New Directions : Introduction

The publication of two essays on 'the state of the discipline' (to borrow a title from the ADE Bulletin) is not a response to or an expression of millenial anxiety - but may be a marker of a kind of disciplinary anxiety. These essays, by David Carter, and Gillian Whitlock, act as markers in a wider sense of the field of Australian literary studies, in suggesting that it may be time for some 'paradigm shifts' in thinking about Australian literary culture, and particularly, Australian literary criticism. It may be that the first sign of this shift was Susan Sheridan's book Along the Faultlines (1995), one of the most important publications of the decade in Australian literary criticism, and one which serves as a starting point for Gillian Whitlock's argument regarding the usefulness, and even necessity, of making cultural connections and using paradigms other than that of 'nation'.

My own thinking on these questions has been influenced by two encounters with students earlier this year, in teaching a subject that introduces students to Australian literary cultures. In the first tutorial, one of the class asked, 'does Australian literature have a theory?' After the class was over, a second student introduced himself as Ian van Wert, an American who is completing an MA at the University of Queensland on the poetry of Lionel Fogarty. Ian, appalled by the Jack of Australian literature in his undergraduate curriculum, has come to Australia to make up for this. What troubled me about my conversation with him was my own surprise at the intensity of his commitment to the field, his assumption that Australian books and writers constitute an essential part of literary cultures in English and are worth travelling around the world to study.

The question regarding 'an Australian literary theory' prompted a class discussion in which it became clear that the vast majority of the most influential work in Australian literary studies has been done outside the field. I'm referring here not only to philosophical and theoretical writings, which have been predominantly Anglo-American and French (or more accurately, works by scholars generally identified as such), but to those many local works in cultural studies, history, Australian studies, sociology, and geography which are so often cited by Australian literary critics as to be foundational. Without reference to the work of Henry Reynolds, for example - a writer whose work Whitlock notes is crucial - it is almost impossible to teach Australian literature. I do not mean to criticise this interdisciplinarity, or this traffic on the international highways of theory. But I do mean to draw attention to the problem that these apparently high levels of interaction tend to mask: the relative paucity of high-quality studies in Australian literature and literary theory. (It is telling, for example, that in listing Australian contributions to 'theory', Whitlock does not mention literature.) This is frequently said to be a problem of publishing, an issue to which I will return.

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Published 1 October 1999 in Volume 19 No. 2. Subjects: Australian literary criticism, Australian literature - Study & teaching, Critical theories & approaches, Defining an Australian literature.

Cite as: Dale, Leigh. ‘New Directions : Introduction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1999.