors, though, I think.” (25/11/2009) If there is such a strong appeal and commercial success when it comes to publishing monographs on Australian Studies, why is it that Camden House benefited from financial support from the Australian Government? However, the substantial sum Camden House received through the Australia Council for the Arts managed to cover the no less substantial copyediting and typesetting costs and contributed to the feasibility of the edited collection.

In the case of the Norton publishing venture, there was also a pre-existing connection, but a human one. Nicholas Jose’s friend Mary Cunnane pointed out that there was no Norton Anthology of Australian Literature. Having worked for Norton in New York for 20 years, she moved to Australia and began to move through literary circles in her capacity as a literary agent. But this would not have suffice to bring the project to fruition had Nicholas Jose and Mary Cunnane not been respectively President and Vice-President of Sydney PEN, “an international writers’ association with a concern for endangered literatures,” (ABR 28) as Jose puts it. And given the alarm bell that has been energetically sounded in the last few years, they did have a case for presenting Australian literature as endangered. But from which voracious predator should Australian literature be protected from, one might ask? Well, let me step out of my jester’s shoes for a moment, and allow me not to answer this one. Jose might have found one of the answers when he reports “Surveys showed that Australian literature is not taught in many places because suitable texts are not available.” (ABR 28) But this does not go a long way towards explaining why, beyond the compulsory readings set on school and university curricula, a large majority of Australians readily confess that they don’t read much national prose. Some even find it “boring, depressing, disappointing” (ABR 22) as Jose bravely reports in his recent ABR commentary. In his “General Introduction”, he lists the causes for the backdrop crisis in one recapitulative statement: “The reasons for this state of affairs can be summed up as a combination of changing intellectual approaches in the academy, including resistance to nationalist constructions of literature; shorter term, market driven publishing arrangements in an increasingly competitive and globalised media environment; reduced responsibility for cultural heritage, especially literature, in public policy, and the changing habits of new generations of consumers.” (2-3)

But let’s get back to the Norton anthology now that I have slipped back into my shoes. Jose reveals that William Warder Norton “first visited Australia in 1916-17 on business” and “When he became a publisher in 1924, he was keen to develop an Australian list” (ABR 23). From then on he published American editions of a few Australian titles, with the close collaboration of major critics of the time like Vance and Nettie Palmer. So the Jose/ Cunnane human connection reinforced the pre-exiting intellectual and business link between Norton and Australia and strengthened this 1.5 million-dollar project. The impressive funding on tap has been used sparingly at every stage of this exciting undertaking. It paid for the scoping study, research (including editorial workshops, gathering of material, compiling of introductions and writing biographies), securing permissions and paying permissions costs for living authors, editorial and production costs, promotion and marketing with various by-products (such as DVDs, teaching guide and short film productions), plus managing costs (i.e. fees and salaries, meeting costs, office space and support).

There is no denying that the admirable efforts our Norton American friend has made to export Australian fiction to the US and more largely to the world deserve a chorus of praise. However, the publisher’s more recent efforts to market The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature in the US as The Literature of Australia are somewhat marred by some form of paternalism, if not condescension. By putting the end-weight focus on the country rather than on the fact that there is indeed a commendable body of Australian literature, the Norton title shades imperceptibly into implying that the literary, if cultural, aspect of this 1500-odd page book is of less importance than its civilization-packed content. Indeed, Norton has jumped on the same bandwagon as Baz Luhrmann with his latest movie by selling exotic Australia as a commodity to the world. After all, there is no Literature of America in their anthology list. But if you check their website, you will certainly find The Norton Anthology of American Literature, possibly because such an imperialistic country with a not so age-old literature flaunting so many Nobel Prize winners really deserves it.

“American friends” – may the so-called friendship be commercially or altruistically motivated – are not to be found only in the book printing industry, as there is also, within academia, a strong interest shown in Australian Studies. The most obvious example that springs to mind is Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature, the flagship journal of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies. Since its very beginning in 1987 under Robert Ross’s editorship, it has basically stuck to the same formula by publishing a careful balance of Australian fiction (poetry and fiction mainly) and non-fiction work (essays and reviews, along with interviews and miscellaneous items). Nicholas Birns, by taking over Robert Ross, has maintained this tradition of instilling into international readers an infectious love of Australian literature and the determination of being kept updated with the latest trends in literary criticism. But more than just promoting Australian Studies, the Antipodes Editors have been mainly concerned with putting Australian literature on the world map by celebrating in their pages the works of critics from all around the world (namely Australia and the US – it goes without saying – but also the UK, Germany, Greece, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland, Slovenia – who would think that possible? –, New Zealand and even godforsaken New Caledonia! Hurray!). One of the most obvious consequences was that Australian Studies were no longer the prerogative of Australian nationals. In an email, Nicholas Jose stated: “I believe that AAALS, especially through Antipodes, plays an important role in making Australian literature a field for international scholars, especially younger scholars who have new approaches.” (07/12/2009)

I noticed that probably the only issue of Antipodes you might find with 100% of Australia-based contributors is the 2005 special issue on The Sacred in Australian Literature guest-edited by three Australia-based Senior scholars (Bill Ashcroft, Frances Delvin-Glass and Lyn McCredden). Some might point out with utmost contempt that this is typical of editorial choices made in Australia-based publications, but there is an economic reason to it. Articles published in journals (be they C1 or minor ones) translate into Canberra points and money is then transferred to the various University Departments to which are affiliated the academics who got the credit for being published. In these times of economic uncertainties, research is sponsored by this meritocratic process, which regrettably turns Australian Studies into a closed shop with solid protective walls that effectively insulate its Australia-based members from the larger global village of Australianists.

If the current policy is indeed to go global and place Australian Studies on the world map, then I believe that it might entail a two-way process whereby, on the one hand, Australia will open up to the rest of the world by establishing commendable international partnerships and projects like the Birns/ Dixon conference and, on the other hand, the rest of the world will acknowledge and support Australia as a fully-fledged culture which commands respect and attention. Speaking of which, I’d like to thank you very much for yours!

Works Cited:

Carter, David and Anne Galligan (ed.). Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007.

Caterson, Simon. ‘French take on the Australian novel’, A2 “Features”. The Age (14 Feb 2009): 21. Also available online.

Cranston, CA. ‘Reviews’. JASAL 7 (2007): 116-21. Also available online.

Dixon, Robert. ‘Australian Literature – International Contexts’. Southerly 67: 1-2 (2007): 15-27.

Neill, Rosemary. ‘Lost for Words’. The Weekend Australian (2-3 December 2006): 4-6.

Jose, Nicholas. ‘Australian literature and the missing body’. Australian Book Review 313 (July-August 2009): 22-24.

Jose, Nicholas. ‘A Shelf of Our Own : Creative Writing and Australian Literature’. Australian Book Review 276 (November 2005): 25-29.

Huggan, Graham. ‘Globaloney and the Australian Writer’. JASAL Special Issue (2009), online.

About the author:

Born in New Caledonia, Jean-François Vernay is the author of Water From the Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch (New York: Cambria Press, 2007) and of a conspectus of the Australian novel: Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours (Paris: Hermann, 2009), now available in translation.


He is also Co-Guest Editor of Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature. Special Issue: Fear in Australian Literature and Film (June 2009).

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