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The new Oz lit - superficial, politically correct tomes

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 27 April 2006

Daniel Barenboim, the gifted and prolific conductor and pianist, recently declared war on muzak. The music of airports, call centres and supermarkets. The butchered classics that are piped relentlessly through our society every day.

Classical music deserves to be treated better than that, said Barenboim. He’s right.

And ditto, Australian literature. This country deserves better than to have its bookshelves filled with the latest, highly formulaic novel written by some bright young thing who is the product of a university creative writing course.


Just as classical music is butchered these days to suit markets and consumers who have the attention span and intellect of a sheep, so it is with Australian literature.

It wasn’t always like this. Twenty-two years ago the last great Australian novelist, Xavier Herbert died. Herbert’s two great works, Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country, were sprawling canvases. In musical terms they are Mahlerian or Wagnerian. Passionate, eloquent, humorous and deeply humane, Herbert’s works tackled the running sore of white Australia’s treatment of the Indigenous peoples.

Today, no publisher would touch Herbert. His novels would be adjudged too long - Poor Fellow My Country is one of the longest novels in the English language.

The slick young marketers in publishing houses wouldn’t know what do with Herbert. After all, he could be irascible, arrogant, lecherous, drunken and frightfully undiplomatic. His feuds with people over many years were legendary.

And Patrick White, Herbert’s contemporary would be similarly dismissed. Like Herbert, White was a writer who crafted complex stories - again in a Wagnerian sense. And like Herbert, White could be cantankerous, bitchy and decidedly opinionated.

Today’s Australian novelists, the 30-something brigade growing fat on Australia Council grants, state government largesse and university residencies have nothing on Herbert and White.


Their books are generally superficial, politically correct tomes that reflect the lack of life experiences and scholarship of their authors.

Compared with today’s Australian novelist, who generally has a taxpayer-funded sinecure in a university literature or communications studies department, Herbert had a rich and varied life. He spent years, in the 1930s, in the Northern Territory as a union organiser, government official and roaming this wild and treacherous frontier. Herbert was a political animal who embraced all manner of causes, including the Tasmanian dams issue, and whose letters to the likes of Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke (both of whom he hero worshipped) are wonderful rants.

White, on the other hand, was a patrician. But a man educated in classicism and philosophy. White’s Nobel Prize for literature in 1973 was due, in no small measure, to his brilliant intellectual capacity. This was a man who melded Greek mythology, Judeo-Christian mysticism, and Jungian psychology, into the novel form. White’s Anglo-Australian upbringing, his journeying through Europe and the Western Desert of Australia, allowed him the capacity to write novels such as The Tree of Man and Voss.

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First published as 'Oz lit - written off as they say' in the Hobart Mercury on April 17, 2006.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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