Across countless acts of sustained creativity that can and do take years to perform, and via reading habits, patterns of library usage and book-buying, Australians have established an intimate relationship with the novel that has not been extended on the same scale or in similar manner to other literary forms. Given these patterns of production and consumption, which have been remarkably consistent across more than 100 years, there seems little to dispute the assertion that, despite the often challenging conditions of writing and publication, the novel is Australia’s essential literary form. Its centrality to literary culture has continued through many changes in tastes, technologies and markets into the twentieth-first century. Between 1900 and 1969 more than 5000 Australian novels were published for the first time in print runs ranging from the hundreds through to the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands. Poetry, short fiction and drama did not achieve anywhere near these figures either in terms of published titles, sales or implied readerships. New novel titles doubled again between 1970 and 2000, with more than 15000 published in the century to 2000.
In other important respects the novel has been Australia’s pre-eminent literary form. It continues to be the focus of the overwhelming majority of critical reviews in literary pages and specialist journals, within discussion and reading groups, and is the subject of the greatest number of textual and author-based research appearing in peer-assessed academic publications, from articles to monographs, and biographical studies. The novel is more visible within public culture than any other literary form and well represented at all levels of Australian education. It is the subject of the most prestigious literary awards nationally and internationally. The novel has also established an enduring presence within wider creative cultures. There have been many screen adaptations including films based on novels by Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Jon Cleary, Thomas Keneally, Elizabeth Jolley, Peter Carey, David Malouf, Tim Winton, Archie Weller, Christos Tsiolkas among many more, and small screen adaptations for television including of the work of George Johnston, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Neville Shute, Alan Marshall, Frank Hardy, Martin Boyd, Ruth Park, Elizabeth Gaskin, Colleen McCullough and others. To be fair, the film adaptation of Banjo Paterson’s verse, “The Man from Snowy River” became one of the highest grossing films in Australian cinema history, with solid video and CD sales and a follow-up television series, while playwright David Williamson has been one of the most successful screen writers of his and others works, but the closer relation with film and television has been the novel. It is also possible to argue that the Australian novel has been more durable over a longer period of time and influential culturally than film, music and the visual arts. Put simply, the novel has been Australia’s most important and enduring literary genre.
To a considerable extent, the novel developed as an artefact of the Industrial Revolution. Its history has been woven into all aspects of the European settlement of Australia, and since the 1960s an increasing number of novels by Indigenous Australians have been published. Kim Scott’s Benang: From the Heart (1999), for example, was joint winner of the 2000 Miles Franklin Award for the best Australian novel. The spread of the novel to Australia began with the expansion of colonialism south and east from Europe, into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and globally with the establishment of vast European empires from the late eighteenth century. Even before then, an imagined Great South Land existed imaginatively in the literature of the first novelists in English. With the use of modern mapping techniques, for example, it is possible to plot the coordinates for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels into Australia, while Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe owes a literary debt to the journals of William Dampier who visited the northwest coast of Australia on two voyages in the late seventeenth century. Australia persisted strongly in fiction within the Victorian novelistic imagination through Dickens and Trollope, for instance, while the colonies produced their own Victorian novelists such as Catherine Helen Spence, Rosa Praed and others. Marcus Clarke’s novel of incarceration and exile, His Natural Life, was the most read of Australian colonial fictions. Clarke’s novel has been reproduced in many forms, from serial publications through to comic, stage productions, and film and television adaptations. It would surely adapt well as a musical and popular opera along the lines of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable.
With the spread of empires came the spread of European languages, but none was as influential or widespread as English which was the language of the most extensive empire in history. By the mid twentieth century, English had become the world’s first truly global language. Its influence and global reach continues strongly into the present time. It is impossible to understand the fuller history of Australia without understanding the importance of the presence of the English language, its variant form known as Australian English, and its most important literary production of the modern period, the novel. The Australian novel might reasonably be understood in terms of the twin historical forces of industrialisation and colonisation. It developed gradually from a foundational genre into its powerful modern form in the contemporary national and post-industrial moment …
EXTRACT: Nile, R & Ensor, J 2009, ‘The Literary Novel and Australian Literary Cultures 1950-2008’, in P Pierce (ed.), Cambridge History of Australian Literature, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, pp. 517-548.