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Elizabeth Webby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature – Antti Mäkinen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies

© 2004 Antti Mäkinen



Book Review:

Elizabeth Webby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2000.



Antti Mäkinen



The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature is the latest introduction to Australian literature. The topics discussed in the book deal with aboriginal texts and narratives, colonial authors and readers, poetry and prose (both traditional and new) as well as biographical literature in Australia. The final chapter deals with Australian literature and its criticism as a whole. The book is edited by Elizabeth Webby. She is Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. All the contributing authors are known scholars and critics working in different literary fields in Australia.

The book begins with a short chronological list of major events — literary and otherwise — in Australian history. This is just as well since most people have at best a rather limited knowledge of the history of Australia. The events listed in the book provide a rough framework for understanding why and how things developed in Australia over the past two centuries.

The division in the book is among genres and literary movements rather than different historical periods although each genre and movement is dealt with from the point of view of historical development. As the editor notes in the introduction, the aim was look at “literary works not only as aesthetic objects produced by gifted individuals but as cultural artefacts inevitably influenced and constrained by social, political and economic circumstances of their times, as well as by geographical and environmental factors”. Another aim was also “to introduce Australian literature within its historical, social and cultural contexts, to the interested reader from outside the country, and at the same time to say something new and provocative about their particular genre or area”. At the end of the book the editor offers a list of reference works for further reading. Webby points out that she was required to stay within the established format of the Cambridge Companion series. This has meant that each contributing author has had to condense sometimes considerable about of material into an all too short a space.

In her article Delys Bird deals with the contemporary Australian fiction starting from the late 1960s. It is informative in that it examines the radical changes that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the overall cultural atmosphere in Australia. Australia was no longer perceived as a monoculture but as a multicultural society in which many different cultural currents and modes could be detected. Perhaps the most important change took place when the newly elected Gough Whitlam’s labour government changed the Literary Arts Board into the Literature Board in 1973 – currently known as the Literature Fund – which started to award grants to individual writers, publishers and literary magazines. This resulted in unprecedented literary activities on many fronts. It also allowed hitherto marginalized voices to be heard. She names the New Left radicalism and the women’s liberation movement as two of the more prominent driving forces that effected the prose writing at the time. In fact, it was not only literature but also other art forms such as the ballet, theatre, and film that were given a boost.

Some of the social factors behind these changes were the Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the rapid increase in travel opportunities and the improved global communication in general. Australia was no longer seen as an isolated continent far away from cultural influences of Europe. Even more importantly, Australia opened up to South East Asian influences. The “White Australia” policy was abolished in 1974 and people from South-East Asia were allowed to immigrate to Australia. This was indeed a radical change. All this resulted in escalating populations, greater social and political complexity as well as cultural diversity, all which galvanized the Australian society at large.

May-Brit Akerholt examines the changes that have taken place in the Australian theatre since the 1950s. If the late sixties and early seventies meant great changes in prose writing in Australia, the change was perhaps even more dramatic in terms of drama. Government support at federal and state level meant that writers, actors and directors could create new theatre on a fulltime, professional basis. New theatre companies sprang up around the country. Actors and writers had courage to experiment with content and production. Theatre became much more multicultural in that indigenous as well as immigrant writers gained prominence as a result of the government funding.

David McCooey’s chapter on contemporary Australian poetry covers the period starting from 1968. Poetry — like drama — also took sides in the cultural debate. Australian poets and other cultural activists followed much the same path as their European and American counterparts. One of the reasons was the fact that Australia participated in the Vietnam War. McCooey notes that contemporary Australian poetry is often seen as a rivalry between the revolutionary forces and the reactionary ones followed by a period of relative calm. He points out, however, that it was not only the young revolutionary poets but also the established ones that strongly opposed Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.

The final chapter deals with the Australian literature from a point of view of current criticism. David Carter examines the way in which the literary criticism has changed and evolved over the years. Carter looks at how criticism evolved in academia and in literary magazines. Carter also deals with the different literary schools and periods and how these shaped the Australian letters. But he examines how different national moods affected literature. Nationalist sentiments in the early part of the 20th century eventually gave way to modern and post-modern literature and their criticism.

As Martin Duwell has pointed out in his review of the book, most of the book’s problems can be traced to imposed abbreviation rather than to competence of the contributing authors (see Australian Literary Studies; May 2001, Vol. 20 Issue 1). Also, the book adds practically nothing new to those familiar with the topic. Like most introductions or companions, The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature does provide a broad outline of the Australian literature and its criticism. Those interested in further information should consult the notes as well as the List for Further Reading provided at the end of the book.