Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature

By Vuillermin, Daniel | Antipodes, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature


Vuillermin, Daniel, Antipodes


Anthologizing has become a dangerous endeavor. The destablization of the canon from the rise of diverse modes of criticism - feminism, Marxism, post-colonialism, and deconstruction among the best-known culprits - has led to a re-examination and a reconfiguration of how anthologies are compiled. Such issues are addressed by the general editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, Nicholas Jose, who notes, "The impetus for the anthology arose in an atmosphere of crisis in relation to literacy, the teaching of English in schools, the study of literature - in universities, and the conditions of Australian publishing, all of which continue to be matters of community concern, media interest and political intervention" (Jose, "General Introduction" 22). Traditionally, anthologizing and canonization have been intimately entwined, with each being an extension of the other. As Harold Bloom, the most prominent defender of the Western canon, writes, "Originally the canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions" (15). This certainly applies to one of the pragmatic aims of anthologies, which is to serve as a syllabus or a guide, primarily to secondary students and secondarily to the general reader. Yet, as this book shows, the compiling of an anthology in a multifarious literary landscape can reinvigorate if not reinvent the form.

Few anthologies in Australia have stirred as much debate as the recently published Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. Much of the charge against the book has been led from a defender of the notion of an Australian canon - critic, journalist, and editor Peter Craven. In the Australian Book Review Craven claims, amongst other charges, that the book "wasted so many pages on material that had no place in it" ("Obscuring the Heritage" 8). In response, rhe editor of Meanjin, Sophie Cunningham, in an article for Crikey!, points out many of the shortcomings of Craven's review, particularly his comparison of the ratio of Aboriginal writers included in this anthology with the number of African- American writers in US literary anthologies, and in chorus with the editors of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, advocates for the model of inclusiveness (Cunningham). Craven's and Cunningham's responses, crudely framed, form an exclusive/inclusive dialectic whereby the former seeks to include only those works that fit within the more traditional notions of literature, whereas the latter, in line with the anthology's editors, advocates for a more inclusive approach to anthologizing. Certainly it is more practicable in an anthology to exclude than to include. In line with the editors' principle of inclusion, it would have been far less contentious for the book to be titled the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Writing.

The inclusive model in Australian literary anthologizing, newly tested in this work, is achieved in part by expanding the boundaries of "literature" to include various historical documents and other works of non-fiction such as auto/ biography, letters, journal excerpts, and diaries. These works are as potent as a poem or a novel. As the editor of the "Poetry and Non-Fiction from 1950" section, David McCooey, writes of Helen Garner's The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque's Consofotion (2004), "Garner's emphasis on justice and social and personal responsibility is indicative of the change in literary culture, in which auto/biographical life writing has become associated with the figure of the public intellectual as a mode for discussing the self in terms of larger historical and social issues" (47). This can be equally said of the documents selected, many of which were previously secluded in archives. For instance, a petition that, according to Craven, is apparently devoid of literary qualities, has an historical gravity that gives such artefacts a referential power and persuasiveness, qualities that are also the mark of literature. Ironically, Jose's inclusive approach has resulted in the exclusion of some of the works of better-known writers, many of which have been amply published elsewhere, yet in doing so the editors have managed to include a greater diversity of writers and a multiplicity of genres. …

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