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Thursday, 22 March 2007

"Debate on Aussie literature a horror story for our greats" crows the headline in today's The Australian. Journalist Rosemary Neill is at it again. And this time she's got one of the big guns on her side: Elizabeth Webby, the outgoing chair of Australian literature at Sydney Uni.

Webby blames the decline in interest in Australian literature studies on the government, postmodernism and the Internet.

But the newly appointed chair of Australian literature at Sydney Uni says that it's not as bad as it seems. Interviewed by Geordie Williamson for Sydney Alumni Magazine (Autumn 2007), Robert Dixon says that "Australian studies ... must remain open to the most invigorating aspects of those critical impulses — theory, feminist studies, the whole panoply of post-colonial investigation — which have both challenged the subject's raison d'etre and offered new tools with which to approach it".

The old model of literary isolationism, for instance — of ring-fencing Australian writing so as to preserve it from foreign taint — has always seemed narrow to him; often playing, at its extremes, into the hands of an uncritical cultural nationalism.

He also says that "'literature' itself is not a discrete category". He recently finished a book about Australian photographer Frank Hurley. But he also says "to be good at interdisciplinary research you must first be an expert in a discipline".

Williamson writes:

Dixon believes that the canon of Australian literature has not been destroyed by the new currents, but, rather, ventilated. Yet he does feel that efforts to redress the balance must be made if the field is to thrive.

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