Jane Gleeson-White, Shane Maloney, Wayne Macauley, John Tranter and Susan Wyndham enjoyed a humorous debate on our literary heritage centering the conversation around ‘what is a classic’ and does Australia have any?
Gleeson-White was well placed to chair as she holds degrees in literature and economics and is the author of Double Entry, Australian Classics and Classics. Shane Maloney is the author of the much-loved Murray Whelan series and his books have enjoyed worldwide success. Wayne Macauley’s short fiction and novels have been widely acclaimed, John Tranter has published more than twenty collections of verse and Susan Wyndham is a published author and literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.
Wyndham pointed out that most of us read the English classics when we were young, Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter and Alice in Wonderland have taught children to love reading. These books are usually given to them by their parents who had enjoyed them themselves, thus the status of classic comes to a book in part through the process of handing them down from one generation to the next.
Maloney got the crowd chuckling with his quip he, “hadn’t been interested in classic’s until I became one”. His definition was a book that is, “thick, impenetrable and not available in comic form”. During his school days, any book called a classic was a signpost to avoid it saying he is, “allergic to the notion of instruction, if there is an suggestion that a novel might improve me I steer away from it”.
For Wayne Macauley, the series of Penguin Classics he collected in his youth from secondhand bookshops has underpinned his literary knowledge and developed him as a writer. He cited early finds such as Patrick White’s Boss and Tree of Man as having enriched his life and opened up for him the vitality of Australia’s outback.
Tranter pointed out that when he grew up in Australia, “everything seemed to come from somewhere else” so it was natural to look to English Literature as representing classical literature. He reminded us that for a nation of laconic larrikins Australians are, “quite happy to carry poets in our pocket”, referring to the two poets, Banjo Patterson and Mary Gilmore on the Australian $10 bill.
Gleeson-White reminded the audience that calling a book a classic is very subjective, that books speak to us because they connect with our common humanity and come to represent our collective memories, history and shared experiences. At this time Australian Literature may not have the same weight as English Literature or French Literature but it’s early days yet.
Margo Laidley-Scott is a media student at Southern Cross University.