A Bookish Nation

Determining the literary vitality of a country like Australia is a difficult task.  This difficulty, it seems to me, is closely linked to the impossibility of defining ‘Australian Culture’, or ‘Australian Values’.  Inevitably such discussions get bogged down in witless abstractions like mateship, and from there it’s not a long time before meat pies, Steve Irwin, Crocodile Dundee and beer work their way into the conversation.  We’re a nation on the make, and we still don’t know quite what we’re making.

In 2002, Clive James delivered the inaugural David Scott Mitchell Memorial Lecture.  The lecture is well worth reading, and well worth listening to, as are nearly all the things that James has written and said in his long and bewilderingly varied career.  Clive James is important to my point.  James is the Kid from Kogarah – he’s one of ours: an Australian product.

In his lecture James said:

‘In the days when I was young and healthy, I never saw myself as a bookish person, just as Australia didn’t see itself as a bookish nation.  In fact it already was, but the fact had not yet become clear, and even today it has still not become as clear as it ought to be.’

Eight years later, it seems to me, the fact is still not clear, and certainly not clearly stated.

In international terms, Australia’s cultural achievements are on par with its sporting ones: we punch well above our weight.  And yet Australia is a nation marked by persistent and nagging paranoia: we just don’t think we’re good enough – and nothing will ever be good enough.  The dreaded cultural cringe haunts us, and we shoulder the load of this curious epithet with a meek fatalism that ignores (when it does not distort) the reality.

A literature that was undeniably Australian was, it has to be said, a long time in coming.  I am very well aware, of course, that the indigenous peoples of Australia are the guardians of a rich oral tradition, but I am utterly unapologetic about having a very limited respect for stories whose form demands that they are doomed to die with the last storyteller.  When I use the term literature I mean words that are stored outside the human brain: words rendered in script.

The literature of early European settlers/gaolers/invaders/rapist bastards/murderers/genocidal maniacs (select your own term according to taste and political inclination) in Australia is marked by extremes: extreme wonder and extreme horror.  Australia was a country where the leaves didn’t fall from the trees but the bark did, a country thickly populated by gigantic jumping rats and a plethora of venomous reptiles and arachnids.  It took time for sensory overload to give way to sensitive observation.

And it took time to produce a generation of writers who unashamedly thought of Australia as their home.  Come to think of it, it’s still pretty easy to find writers who only acknowledge Australia as their home with much flinching under the sack-cloth and ashes.

In The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941) George Orwell wrote that ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’  This condition is no longer restricted to England.  I think a fair proportion of the intelligentsia in any country that gives them a platform rather than a gaol cell feel most secure when training their slings and arrows on their home lands.

This tendency is not of itself evil – but it seems to me (in Australia, at least) to be another symptom of cultural uneasiness.

These ruminations were inspired by the Rudd government’s announcement last week that Australia’s annual promotion of literacy and reading (formerly ‘Books Alive’) will now be known as ‘Get Reading!’

Thrill to that exclamation mark, oh ye non bibliomaniacs: repent and tremble before this terse imperative!

The sociological term for needless change is, I believe, neophilia: ‘love of the new’.  Clive James (to return to the Kid from Kogarah), ever in search of the pithy and memorable phrase, calls it ‘The Fidgets’.  James defined this urge as ‘changing what you can because you can’t change what you should.’

I’m not going to claim that changing the name of a literacy incentive is a sure sign of a cultural pathogen in Australian life, but it’s odd, don’t you think, that such a program needs to be in place at all?

Anyway, the really interesting part of Arts Minister Peter Garrett’s announcement was that ‘We know from recent Australia Council research that 84 per cent of Australians read a novel in the past year’.

At first I was horrified that sixteen per cent of the nation hadn’t read a novel in the past year (that’s just under three and a half million people according to my vague calculations), but then I wondered if the figures were better anywhere else.  I’m sure that all Swiss primary school students have read Shakespeare in four languages and completed a dissertation on the ways in which translation and transliteration affect Timon of Athens by the time they reach grade five, but I’d be seriously surprised if it turned out that Australia is lagging seriously behind the rest of the world.

I think we need to stop worrying so much and trying so hard.  We’re a bookish nation.

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One response to “A Bookish Nation

  1. we have got the guilts and it does affect our ethical progress hampered as it is by denial… perhaps we read in the interest of self improvement. White culture specifically has that yearning towards letters as something we left behind that made us feel civilised – a record of finer feelings.

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