lundi 2 juillet 2012

Article: The Sad Fate of the Australian Novel

In May 2012, a review of the translation of my second book prefaced by Nicholas Jose, The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama, came out in Transnational Literature, the third of its kind in Australia for a book that offers a bird’s eye view of Australian fiction.[1] The French edition, Panorama du roman australien des origines à nos jours (Paris: Hermann, 2009), was hailed to critical acclaim by specialists and non specialists alike in New Caledonia, France, Australia and the USA, and is currently out of print. The Australian edition translated by Dr. Marie Ramsland is panned for the second time by mean-spirited writers who have no book to their credit and have left no mark in the field of Australian Studies. No matter how challenging it might be to see one’s national heritage being examined by an external observer, literary expert Peter Pierce had the elegance and courage to conclude in his paper for The Sydney Morning Herald that: “Vernay reveals a more vexed, complex, less benign condition in our fiction. Perhaps his remark is best regarded as a graceful gesture from a respectful, inquisitive, penetrating observer of our literature from the outside” while General Editor of The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature feels that The Great Australian Novel – A Panoramais a decolonising project that brings a vitalising perspective to Australian literary studies. […] Vernay’s observations […] are enlivened by enthusiasm, sensitivity and engagement. He participates in the quarrels and triumphs of Australian literature. Whether this panorama is surveyed in its French or English versions, whether in the classroom where it will be useful or elsewhere as a general introduction, we owe Jean-François Vernay a debt of gratitude for his generous intervention.” I have already published ripostes to the two slandering reviews[2] since I was told that “Readers often enjoy spirited exchanges between authors and their reviewers in the interest of the pursuit of truth and academic rigour, especially if they are concise and to the point.”  
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.”[3] By touching the raw nerve and joining “the chorus of concern that Australian literature was losing its place”[4] (as Jose has it in his general introduction to The Literature of Australia), Jose and Rosemary Neill[5] should be given credit for bringing greater awareness to the necessity of globalizing Australian literature. On the face of it, the efforts made by American, French, British publishers and journal Editors in this respect are nothing short of commanding admiration. But are similar efforts being made in Australia to promote the ever-jeopardized Australian novel? When I pitched The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama to Australian publishers specializing in Australian fiction and non fiction, most of them rejected the idea, without even asking me to send a portion of the manuscript. Benevolent Bob Sessions at Penguin 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). And Michael Heyward who is perhaps the most vocal about taking up the cudgels for Australian Fiction[6] and who has published Elif Batuman’s similar passionate venture (but with Russian novels, not Australian ones), also rejected the idea of publishing my potted literary history. It is not difficult to identify the national inconsistency in whinging about the lack of efforts to promote Australian fiction – Rosemary Neill’s article being one of so many statements sounding the alarm bell in recent years – on the one hand and, on the other hand, having to face lack of support from critics, bookshop owners, the schools, colleges and universities. In this context, all the stranger are the persistent blows to pan the very book that could help with publicizing Australian literature. All the literary monographs that have been published nationally and internationally on this topic should be welcomed as narratives that usefully add up to this Titanic effort of promoting Australian culture. I say Titanic effort, because a ridiculously small fraction of the Australian population seems to care about their literary heritage. So here is a quiz to find out where you fit in the national statistics.

1)      Who is Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for literature?  
2)      What is the most prestigious literary award distributed year in year out to Australian novelists?
3)      Can you list 5 prominent Australian writers?

That should do the trick.

Jean-François VERNAY.

[1] Kathleen Steele, Transnational Literature, May 2012. The two previous reviews being: Peter Pierce The Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 21/05/2011, p.35 and James Ley, The Weekend Australian (Spectrum), 11-2/06/2011, p.21.
[2] See The Weekend Australian, 2 -3 July 2011, Review (p.3) for Ley and for Steele.
[3] Nicholas Jose, ‘A Shelf of Our Own: Creative Writing and Australian Literature’. Australian Book Review 276 (November 2005), p.27.
[4] Nicholas Jose, General Introduction, The Literature of Australia, p.2
[5] Rosemary Neill, ‘Lost for Words,’ The Weekend Australian (2-3 December 2006), pp.4-6.
[6] Quoted in Rosemary Neill, “Patrick White revival signals a new chapter for Australian literary classics,” The Australian, 12-13 May 2012, pp.8-9.

Jean-François VERNAY.

Source: Trouble 92, July 2012, pp.58-59

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