How do we define an Australian writer? What is Australian literature? New South Books’ latest collection of essays, Reading Like An Australian Writer doesn’t seek to answer these questions definitively. Instead, using as its source material a line-up of well-known Australian literary figures and their books, it offers up a round table of discussions on the subject.
Many of the titles—both of the books or the individual stories chosen from within them—will be familiar to anyone who has undertaken a degree in either Literature or Creative Writing. In fact, the collection itself could easily stand as a reader for a tertiary degree in one of these areas, with each contributor to the collection providing analysis both on the works themselves, and of the process of writing.
While it wouldn’t be correct to say that Reading Like An Australian Writer is inaccessible to the layperson, it is certainly more suited to an academic reader, than the casual reader of non-fiction and essays. And the editor of the book is well aware of this fact. In her introduction, Belinda Castles says the essays give “insight into the kinds of conversations taking place in Australia between writers and particular kinds of readers – those who themselves make things out of words.” She also says, in a lovely turn of phrase, that the collection is an “energetically incomplete… picture of Australian fiction”. It’s an acknowledgment that our understanding of Australian fiction—like the genre itself—is always evolving.
The contributors to the collection, and the fictions that they are discussing, represent a fairly wide cross section of Australian writers, though there are some gaps. Scanning the contributor biographies at the back of the book, many of them are university lecturers, or editors and former editors of literary magazines. It is clear that Castles has carefully chosen who to commission for her book with a sense of her reader in mind.
Something that stands out to me as a reader is that the essays seem to fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are essays about the ‘who’s who’ of Australian literature—the household names like Tim Winton, Helen Garner and Steven Amsterdam. These writers have proven their mettle and their work has a degree of endurability; yet while their names and titles are familiar, it left me wondering if an undergraduate today picking up the book would have actually read any of their work?
The other category of essays are about contemporary novels (including some published in the last year), relating them back to the world of today. Jane Rawson and Rose Michael’s essay “Reading crises, writing crises” (on climate change and dystopia, seen through the lens of recent novels) and Ashley Hay’s essay “Postcards to Charlotte Wood” (on rereading The Natural Way of Things) in particular had a vibrancy and a relevance which made me want to read and re-read the books they discussed.
Hay’s essay, which is actually a series of missives addressed directly to the author, in which she reflects on the things that stand out to her most in her reread, has this piece of wisdom to share: “There are no taxonomies of literature, although we pretend there are; we pretend the rules of compare and contrast can apply to let us understand one person’s book through another’s.” (pg. 114) Rawson and Michael similarly reflect on the ways we as readers are prone to reinterpreting the deeper meanings of literature to reflect and understand our present circumstances, whether they be pandemics, climate change, or bushfire.
The most effective essays in this collection are the personal ones—the ones that insert the essayist into a conversation with a book they have loved, and reflect on the impact reading has on their writing self. This is not a collection to be read in a single sitting; perhaps, it’s not even one to read in its entirety, unless you find literary criticism particularly exciting (in which case, have at it.) But, it is a thought-provoking collection, and I think it goes a long way towards inviting a new generation of literary critics and readers to join the conversation. Of course, there are some areas of discourse still lacking; but as Castles says in her introduction, the book is, after all, energetically incomplete.