May 18, 2010

Dinky DIY’s Guide to Australian Literature

We’re championing culture, here, Dinky DIYers! Australiana is not just about bogans and beer bottles, racists and riots, meat and mullets. Let’s celebrate our southern hemispherian, up-side-down nation’s own literary canon. Put on your aprons and get ready to hit reverse on this cultural vacuum.


Early attempts by Australian writers took to faking the English style and were obsessed with the weirdness of this new landscape. Probably because most writers were shrewdly pitching at a British audience in the hope they would do well there and be invited back home with more welcome than they were shipped off.

Our first literary foray as a nation was a challenge taken up by Tasweigian convict. Quintus Servinton: A Tale founded upon Incidents of Real Occurrence by Henry Savery was published in 1831.

His biography begins with an outstanding, historical example of Australian logic where he’s sentenced to the Van Dieman’s Land colonies from England for white collar forgery and appointed in a government service position in the Colonial Treasurer’s office upon his arrival.

Following which, he dabbled as frequently in writing as he did in crime and seems to have struggled to succeed at either. All in all, I’d say his erratic life paints a somewhat un-savery picture. (ah yes, yes I did.) Yet, he was moved to thinly disguise an autobiography behind a silly little tale about a convict a lot like himself but better which, in A Bride Stripped Bare move, he attempted to published anonymously. Everyone found out and he got in some trouble. Colonial reviews were quite glowing but then, it was our very first book in history, meaning nothing much to compare it to then, right?

As Wikipedia rather drolly puts it, “It is generally agreed that his writing is more important for its historical value than its literary merit.” He may or may not have died in 1842 after cutting his own throat which seems a strange detail for us not to have certainty on but such were the mad, bad days of the wild early colonies.
Son of a feisty, literary suffragette-of-sorts , Henry Lawson (1867-1922) is Australia’s Hemingway... kinda. Depressive, deaf, drunkard, bad husband, neglectful father, oft-imprisoned, university drop-out, rebel republican, roaming ballardist for the beloved Bulletin, he nonetheless has been immortalised on our $10 note and was sent off with a state funeral for being a “distinguished citizen.”

But none so well admired, from our early days, as Lawson’s more romantically-inclined, Banjo Paterson (1864-1941.) We are a sentimental bunch when we want to be, and collectively melt into our vinyl, suburban armchairs when we hear this poet’s wistful words, conjuring the embers of campfires and wild, roguish bush-lore.

You can have your Hogwarts, your Faraway Trees and Wonderful World of Disneys… I have two words for you Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Yep. That’s how we roll down-under. Happy homunculi otherwise known as the “gumnut babies” who burst onto the scene with their bushwhacking adventures escaping the villainous Banksia Men during the Armistice celebrations of 1918, and have never been out of print since.


Here we can see for miles and miles... Yes, Miles Franklin, the Aussie carrying on the tradition of popular female novelists assuming male names, penned My Brilliant Career. In 1937, Franklin thumbed the poms who loved the book and rejected an Order of the British Empire but came to fear that nothing she wrote would match its success and resorted to publishing behind the veil of many nom de plumes including the bizarre pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin, for fear of scathing reviews comparing her newer work to her opus. When she died in 1954 she left literature Down Under an annual literary award known as The Miles Franklin Award.


Our first and only Australian to be granted the Nobel Prize for Literature was an oasis of creativity in a desert of spaghetti cowboy pulp fiction. 1973 Australia was in the grip of Gough but its people were still a tough crowd. Before that he had been the first winner of the Miles Franklin Award for Voss. Ah, the blinding brilliance of Patrick White. He was awarded the prize for "an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature" and sent Sidney Nolan to Stockholm to collect the prize on his behalf. Clearly he was busy that day.

Aussie authors have picked up the knack of dropping their Anglo appellations for rather more exotic titles. These ethnic impersonators are suspected of being motivated by a preference in the local publishing industry for indigenous and ethnic minority voices. Some notable controversies swelled around this list:

  • Wanda Koolmatrie (aka Leon Carmen)
  • Ern Malley (aka James McAuley and Harold Stewart)
  • Eddie Burrup (aka Elizabeth Durack)
  • Helen Demidenko (aka Helen Darville)
Look ‘em up... the fraudsters.

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