Travel writing has been an important form through which Australians learned about their own culture and their place in the world. Indigenous cultures of place and travel, geographic distance from the imperial metropole, and a long history of immigration have each made travel a particularly influential cultural practice. Nonfictional prose narratives, based on actual journeys, have enabled travelers in Australia and from Australia abroad to explore what was distinctive and what was shared with other cultures. These are accessible texts that were widely read, and that sought to educate and entertain their audience. The period from the inauguration of the Australian nation in 1901 to 1960, when distance shrank because of technological innovation and new forms of identity gained ascendance, shows the complex ways in which Australians defined their country and its global contribution. Writing about travel to Britain and other European locations helped authors to refine the Anglophone inheritance and a sense that Britain was Home. Northern-hemisphere travels also made some writers intensely feel their national identity. Participation in global conflicts during this period shifted Australian allegiances, both personal and governmental. At the same time, a new tourist industry encouraged Australians to travel at home, in order to learn more about remote areas and the Asia-Pacific region. Travel writing both abroad and at home reveals how particular forms of emotional allegiance and national identity were forged, reinforced, and maintained. This has been a particularly influential genre for a nation based on colonial migration and indigenous displacement, in which travel and mobility have been crucial.
Within the literary connections between Australia and the United States, the more traditional notion of “influence” gained a different kind of intellectual traction after the “transnational turn.” While the question of American influence on Australian literature is a relatively familiar topic, the corresponding question of Australian influence on American literature has been much less widely discussed. This bi-continental interaction can be traced through a variety of canonical writers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Brockden Brown, through to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain. These transnational formations developed in the changed cultural conditions of the 20th and 21st centuries, with reference to poets such as Lola Ridge, Karl Shapiro, Louis Simpson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, along with novelists such as Christina Stead, Peter Carey, and J. M. Coetzee.
To adduce alternative genealogies for both American and Australian literature, Australian literature might be seen to function as American literature’s shadow self, the kind of cultural formation it might have become if the American Revolution had never taken place. Similarly, to track Australian literature’s American affiliations is to suggest ways in which transnational connections have always been integral to its constitution. By re-reading both Australian and American literature as immersed within a variety of historical and geographical matrices, from British colonial politics to transpacific space, it becomes easier to understand how both national literatures emerged in dialogue with a variety of wider influences.
The emergence of the trade paperback in the 1980s crucially transformed the way in which Australian literature was received in North America. The publication history of Patrick White on the one hand and Glenda Adams and Peter Carey on the other shows how younger writers actually made more of a cultural impact, despite White’s Nobel Prize, because the form in which they met the reading public was one freed from the modernist binary between high and low culture. The 1980s saw the emergence of a more globalized and more culturally pluralistic world—though also one much more pervaded by multinational capital—in which Australian writers flourished.
When situating 20th-century Australian poetry within world literary space, critical histories often map it against the Anglo-American tradition and find it wanting. In particular, and despite the strong reputations that poets such as Judith Wright and A. D. Hope continue to enjoy, there is a tendency to regard Australian poetry from the Second World War until the mid-1960s as variously complacent, insular, or retrograde: representative of what John Tranter in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry in 1979 called “a moribund poetic culture.” Certainly, there was a turning away from avant-garde experimentalism in the immediate postwar period (as there was in Britain and the United States), but in Australia, this has been linked to a discrediting of modernism as a result of the Ern Malley hoax. In the Malley “affair,” as Michael Heyward dubbed it, two conservative poets hoodwinked the editor of the avant-garde journal Angry Penguins with a suite of poems written by a wholly invented working-class surrealist. As a result, according to Wright (among others), Australian poets became less adventurous in favor of more traditional forms. On top of this, recent revisionist accounts of the hoax have virtually canonized “Malley” himself as a bona fide modernist and so exacerbated a sense of lost opportunity after the mid-1940s. Yet modernizing impulses may take many forms, and it is an overstatement to suggest that innovation had ceased, or that the poetry of this period was somehow disengaged from the rest of the world or from international literary-political debates. A reassessment shows that Australian poets were keenly engaged with the questions of their time but also dealt with the persistent, unresolved problem of how to become “unprovincial,” overcoming a cultural cringe that now gravitated away from Britain and toward America. In fact, for Australian literature prior to the emergence of Patrick White, poetry, rather than beating a retreat, actually led the way forward. It is time, then, to reconsider the poetry of the postwar era within its own cultural ecologies, acknowledging that Australian poetic modernism, while it remains contested, may also be distinctive.
Women seem barely visible in the lively Australian literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Popular wisdom has it that after the war women were sent home and imprisoned in domesticity, but this was not entirely true. Significant numbers earned a living, and gained popular success, writing historical fiction, children’s stories, feature journalism, and radio and television scripts, but the growing separation of literary from popular writing meant that their work lacked serious critical attention, and still does. Others did not achieve publication for years, while those who did were rarely recognized as significant artists. As a writing generation, these women, in particular the novelists, were eclipsed from view, both at the time and in subsequent histories. One reason for this is that they tended to be detached from prevailing debates about national identity and from traditional Left-Right oppositions. Their sense of the social responsibility of writers led them to explore topics and ideas that were outside the postwar political mainstream, such as conservation, peace, civil liberties, and Indigenous rights. Four case studies offer some illustration of the range of literary activities undertaken by these women writers, and allow a consideration of the ways in which they engaged with their social and cultural milieux: Kylie Tennant (1912–1988), Nancy Cato (1917–2000), Judith Wright (1915–2000), and Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1993).
Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.
In the 21st century, a new genre of Anglophone fiction has emerged—the climate change novel, often abbreviated as “cli-fi.” Many successful authors of literary fiction, such as Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, T. C. Boyle, Michael Crichton, Ian McEwan, Amitav Ghosh, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Lydia Millet, David Mitchell, Ruth Ozeki, Nathaniel Rich, Kim Stanley Robinson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Marcel Theroux, have contributed to this new genre’s efforts to imagine the causes, effects, and feeling of global warming. Together, their work pulls the issue-oriented and didactic approach of activist fiction into contact with the intensive description and site specificity of Romantic nature writing. Cli-fi knits these tendencies together into a description of the effects of a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate on a particular location and a vision of the options available to a population seeking to adapt to or mitigate those effects.
Although cli-fi is resolutely contemporary and dedicated to creating new narratives adequate to current conditions, criticism devoted to the genre has carefully documented the persistence of national, masculinist, and anthropocentric tendencies in some of its major works. The dependence of cli-fi (and the environmental activism that inspires it) on capitalist visions of social progress has also received scrutiny. Some of these habits of representation have been inherited from literary predecessors such as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Ernest Callenbach, and J. G. Ballard. Ballard’s Drowned World has proved an especially complicated source of inspiration for this new genre of the novel. In their efforts to update the motifs of these predecessors to the needs of the present, 21st-century cli-fi writers have experimented with the temporality, central figures, and mood of their fiction. These efforts have brought distinctive types of speculative and science fiction, as well as satires of climate change activism and new hybrid realisms, under the cli-fi umbrella. Although the genre still wrestles with inherited limitations, in every permutation, cli-fi novelists have prized innovation, experimentation, and creativity. Finally, all of their varied efforts involving cli-fi unite around an expectation that humanity and the planet can survive the changes associated with the Anthropocene.
Frontier colonial Gothic literature in Australia gives expression to the experience and aftermath of violent encounters between settlers and Indigenous people on the frontier. This includes “hut literature” about shepherds in remote locations and the way in which these stories worked toward the establishment of colonial settlement and authority. Colonial development distances the Gothic from the frontier, to which it returns in belated and spectral ways. The post-frontier colonial Gothic can be considered in these terms, in stories by Francis Adams, Hume Nisbet, and Marcus Clarke. Clarke also provides examples of convict Gothic literature in colonial Australia, in particular with the serialization of His Natural Life (1870–1872). In Gothic bushranger narratives and some colonial Gothic poetry, the symbolic distance from the frontier brings with it an increased “occultization” of the bush. Marcus Clarke’s famous account of “weird melancholy” evokes spectral Aboriginal presences linked to the Lemurian novel in Australia, a popular version of the post-frontier Gothic. Some narratives by Rosa Praed, including the novel Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893) and “The Bunyip” (1891), offer images of frontier violence that produce a range of effects among settlers, from excitement to disorientation. “The Bunyip” in particular throws a shadow over the prospect of a settler colonial future; this is typical of the kind of melancholy project represented in later examples of the colonial Australian Gothic.
Contemporary Australian literary culture is formed through networks of institutions that support writing and reading. This infrastructure, itself shaped by Australia’s history as a former British colony and its current status as a medium-sized market in a global book industry, creates specific conditions for the production and reception of Australian literature. Institutions do not comprise the whole of Australian literary culture, and many individuals and groups position themselves as outsiders, or as members of counter-networks. Nonetheless, the work done by literary organizations enables significant acts of writing, access to reading, and debates about the role of literature in contemporary Australian society.
Six networks are key to Australia’s literary culture. First, publishing in Australia is structured by a mix of local offices of multinational companies and independent presses, whose list building—and consequent effects on Australian authors and readers—is influenced by their market position and capacity for digital innovation. Distribution of books in contemporary Australia occurs through libraries and bookshops; book retail is predominantly a mix of online bookshops, independent bookstores, and discount department stores, following the closure of many Australian big-box bookshops and chain stores in 2011. Australia has a growing network of literary festivals, including flagship events that attract tens of thousands of readers as well as focused events that nurture particular genres or groups of writers. Australia’s calendar of literary prizes also supports writers, builds canons, and maintains the visibility of literary culture. These expansive networks are complemented by the smaller, though influential, readerships of Australian literary magazines, which foster new writing and drive cultural debates. Finally, schools and universities institutionalize Australian writing through their curricula and increasingly provide training and employment for writers. Together, these active networks provide an outline for the form of contemporary Australian literary culture.
While the relationship between humans and environment in Australia stretches back some 50,000 years, the colonization of the continent by Europeans in the late 18th century dramatically altered Australia’s ecology. Creative literature has responded variously to the encounter that colonization precipitated. In particular, modulations appear through successive epistemological and ideological paradigms: Enlightenment rationality, romantic sensibility, nationalist celebration, and ecological alarm. While early conservationist impulses are visible in the colonial period, in the middle of the 20th century, the birth of the modern ecological consciousness understands that not only particular species or habitats are at risk, but the entirety of nature seems to suddenly face a historically unprecedented vulnerability. In this sense, it is methodologically useful to separate Australian environmental texts between those that are “pre-ecological” and those that are “post-ecological.”