Literary Heritage or Irrelevancy?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

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….

And yet…

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?

9 thoughts on “Literary Heritage or Irrelevancy?

  1. Very intriguing and though-provoking post. Thank you so much for it!

    I believe that some classics used to be great, but since communication and culture have changed significantly, they no longer represent [current] human experience well enough to keep up.

    Classics should be seen as what they are, wonderful books that represent a past era, and we should not force ourselves back into that mentality, I could almost say devolve to that past stage, but rather bring literature up to pace with current reality.

    The fact that we still award books that would appeal more to long gone generations (or a minority of people) than to the majority of readers, is a bit sad. I think it’s because we’re taught in school that the classics are great, period, that we assume timeless books need to sound like them. If we were taught modern, fast paced books are the epitome of great writing, we’d inevitably regard over 90% of the classics as purple monsters.

    Is most of the contemporary literature lacking in the qualities of the classics? Yes. Are those qualities absolute? No. Have the perception of entertaining material and engaging stories changed? Significantly. Should literature adapt? Definitely. It’s just an expression of the ever-evolving human creativity, not an act of conformation to some gods-given rules.

  2. So much has changed in the writing world. Think of all the new vocabulary words that have evolved that didn’t exist, say, 10 years ago!

    Classics that represent an era, a clever writing technique, or evoke deep responses should continue to be revered or at least pointed to as an example of excellent writing–and perhaps with an explanation why so that others will want to read them.

    However, like any book worth its salt, if interest is lost after reading the first few pages then, well, it’s finished! Put it down. We don’t keep asking Olympic heroes to continue performing pas ttheir prime, but we still honor them for what they accomplished in their own time.

  3. I don’t know the rules or requirements around these books, but perhaps the copyright holders (assuming they’re still under copyright) could arrange to have the list published by a university press for literary purposes? If they’re not under copyright, I’m amazed someone hasn’t uploaded them to Amazon as e-books to make a few bucks off the controversy!

  4. Interesting. Aftr reading your entry I wondered if the same might hold true in the US. I checked all Pulitzer winners (fiction since 1947). The only book that appears to be out of print is Conrad Richter’s The Town (1951), and even that can be had for a price on both Amazon and B&N. This makes me wonder if Australians view literature differently than other nationalities, or do Australians view Australian fiction as less worthy than other fiction? What’s interesting to me is why Aussies aren’t interested in their own fiction (I’m assuming they’ve gone out of print due to lack of sales). It is too low a population, attitude toward fiction, or something else? As you state 1957 isn’t so far back that books would date so badly as to be irrelevant.

  5. I do wonder if Australia is in the minority as I read the Booker prize winners are almost all still in print too – I suspect Australia is such a small market that it’s simply not big enough to sustain interest in so called classics that don’t appeal to a wider audience…or the classics are just not that good!

  6. I was talking to my neice about the books she’s reading for school, and guess what? She couldn’t remember what they were, she only read them so that she could get to the ones she was really interested in. I love classics and I believe that they have their place. I looked over her reading list and found for the most part she is reading the exact same books that I read when I was in middle school. There are more relevant books that, while they shouldn’t take over, they should be included. Every title should be evaluated and not just included because it’s always been there.

  7. As a teacher let me point out one tiny but ever so crucial detail: Everybody loves to define a classic as a story that has withstood the test of time. However, one can also define a classic another way … (ahem) … as any old book whose copyright has run out and can therefore be printed in mass quantities at cheap prices.

    Like you, I’d like to think that authors like Dickens are still being read because they were great writers who wrote great stories. Using Dickens as an example, we have an author who wrote amazingly visceral characters but the concept of a literary plot did not exist in his time so most of his works are thoroughly lacking in plot.

    Thus, the economics disagree.

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