Dispatches | August 28, 2012


A few months ago, we had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa Hill, who runs the fantastic ANZLitlovers website. For all of you wondering where your next expert recommendation on the literatures of Australia and New Zealand was coming from, here it is:

We talk about reading groups, the internet, themes in Antipodean literature, and (most importantly) the Indian cricket team:

1. The ANZLitlovers website started as a result of an online reading group. Could you talk us through that evolution? What made the online reading group more viable/ interesting to you than an old-fashioned “around the neighborhood” group? Did the online format help deepen discussion and allow new and different approaches to the works, or was it mostly people upset about not getting free snacks at book club?

 While it’s not for everybody, an online book group is an ideal solution for booklovers with niche interests.  I could not find a f2f group that was interested in Australian literary fiction, and I was not interested in listening to chat about babies and renovations.  It’s also an ideal environment for busy people because one can read and respond to the book chat at any time of the day or night.  And, crucially, it’s ideal for readers in rural and regional areas because it is so much harder for them to connect with other people who have the same reading interests. 

2. Despite representing a large proportion of the English speaking world, there seems to be a disconnect between the literature published in Australia and New Zealand and its promotion in the US (at least, and possibly in the UK). Why do you think that is? Is it purely a geographical matter, or are there other issues at play here? Has there been greater coverage since the advent of the Internet?

 I think this is more a question for readers, reviewers and promoters in the US, but I suspect that with the contraction of print space for book reviews, it’s always going to be more likely that the local product will squeeze out literature from anywhere else.  That is why it is pleasing to see that the Man Booker group is sponsoring the Man Booker Asian Literary Award and there is also the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize bringing attention to books from Europe.  (I organised the Shadow Man Asian Literary Award jury from here in Australia and Stu from Winton’s Dad has organised the Shadow IFFP.

3. As a neophyte to Aussie and Kiwi literature, what books do you suggest be on the top of the list to garner an understanding of the national literatures? With the exception of Peter Carey, and perhaps David Malouf, there are few Antipodean writers in the American literary consciousness–an uncomfortable state of affairs we’d like to change.

 These would be my recommendations.

4. It seems like every nation grapples with certain themes in their literature. In America it is the vastness of physical space, the dichotomy between individualism and community, the role of religion, engagement with the world, attempting to craft its own story different from the European hangover. Are there similar themes you’ve noticed in Australian or Kiwi literature? Are there any examples you feel would help our readers?

Our preoccupations have changed a bit over time.  Historically there has been an interest in exploring identity, the boom-and-bust/flood-and-fire nature of life of the land , and isolation both personal and geographical. The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney trilogy by Henry Handel Richardson (a woman) exemplifies all three themes in a masterpiece spanning the colonial gold rush to the birth of federation.  Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton were notable writers of short stories  exploring bush life in the pioneer period.

Today there is interest in exploring First Contact and its impact on indigenous people (e.g. That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, Wanting by Richard Flanagan, The Longing by Candice Bergen ); the decline of rural life in the era of depopulation (When Colts Ran by Roger McDonald, The Vintage and the Gleaning by Jeremy Chambers), and the expat experience with many writers spending time overseas in the era of globalisation (Sweet Old World by Deborah Robertson, Fugitive Blue by Claire Thomas). 


Another stream which is present in contemporary Australian literature is what might be termed ‘grunge’.  Examples of these are The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor, The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster, Gone by Jennifer Mills.  These books explore the underbelly of Australian life: urban life, self-harm, child abuse, the underclass etc.

Another thread that runs right through all Australian literature is the quirky character finding a place in the world.  Often these have a satirical twist. Peter Carey is the master of the weird and strange, from Oscar and Lucinda to his new one The Chemistry of Tears; Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville, The Memory Room by Christopher Koch, our Nobel Prize winning author Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair, almost anything written by the late Elizabeth Jolley but especially The Well, , and Glissando by David Musgrave which is very funny riff on another of White’s books, Voss.

The other thing to note is that there are regional preoccupations, notably Tasmanian Gothic.  (Tasmania is that little island at the south-eastern tip of the continent, the the smallest state of Australia).  Examples of this are The Hunter by Julia Leigh, and Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan.

5. A lot of literary fiction in the United States seems to be channeled through writing programs. Now, there are writing programs offered in both Australian and Kiwi universities. Do you feel these programs are contributing to the production of literature as much as they should? Are the programs still an afterthought or aside, or are they moving towards the center of public opinion?

Sadly, I don’t have the expertise to answer this.  I’m only aware of the role of writing programs when authors refer to them in my Meet an Aussie Author series , or interviews elsewhere

6. In the aftermath of 9/11, several scholars have pointed to the “global novel” as a way forward for literature, arguing for a decentered and pan-national literature. Do you feel such a move is brewing in literary circles? Do you think of it as a strength or weakness, if literature chooses to go that way?

Oh dear, no, a ‘global novel’ would be a US novel.  Already here in Australia our choices are dominated by literature from the US, just as our literature used to be swamped by the UK.  What is needed is a greater diversity of authors and books writing about preoccupations large and small.  I think that my blog reflects this diversity of literature: while my focus is and always will be Australian because it celebrates our unique culture and history, I also read books from authors of other cultures celebrating their unique way of life and preoccupations.  There isn’t a global culture so IMO there could never be a global novel worth reading.

7. Are you as disappointed as we (I, definitely I) are (am) about the putrid performance of the Indian cricket team during their tour to Australia? Do you feel they should all retire and give up on cricket?

I regret to say that contrary to the stereotype of all Australians being interested in sport, I have no interest in it at all!  I have mastered the art of ‘switching off’ when anyone is talking about it, and hold, I believe, the world record for (a) not knowing which teams are playing in the Aussie Rules Grand Final  and (b) not knowing who won it – until the Monday afternoon after the event.  (My husband and I hold this competition every year.  I nearly always win.) So as to cricket, all I can say is that I hope playing nicely together on a field makes Australians and Indians better international friends *warm smile*.

Sad Indian cricket team