Literary Studies

This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.

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Australian Literary Studies is a journal of the old school, independent of the international academic publishers that have absorbed so many others, and difficult to obtain for casual reading. It has maintained a solid reputation among scholars. From the evidence presented here, it is easy to see why.

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The Well in the Shadow, whose title is drawn from Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929), is an unconventional book, shaped entirely by Chester Eagle’s idiosyncratic responses to certain writers and their work. Eagle’s engagement with, and enthusiasm for, the texts he considers are undeniable. So too is his close knowledge of the books and writers discussed. The range of subjects is broad and reasonably inclusive, but I did wonder, given the book’s subtitle, about the absence of well-known writers such as Peter Carey, Tim Winton, David Malouf, and Christina Stead. Nonetheless, the choice is diverse.

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‘There was a man who loved islands. He was born on one, but it didn’t suit him, as there were too many other people on it, besides himself.’ So begins D.H. Lawrence’s bleak little fable ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’. Lawrence’s islander wants control, sole possession, mastery of people and place. When his first island, fertile and beautiful, fails him because of the vast expense of making it perfect, he moves to a smaller one where, without love or desire, he drifts into marriage and fatherhood. Again he escapes. On the third and final island – a barren rock – his total isolation brings madness and death. The moral is clear. Lawrence thought of community as essential; without it we cannot be human.

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When William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’, he meant the details: their ability to evoke entire universes. So did Aldous Huxley when, experimenting with mescaline, he discovered ‘the miracle … of naked existence’ in a vase of flowers. More recently, Jenny Odell’s bestseller How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy (2019) made a case for rejecting productivity in favour of active attention to the world around us.  

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In his description of the verse novel as ‘the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them’, Michael Symmons Roberts emphasises the form’s sometimes disjunctive use of literary techniques commonly associated with poetry and prose fiction. While the verse novel has gained popularity since the 1980s, many of its features may be traced to epic poems such The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad, and the long narrative poems of the Romantic and Victorian periods. The form was established by Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century verse novel Eugene Onegin, which was divided into stanzas; however, the definition and key features of the verse novel are still hotly debated.

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After My Brilliant Career appeared in 1901, Miles Franklin spent a few years living in Sydney, where she enjoyed being fêted as a new literary sensation. Her attempt to earn a living by writing fiction and journalism about women’s issues was less than successful; even the timely and witty suffrage novel, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909), was knocked back at first. In 1906, at the age of twenty-six, she left Australia for the United States. She spent the next nine years living in Chicago and working for the Women’s Trade Union League, secretary to its wealthy patron, Margaret Dreier Robins, and editing its journal, Life and Labour, with her compatriot Alice Henry. The two Australians enjoyed recognition as enfranchised women, a status that American women were still fighting for.

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Gail Jones’s beautifully crafted narratives invite and reward careful reading. All her work bears the mark of her formidable intellect. Yet her texts don’t show off: they assert the primacy of embodied experience and interpersonal relationships as much as the inner life of the mind. They provoke you to attend to their many layers of meaning, often requiring at least two readings (and some research) to fully grasp their complexity. But the reader’s reward is in the ‘ah’ moments when, for example, an image takes on particular resonance or an idea emerges from the text’s depths. It is to these intricacies that Tanya Dalziell’s monograph, Gail Jones: Word, image, ethics, turns its attention.

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This is a splendid book, by far the most important of the recent OUP contributions to the study of Australian literature. Everything that you ever wanted to know about Australian Literature. Comprehensive (amazingly), consistently lively, up to date, as far as I can judge, accurate.

I have played the usual reviewers’ game for a book like this – trying to ...

Brendan Sargeant reviews 'In A Critical Condition' by John Docker

Brendan Sargeant
Wednesday, 19 August 2020

John Docker has written an entertaining if uneven book on the history and politics of literary criticism in Australia. The subtitle of the book, ‘Struggles for control of Australian literature-then and now!’ along with the Pop Art cover, gives an indication of his combative and slightly melodramatic approach. The book is, however, extremely important and something of a landmark. It presents a broad overview of the institution of literary criticism and its teaching in Australia, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. It discusses the political implications of various critical methods, and draws attention to some of the wider social and political ramifications of what occurs in the English departments of tertiary institutions. There is also discussion of the work of individual writers such as Katharine Susannah Prichard and James McAuley. As Humphrey McQueen writes in the foreword to the book, ‘His work also deserves the attention of people whose first area of interest is not literary criticism, for example, anthropologists, historians and political scientists.’

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