Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Readers: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em. Without putting too fine a point on it, this seems to be Rosemary Neill's position vis a vis literature. Especially Australian literature.

Neill participated in a discussion on 3 June with a writer, a culture bureaucrat, a publisher and the leader of an NGO. 'Are we neglecting Australian Literature?' was the question and of course Neill answered in the affirmative, according to her colleague Deborah Hope. 'Thanks Deb!' (I can hear Rosemary chuckle).

Neill's attack on the literary establishment bagan in December with two stories in the one issue of The Australian, where she and Hope both work in the culture department. (The newspaper is notorious for being right-wing as well as combative, but this should be obvious from my words.)

Her initial attack was on the academy. I suggested an alternative reason: "The problem may lie elsewhere: lack of interest among students, and the problem of funding, in an age when the federal government is steadily reducing the amount of money that it provides to universities."

If you want to read what she wrote, do a search on this blog using her name.

In March, Neill had more ammunition: the outgoing chair of Australian literature at Sydney Uni, Elizabeth Webby. She used it. I summarised Webby's observations: "Webby blames the decline in interest in Australian literature studies on the government, postmodernism and the Internet."

Well, one out of three isn't bad.

A week or so later, I reported that Robert Dixon, the incoming chair of Australian literature at Sydney Uni had been interviewed for a rather more staid publication: the alumni magazine of Sydney Uni. But he also got his words into The Australian. My summation?

"This [global outlook] seems a lot more useful and reflective of the reality in the country at present, than imposing artificial boundaries that are evidence only of a parochial attutide toward literature and culture in general."

Neill's position is close to that of Perry at Matilda, a blog which is determinedly parochial, covering only Australian books and authors. He recently picked up a remark I made in a comment and expanded it into something like a rant, titled 'A Balanced Diet'. My point, in fact, was that the material being consumed by him, and so forcefully endorsed by Neill, was anything but. "Are you so tightly wrapped in the flag?" I asked.

My position on this 'debate' in the media, or rather this crusade of Neill's, is to point to the huge and growing volume of quality literature that is being published all over the globe. U.S. litbloggers are ever eager to point to efforts to get more translated books published, so that they can enjoy the work of foreign authors.

What Neill doesn't seem to understand is that Australians are, now, an extremely globalised bunch. Over a million of us work overseas, for a start. Our horizons are broad, and we graze widely in our search for the primest experiences available. They may be available in Australia, but it's unlikely.

More likely is that we will continue to look outward, toward the far horizons that beckon.

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