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The Oxford History of Australian Literature…
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The Oxford History of Australian Literature (edició 1981)

de Leoni Kramer (Editor)

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Títol:The Oxford History of Australian Literature
Autors:Leoni Kramer (Editor)
Informació:OUP Australia and New Zealand (1981)
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca
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Oxford History of Australian Literature de Leonie Judith Gibson Kramer

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A complex book with a complex history. Perhaps it is fruitless to review a 40-year-old literary history, since it has been easily superseded in this time. But when first published in 1981, Dame Leonie Kramer's volume sure hit a wall of criticism. The critics were from all sides, as well. First, the "nationalist" types in Australian literature disagreed with Kramer's decision to aim this book just as much at an international audience. Indeed, one could say this book sets Australian literature in its place within the broader English canon, as opposed to defining Australian writing on its own terms. (This is not a deal-breaker to me, but it was an area of great interest in the mid-20th century.)

The second wave of criticism came from progressive writers and thinkers who disagreed with Kramer's formalist stance. The focus here is on drama, literature, and published poetry. Non-fiction is barely included, and other styles of writing, e.g. letter writing, modern popular ballads, and such, are excluded. They would usually now warrant a chapter or two in most literary anthologies, but this was still a point of contention in the 1970s, and Professor Kramer - well-known for her staunch conservative values - would not have been keen to change that status quo.

The third (and most relevant) complaint was to do with progressivism in general. Kramer and her co-contributors viewed literature as, frankly, dusty tomes and respectable material. Many of the great social realists of the 1950s and 1960s are ignored. Up-and-coming Indigenous voices such as Oodgeroo (Kath Walker) are mentioned only in passing. On some level: fair enough. This volume would have been commissioned in the 1970s and it is always harder to record contemporary movements for posterity. On another level: not good enough at all. For a volume that has the imprimatur of Oxford and will sit on library shelves for many decades, one could argue a token attempt to discuss the social values rapidly exploding by 1980 in Australia - feminism, Aboriginal rights, the dismantling of the "White Australia" policy, the rise of social realist literature in a post-war class-conscious society and its impact on working class writing - would have been warranted. (Interestingly, in a contemporary review I discovered from 1982, the reviewer lists 11 'young' authors who are disregarded by the volume - by 'young', I mostly mean those still over 40 - and 9 of them are now considered legends. So clearly some people could distinguish important writing while still contemporary.)

To be clear, I think this volume has a place in Australian letters, but I think it's important to note that any literary history is inherently political, even if it is adhering to tradition. In a country like Australia, which was still censoring foreign books and films well into the 1970s, and where a gulf between popular and literary has only continued to widen (imagine the shock of some Australians on learning Patrick White had received the Nobel in 1973!), these debates continued to rage until the end of the 20th century. The canon feels both more established and also more porous now - but of course the debate about traditional vs progressive values continues apace.

If I could sum up those criticisms in one statement, it would be that I think the book's structure is flawed. The book is in four long parts, each by one contributor: 'Fiction', 'Drama', 'Poetry', and 'Bibliography'. The challenge here is that much can be missed. Other literary histories have had similar structures, but tend to have different contributors in each section. Instead, with just one contributor and a structure that is thematic rather than chronological, there seems to be a higher focus on personal preference as opposed to an attempt to encompass all major movements. (Comprehensiveness, of course, is impossible, but the idea of a "history of literature" implies that authors not mentioned simply don't fit within an historical setting.) The drama section, I would say, allows for further exploration of its content. The other areas present themselves, implicitly, as complete.

Still, from the vantage point of 2020, is it likely anyone will ever read this book again, other than a few bored rats in the basement of a state library? Perhaps not.
  therebelprince | Oct 5, 2021 |
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