Wednesday, 4 April, 2012

In an article first published in 1986, Susan Sheridan puts forward an account of the relationship between masculinity, genre, nation and literary worth that it seems to me might still be at play in judgements about women and literary value. She argues that during the 1890s, and in subsequent accounts that cemented this period’s position in [Australia’s] literary history, critical discourse tended to mobilise the following set of oppositions:

independent and original vs conventional and derivative egalitarian and democratic vs class-bound and ‘aristocratic’ Australian nationalist vs British colonial vigour and action vs emotion outside (the bush or the city) vs inside (the domestic, the home)

Most relevant to recent debates is an added set of terms that, Sheridan suggests, ‘were especially salient at the turn of the century but which have by now formed a scarcely noticeable sediment of common sense about what constitutes literary value’:

realism vs romance vernacular or folk vs popular or commercial.

Sheridan argues here that a set of ideas that came to define what it meant to be distinctively Australian were defined in opposition to a set of values that were identified with femininity and that ideas about what constitutes literary value in Australia are also gendered in favour of realism and the vernacular (à la Lawson and Rudd) as opposed to popular romance (à la Praed and Cambridge). These are, of course, false dichotomies but they have been compelling in discussions of Australian literature ever since the turn of the twentieth century.

[…] In reprising these arguments about the fate of women in the Australian literary tradition, I don’t want to suggest a deliberate project on the part of any of the judges of Australian literary prizes to occlude women’s writing. Rather, I want to pose the question of how far, in the difficult decisions about the relative merit of books in the running for such prizes, this older association between masculinity, nationhood and genre comes into play, especially in the case of a prize so explicitly bounded by the nation as the Miles Franklin Award.

— Julieanne Lamon, “Stella vs Miles: Women Writers and Literary Value in Australia,” (via Meanjin).
Monday, 5 December, 2011

It came to me when I was reporting the mad uproar over Bill Henson’s photographs a couple of years ago that I’ve been writing about panics all my career: how they are whipped up, do their worst and disappear leaving only wreckage behind. Perhaps I’m alert to the subject because I’m gay. When I was growing up, preachers, police, politicians and the press were still keeping panic alive about people like me. It has left me despising panic merchants, particularly those Tory fear-mongers who represent themselves as guardians of decency. The politicians I most admire are those who hold their nerve in the face of irrational fear on the rampage. I’ve come to believe the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as panic and calm.

Labor drove the early fear of the Chinese, and Labor has been up to its neck at times in panics about Blacks and Reds, poofs and dirty books. Labor can’t claim to be always on the side of calm. This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties. It’s about the odd willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears. They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this peaceful and good-hearted country by managing, from time to time, to make us afraid. The last fifteen years have seen this country in states of exaggerated alarm over native title, Muslim preachers, Muslim rapists, drugs, terrorists both foreign and home grown, demonstrators in the streets and pictures of naked children on gallery walls. But we end the decade as we began in a full-scale panic over refugees coming here – as they reach countries all over the world – uninvited in little boats.

— David Marr, Panic, 2011


Thursday, 28 July, 2011
[P]erhaps the most influential way that successful Australians contributed to the construction of Australian national identity in London was through basing their own stage identities on a notion of place. In 1887, when Helen Mitchell Armstrong adopted the operatic stage name of Madame Melba, to signify her home town Melbourne, she could not have predicted what a trend she began. No doubt because singers wished to link themselves with Melba’s stupendous success, as well as to valorise their own place of birth, a train of Australian place names crossed London stages, billboards, and newspapers for decades to follow. By 1903 there was Madame Benda (born Kate Samuels in Bendigo, Victoria), in 1907 Madame Ballara (Florence Towl of Ballarat, Victoria), and in 1914 Elsa Stralia (Elsa Fischer of Adelaide). Even the Victorian country town of Dargo was honoured by its progeny, with the soprano Hetty Holroyd calling herself Madame Esta d’Argo… . Australia’s new national capital, established in 1927, had only to wait a year for recognition with the soprano Miss Dorothy Canberra. — Angela Woollacott, To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity.
Wednesday, 20 July, 2011

Change may mean you have to stop doing things a certain way; it doesn’t mean you won’t find better alternatives. Shifting is what industries do. To paraphrase a comment on my last article: “Conductors, guards, milkmen, dustmen, stable-hands, sail-makers, blacksmiths, riveters, SEC linesmen, deckhands, all lost their jobs when technology rendered them redundant. If you are not educating your children for a world where a working boiler exists only in a museum then you are the fool.”

Regardless of pollution, we’re still dealing with finite resources. They’ll run out someday, and someone’s going to need to make the transition. There’s no reason why this generation shouldn’t be the ones to put their hands up.

Australia can afford a carbon price, and needs to make CO2 pollution less simple and desirable for industry. No, a tax alone won’t save the world, but examples need to be set. Opponents hide behind the argument that we shouldn’t bother if everyone else isn’t doing it. Sure, there’s no point me personally not driving home wasted, because even if I do kill a couple of people, it’s hardly going to touch the road toll, man. I mean, overall. It’s a couple of per cent at most. Look how many people China are going to kill this year! No, I don’t want a biscuit. I’m driving.

It’s bewildering, then, that the arguments of all four lobbies - pokies, mining, tobacco, and polluters - have been accepted by media outlets, and therefore by a lot of people. Clearly they are the arguments of those with the greatest interest in nothing changing.

— Geoff Lemon on Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard versus the mining/tobacco/pokies/carbon corporate lobbies, in ”Australiar and the idiot dilemma,” The Drum (via Australian Broadcasting Corporation).
Thursday, 16 June, 2011
The present was something haphazard. We lived for the future. Any piracy, any theft, any evil would be made all right by the future: isn’t that the truth of our colonial philosophy? From the Governor to the scullery maid we became Australians, a race with one foot in the air, caught stepping forward. — From Rodney Hall, The Second Bridegroom
Thursday, 26 May, 2011
Beyond the three parts of the world there is a fourth part across the interior ocean, unknown to us on account of the heat of the sun, in whose bounds the Antipodes are fabulously said to live. — Wrote Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae, some 1400 years ago.
Friday, 6 May, 2011

It was true that local characters and scenes slotted effortlessly into a global script. Muscled teenagers in big shorts crowded the nation’s shopping malls. On neat estates where every house replicated its neighbour, young women pushed strollers containing babies of such plush perfection it was difficult to believe they would grow up to eat McDonald’s and pay to have their flesh tanned orange. There was comfort to be derived from this sense that the nation was keeping up with the great elsewhere. What claim does a new world have on our imagination if it falls out of date?

But a stand of eucalypts in a park or the graffiti on an overpass might call up a vision of what malls and rotary mowers had displaced. Australia was LA, it was London; and then it was not. Here there was the sense that everything modern might be provisional: that teenagers, news crews, French fries might vanish overnight like a soap opera with poor ratings. The country shimmered with this unsettling magic, which raised and erased it in a single motion.

The past was not always past enough here. It was like living in a house acquired for its clean angles and gleaming appliances; and discovering a bricked-up door at which, faint but insistent, the sound of knocking could be heard.

— From The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser
Friday, 22 April, 2011
But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1928

Posted via Lucy Tartan, who wrote an interesting post reflecting on the announcement of the second woman-free Miles Franklin shortlist in three years. The Miles Franklin is one of Australia’s richest and most renowned literary prizes (its namesake is the, female, author of Oz-lit classic My Brilliant Career). As Alison Croggon pointed out in a piece on The Drum this week: “In the past 10 years, the big prize has been won by a man eight times. (The exceptions are Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which won in 2007, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, which won in 2004)What are we to make of this? Are men 80 per cent more genius than women? Or just 80 per cent better at winning prizes?”

In the past few weeks I’ve listened to discussions about the paucity of female literary reviews (reviews of books by women and reviews by women) and about the paucity of plays by female playwrights on Australian stages, echoing my own suspicions and feelings.

As all three writers above indicate, I think it is a question of “values,” of what the dominant culture considers worthy, prodigious, exciting, relevant in its literature and, whether conscious or not, this results in an evident gender bias. And, if productions and prizes and best-seller lists and lengthy New York Times reviews are the best indicators of success within this culture, then how can gender bias be eliminated? The same values tend to be exalted year after year, and what is “dominant” only self-perpetuates.

Monday, 28 March, 2011

I miss some things about Australia. The living is much easier in Sydney than it is in New York. I remember the bleak February Sunday when The New York Times came out with an article by Ray Bonner on the pools cemented to headlands on Sydney beaches. Bewitching photos. Glorious photos. The phone rang all day. ‘Are they real?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are they private? Gated communities?’ ‘No. Public. For everyone.’ ‘Why are you living here then!?!’

I gave up Australian beaches and those swimming pools, but what I gained was best expressed by the magnificent travel writer Freya Stark: ‘Only with long experience and the opening of his wares on many a beach where his language is not spoken, will the merchant come to know the worth of what he carries and what is parochial and what is universal in his choice’. I gained another kind of beach altogether.

— "Expatriate" Australian author Kate Jennings delivers the 2010 Ray Mathew Lecture.
Friday, 25 March, 2011
A. Cordier, page (K) from Amusing Alphabet: Le Jardin d’Acclimatation (The Zoological Garden), c. 1863-65. 

Children’s picture alphabet of birds and animals in French with English translation. The fauna are anthropomorphised and dressed in the clothes of the common people. The kanguroo or kangaroo has four joeys in her apron.

From the National Library of Australia Australian Collection.
(Click through to see the rest of the alphabet…)

A. Cordier, page (K) from Amusing Alphabet: Le Jardin d’Acclimatation (The Zoological Garden), c. 1863-65. 

Children’s picture alphabet of birds and animals in French with English translation. The fauna are anthropomorphised and dressed in the clothes of the common people. The kanguroo or kangaroo has four joeys in her apron.

From the National Library of Australia Australian Collection.

(Click through to see the rest of the alphabet…)

Friday, 11 February, 2011
“Travel by Trans-Australian Railway across Australia," c.1930.
Vintage travel poster from the collections of the Boston Public Library (see more posters here and here).

Travel by Trans-Australian Railway across Australia," c.1930.

Vintage travel poster from the collections of the Boston Public Library (see more posters here and here).

Monday, 7 February, 2011
Australia’s borders were a gift of nature. We did not have to fight for them. In our case, history and geography coincided, and we soon hit upon the idea that the single continent must one day be a single nation. What this means is that all our wars of conquest, all our forms of conflict, have been internal. Conquest of space to begin with, in a series of daring explorations of the land. This was a form of possession through naming and mapping, by taking the continent’s spaces into our heads, and at last into our imaginations and consciousness. We also set out to seize the land from its traditional owners through armed conquest, in a war more extensive than we wanted to recognise. — David Malouf, in the Boyer Lectures, 15 November 1998: 
"Lecture 1: The Island"
Monday, 10 January, 2011

Tennis at Hanging Rock

  • Girl 1: C'mon Ginny, it's your serve!
  • Girl 2: But I did serve, Marion! I did!
  • Girl 1: Then where...? Where is the ball?
  • *A pause. Both girls squint at the sun's haze burning the edges of rocks and eucalypts.*
Misho Baranovic, Hanging Rock, 2011

Misho BaranovicHanging Rock, 2011

Friday, 17 December, 2010

Pelicans, by Jean Kent

Sunning their black-and-white, wash-and-wear wings,
fallen angels are squatting
on streetlights from Sydney to Surfers Paradise.
Like lotus petals on long silver stalks,
they unfold 

while their naked bills nibble toward Nirvana.

As Depression-haunted housewives
fatten bargain pantries, the pelicans also
sieze and stash. How painful they look, eating.
Fish in their see-through shopping bags niggle:
toward freedom they wriggle
like varicose veins in a stocking.

This hunger must be prehistoric.
It time-capsules the bliss of longing.
Suddenly there is a thunderstorm: heaven has a fit
and the pelicans want that too!
They gulp the epileptic sky. There is so much 
on the menu  but so little flavour in possession.
Wind whirls away the last whiffs
of War and Peace, Perfect Match, Mozart and Rage
but still they salivate for something:
sensations purling down the throat of tomorrow;
memories more yeasty than the warm,
dream smell of bread;
moments which swell in the brain,
rising like hot-air balloons above shashlicked
eucalypts  up through a champagne fizz of fear
into euphoric hectares of air.

Dropped from heaven for such sinful appetite,
now the pelicans balance on bent silver wands 
the world at their feet
always on the verge of magic moonrise.
In the billful of silence which twilight spills,
sometimes below them flickering like goldfish
alone in their bowls, people float.

Across the world the prodigal moon
resumes its tightrope stroll. Streetlights
hesitate, illuminating pink, pensive flesh.

Through the market smell of fish and squid,
nonchalant as silver spoons soon the pelicans
will rise, stirring soupy air.
Back to the sky, sunset trawls
cast-off angels’ wings. From city to suburbs,
from Sydney to Surfers, above the seeking
tentacles of traffic while soft colour clings
to the bellies of jumbo jets,
all that the day could have been
begins its pterodactyl dive.
The world pauses, saying grace.
Longings, larger than any birds, swallow the sky.