A couple of weeks ago there was what you might call a mini literary dust-up here in Australia following the revelation that over a third of the winners of Australia’s most prestigious literary prize (the Miles Franklin Award) are now out of print.
This prize was only awarded as of 1957 so we’re not talking about ancient tomes, but rather a body of literature that some people at least regard as critical. In lamenting this situation, the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival said (and I quote) “the best writing is timeless, and without some recognition and understanding of our literary history, we’re forever focused on the new – as if history, knowledge and culture don’t play a part in our understanding of ourselves.”
In recent months there has been a lot of finger pointing about how people are losing touch with their literary heritage. This includes a lengthy debate over the failure of Australian universities to teach Australian literature and the generally shabby way in which our so-called literary darlings have been treated.
I recently attended a lecture intent on helping revive interest in some of the so-called Australian classics and I have to admit I did start to wonder – should we really be worried about such dire pronouncements about our so called literary heritage? Or does the fact that no-one is reading these novels only point to the fact that they aren’t really classics that have withstood the passage of time. Maybe (dare I say it) they are just too dull to survive?
Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of amazing books out there that are no longer in print. There are also classics, however, that continue to be as popular as ever (people are still reading Dickens and Jane Austen after all).
Should we really be force-feeding kids with books simply in the name of preserving ‘literary heritage’ (and to be honest I’m not sure I even know what this even means!)
Likewise I feel passionate that we shouldn’t neglect our literary past or ignore well-written books in order to merely pander to popular taste but the study of literature is (I hope) about much more than either of these things….
What does this say about the relevance of so-called ‘classics’ to readers today? Should we be forced to feel some collective guilt over what may just be a natural evolutionary process (whereby the torpid and the dull don’t survive?)
What do you think? No matter whether you live (and I’m assuming Australia isn’t alone in it’s predicament – although if it is, that might be even more telling!) do you think we should be concerned about our so-called literary heritage? Should we be worried about keeping the winners of prestigious writing awards in print – or should we just let history (and the readers) decide?