2008 JASAL

The first of Franco Moretti’s three-volume series The Novel approaches literary history through computational stylistics, a “new empiricism” where quantitative research provides innovative ways for analysing a “large mass of [literary] facts” (Moretti 2003: 67). Lately applied to the publishing histories of India, Japan, Nigeria, Spain, the United States and Italy, the exercise of enumerative bibliography can prove useful for literary and cultural history, enabling, as William St Clair argues, “patterns [to be] discerned, trends and turning points identified, and emerging conclusions [to be] offered and tested” (16).

Taking a cue from such research, this article applies statistical methods like Moretti’s to probe the history of publishing Australian novels both locally and internationally. By temporarily suspending our discipline’s preoccupation with close readings and canonical judgements, the computational analysis of large-scale publication data about Australian novels can provoke alternative views of, and responses to, Australian literary history. My aim, to quote Priya Joshi from a related analysis of Indian books, is not to become “saturated with the textual innards” of novels obtained through close reading but to explore “the [broader] details of a richly recovered contextual history,” in this case a recovered contextual history about the production of Australian novels (Moretti, History, Geography and Culture 497).

What might be learned from examining data related to the publishing of Australian novels? Certainly, a core question that can be asked of this approach is: what does it matter who is publishing and where a novel is published, reprinted or translated? Indeed, if it is agreed that this or that novel is an “Australian novel,” what real importance does its “place of publication” actually carry? One common answer is that books are not only cultural artefacts or products of human consciousness; they are also commodities produced by publishers and sold on the market at a profit. Novels are not just literary texts, but are part of a business structure that employs certain agents (authors, printers, booksellers, binders, distributors, etc), within what Darnton famously called the “communications circuit”, producing a commodity sold to readers at a profit. When a novel is seen as a “text” that is beyond market principles, the forces and forms of social and economic production that interrelate with its publication remain unexamined. Awareness of these forces prompts important questions for the researcher about the production of novels, about the position of a publisher, and about the productive relations of the time. Why are some Australian novels published “over there” and not “over here”?

The “place of publication” is connected very strongly to the value attached to books as cultural artefacts. Novels impute a “presence” when thought of in a national context. And, as literary historians know, whole institutions and bibliographies are devoted to arguing over which novels can and cannot be thought of as “Australian”. Some of this is dubious, as when Bryce Courtenay and Ben Elton are considered Australian authors, or D H Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo as an Australian novel. Bibliographic lists of Australian novels and Australian authors vary slightly from one authority to another, and each have scope policies that overlap at the core but become fuzzy the further one moves towards the edges, generating anomalies between lists. There are differences, conflicts even, in the kinds of criteria used to select particular works as Australian. As Richard Nile argues, “Australia is a culture taker, more so than a culture maker”, and I would add not all bibliographic authorities are equal in their “taking” (Dixon 45).

Questions of cultural “ownership” can be drawn out and tested. A novel’s “place of publication” (as one coordinate of textual production) can be “framed as part of a cultural argument that defines the original situation of a published object as belonging to” a particular phase of socio-cultural relations (Ayers 761). This argument raises questions about the organisation of Australia’s literary coordinates and allows the historian to extract meaning about prior publishing conditions and trends. This allows me to research questions of dominance with regards to specific aspects of Australian publishing within an Australian book trade that, during a good part of the twentieth century, was largely monopolised by British interests and industry practices. This is where a quantitative methodology can be constructive. By treating all Australian novels as things produced here or there—that is, as “material objects [with] symbolic form”, to recycle McKenzie’s terms (22)—“quantitative data allows access to a comparative dimension of [Australian] literary history” (Finkelstein 207).

The problem of definition is one of the major issues in statistical research on Australian novels. When working with large amounts of empirical data and using computational analysis to parse thousands of records into an interpretable context (in this case, into simplified line graphs), classification inaccuracies can skew the results and conclusions. Indeed, at the heart of any project that interrogates the publication history of Australian novels through enumerative bibliography is a clot of definitional issues over the research sample, issues that reflect some of the basic problems in thinking about the commodity-text in a national context.

There is general agreement that H M Green’s two-volume history, while not innovative in its methods, nonetheless widened conceptions of what constitutes Australian literary texts. This “widening” or “thickening” is essentially one of the core challenges today in thinking about novels in a national context: what exactly qualifies a book to be an “Australian” novel, projecting a link to what Raymond Williams might call the “knowable community” of Australia (Said 85)? In what way are certain published works authorised to take on a density, an emotional value or, as Baudrillard describes, a “presence” known and recognised as being Australian? More broadly, who does the authorising and who does the recognising? These are important questions for how novels incorporate, invoke and impute structures of classification. Although my research into Australian book history does not look at “British” or “American” novels per se, the genesis, production and distribution of a group of published works within my data has at least partially originated in England or the United States, and yet remains appropriated by a population of readers as being meaningfully “Australian” novels.

Fortunately, one active agent in the struggle over the classification of Australian novels, and that presently acts as my source of bibliographic data, is “AustLit: The Resource for Australian Literature”. AustLit represents a growing “structure of authority” (Bourdieu 19) in the field of Australian creative and critical writing that has, over time, drawn to itself the cultural and institutional power to shape and set the legitimate definitions (and to influence the direction of bibliographic definition systems) for classifying Australian works. In collaboration with eleven universities and the National Library of Australia, AustLit operates as a “networked digital research environment” building a web-accessible “comprehensive bibliographic record of the nation’s literature” (Kilner 1) and classifies works according to a published scope policy, a process that might be described as the “imposition of a form of thought” on the representative regime of works (Ranciere 34). AustLit’s aim is to “enhance and support research and learning in Australian literature” and achieves this through adapting online technologies to assist bibliographic discovery (Kilner 1).

EXTRACT: Ensor, J 2008, ‘International Markets and Local Literary Taste: New Empiricism and Australian Literature’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, Special Issue: The Colonial Present, pp. 198-218. [Read Full Paper]