Reprint: The Australian Novel

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A colonist in England offered an article on Australian literature to a London editor; and-- 'There is no Australian Literature!' was the great man's response. Such is the hard saying of a writer in a London magazine, who gives the painful anecdote as a record of fact. Doubtless the story is true but was the editor's hasty verdict true? In any case, the dilemma seems awkward. The idea that this great country should not yet have established any thing worthy of being called a national literature is sad to think on; that the thing should in fact exist, but still should be unknown to a typical director of English thought, is sad also, but less vitally important. Recognition will come in time if it be duly earned. It seems only the other day that the American novelists-- not being humorists--known to British readers were but two or three in number, and now England and Australia are flooded with the fictional output of the United States. It will be long before this younger country can show such a result; indeed, any considerable output does not exist here. It will be understood that prose fiction is more particularly alluded to. A whole continent could not fail to produce volumes of ethnographical enquiry, records of scientific research-- books which could be written nowhere else, and in which the thing said greatly outweighs the mere manner of saying it; and these are received with respectful attention all over the world-- among the limited class to whom they appeal. The younger school of poets; too, have, by their freshness and vigour, found a widespread audience, and are further encouraged, and meanwhile practically sustained, by the happy fact that Australia itself reads, and buys, their work. The same cannot be said of local novelists. The demand for new fiction, enormous as it is, is well supplied by English and American writers, and readers actually prefer the imported article to the home grown. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Australian, writers, while readily publishing their poems here, will generally go to London to print their novels.

Is it a fact, then, that the imported article swamps the local product? Fortunately the most rabid of Protectionists would never advocate the shutting out of all fiction from beyond the seas, so that prentice hands in the Commonwealth might be encouraged by the absence of skilled competition. In the world of letters freetrade rules without dispute. The talent of country must find its own way to success. One may fairly enquire, in this connection, what result the literary societies of this State can show for their tentative efforts to encourage individual production. Their powerful and well-conducted union-- probably the strongest body of its kind in Australia -- invites competition each year in the art of writing an essay, a poem, and a short story. Of the verses nothing need be said; poets are not apt to write to order, and the verse would be produced--prize or no prize-- if its author felt the inspiration. The art of criticism, on the other hand, can be greatly stimulated by a little encouragement, such as is properly given to it if the essay takes the form of original thought rather than criticism, it is equally welcome. Even though the result may not be conspicuously successful in either case, there is a distinct value to the writer in the effort he has made to appraise the work of others, or to produce fresh ideas from his own mind. The case of fiction stands by itself. It is difficult to see benefit to any one whomsoever in the production of a really poor story. The author obtains none, and if his work does not give pleasure to others his labour is lost. Still, practice is necessary here as in other fields of endeavour. The art of waiting dialogue, for example, needs much practice if the beginner is to avoid triviality on the one side and an unnatural, epigrammatic brilliance on the other. In those circumstances it would be supposed that the prize winners in the Union competitions, stimulated by the one success, would persevere and improve. Is there any record of their continuing in the public view, of their rising on stepping stones of the first triumph, and making their names known as coming story writers? There seem to be practically none. Yet the world wants fiction, and is willing to pay for it.

The Australian writer, whether of novels or of short stories, appears to have a special chance open to him. Mr. Balfour pointed out, in a recent speech at Edinburgh, that the disease from which the British novel may expect to suffer is atrophy. Everything is written about-- not a topic escapes the eagle eye of the romancer. The heavens above and the earth beneath are ran- sacked for subjects, and the ocean has its special scribes. Every country and every period has been dealt with. We have stories of life civilized, semicivilized, and barbarous, natural and supernatural. Already, through paucity of material, the vein of the unknown future is being worked. Are we not rushing headlong to the time when all subjects will be exhausted, and hundreds of literary Alexanders will sigh in vain for more worlds to conquer? Well, this continent is still a comparatively unexplored literary field. Henry Kingsley used it as a background for two delightful romances, and "Rolf Boldrewood" has followed his example. Incidients of early settlement have been told in the guise of fiction by Marcus Clarke in his one great book, and -- to come nearer home-- by Mr. Simpson Newland in "Paving the Way." Just so, until recently, did American novels deal by choice with the emigrant wagon, the 'Forty-niners of California. Now the strenuous modern life of the United States finds its chroniclers everywhere. Here, as there, a new nation is waiting to be depicted -- young, strong, fond of sport and the open air, reckless in love or in speculation; and of it English and American writers perforce know nothing. Mr. Hornung alone draws heavily on a former residence here. Even Rudyard Kipling takes no advantage of his brief visit. From authors, Australian by birth or long residence, good work begins to flow. Ethel Turner's stories of childlife have a wide reputation. "Such is Life," by Tom Collins; "True Eyes and the Whirl wind," by Randolph Bedford; "Tussock Land," by A. H. Adams; "The Antipodeans," by Mayne Lindsay -- here are four books of the past 12 months which can be tried by a high standard; but two of them depict life far removed from cities, and one is half-English in its scene. There is plenty of room to find a hero in the town-bred Australian of to-day. He knows nothing of convicts, and very little of bushrangers, but very much of commercial and professional life, of the Stock Exchange, and the cricket ground. The woolshed and the wild kangaroo have their interest, but many thousands of Australians have never seen either. The discerning eye can discover, and the skilled hand may impart, a distinctive "local colour" which need have nothing whatever to do with the bush.

First published in The Register, 19 November 1904

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 1, 2011 9:16 PM.

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