Notes on the Research Future of Australian Literary Studies

by Ken Gelder

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It looks as if there is a set of new predicaments for Australian Literary Studies these days, which amongst other things impacts on graduate research and the subsequent research futures of graduate students in this sub-discipline. First of all, I would note the increasing ties between Australian Literary Studies and Australian Studies: we can see these at the Universities of Sydney and Queensland, to give just two examples of current program arrangements. I think this is partly about survival: the teaching of Australian Literary Studies is probably in decline these days, and it’s likely that graduate research in this sub-discipline is also waning, but even so a discipline that organises itself around the nation and invokes the nation still has relevance as well as some real force. Having said that, the fortunes of Australian Studies itself are variable, as we see in David Carter’s recent edited collection, Australian Studies: Teaching Across Cultures : where the discipline is cast as both powerful and vulnerable. The national here as a defining category is the problem, not the solution, so much so that many contributors to this volume almost completely undo whatever coherence Australian Studies might once have had. For Ann Curthoys, the trend in Australian Studies is ‘towards a more transnational approach’.1 We can wonder how easily, and in what ways, the national and the transnational can sit together: and this is the second predicament for our sub-discipline, especially important when we think of Australia ‘in the region’ or when we think in terms of globalisation. This is not a new predicament, of course – I’ve noted elsewhere Frank Clune’s call back in 1945 for a broader sense of a ‘Pacific Ocean Literature’2 – but these days the sense of Australia in regional and global contexts seems particularly pressing and this impacts on the ways in which Australian Studies understands itself. For David Carter, Australian Studies, as he puts it, ‘must always be attached to something else’: S.E. Asian Studies, for example, or Postcolonial Studies or Multicultural Studies. This is the third predicament for Australian Studies, and Australian Literary Studies: that they are both increasingly hyphenated into other disciplines. And a fourth predicament is that Australian Literary Studies, like Literary Studies broadly speaking, finds itself increasingly situated in what is sometimes called a ‘media ecology’ as the cultural authority of Literature itself declines, as it competes for space and relevance alongside other media, as we talk increasingly not about literary culture but print culture, as we take reading and writing as broad, multi-media practices, and so on: all of which means that literary perspectives now more than ever have to be justified (as distinctive, special, important) and other media (as well as approaches to other media) have to be taken on board.

The collection Australian Studies: Teaching Across Cultures is also interesting for its sense that Australian Studies must in some way be accountable to the nation: that, as David Carter suggests, it has a diplomatic role to play: that it is amongst other things an exercise in what he calls ‘cultural diplomacy’.3 A chapter from James Walter and Susan Lever looks at the political imperatives of Australian Studies and its relations to cultural policy, concluding – symptomatically but wrongly in my view – with a complaint about what they call the current ‘Asian obsession’ in Australian cultural policy in the arts – which results in (for example) ‘sending Australian writers to live in a studio in Vietnamÿwhen support to live at home might prove more productive’.4 We should ask here: more productive for whom? And of course the tension between ‘living at home’ (in Australia) and hyphenating oneself to S.E. Asia is precisely a feature of the current predicament Australian Studies finds itself in these days, as I’ve noted. But what exactly is meant by ‘productive’ here? That’s a question every researcher asks himself or herself, increasingly so as accountability raises its profile. For Walter and Lever, Australian Studies should be retaining its commitment to the Australian arts because, they suggest, overseas markets have a ‘core interest’ in these things. Here, productivity reflects the sense that the nation itself is always and necessarily hyphenated into a broader cultural economy, a point that takes us into another predicament bedevilling research in Australian Studies and Australian Literary Studies, namely, the ways in which these disciplines do indeed understand themselves in relation to markets: both here and overseas, regionally as well as globally.

Graduate students know very well the pressures placed upon them to think about the market value of their research – if only in terms of its ability to get published, and by publishers these days who are themselves more market-sensitive than ever before. What does it mean to write a publishable – that is, a marketable – PhD in Australian Literary Studies? These days, it’s increasingly likely that a single-author study, for example, won’t get published; the Oxford University and Queensland University Press series built around studies of Australian authors have long since closed down and nothing has taken their place. A recent book on Henry Lawson by Christopher Lee got itself published by Curtin University Press in Western Australia, a (relative to UQP) much smaller university publishing house – but it did this defiantly and against all the current trends, using Lawson symptomatically here as a way of championing similarly small communities – the ‘local’ – against the dominance of the metropolitan, the global, and the market. The local, Lee writes, ‘is never clearly and easily written-over by the homogenising desires of a public culture or a national market’5. This may or may not be true, but it does mean that a book like this – published by a minor university press and using a once-canonical Australian author only to speak up defensively for smaller, outlying communities – runs the risk of putting itself outside of a ‘national market’, and certainly outside of a global one. It’s a book, in other words, that refuses to hyphenate itself in most of the ways I’ve been outlining above; but as I say, it can only do thisdefiantly as a form of refusal, and graduate students these days have to think about the risks attached to this sort of counter-cultural position in Australian Literary Studies, admirable as it might seem, as they chose their research fields and make decisions about where their work could be published and to what kinds of markets – local, metropolitan, regional, global – it can be directed. So it seems to me that the question: in what ways is your research productive? is now very much tied to the issue of what kind of market you think your research is directed to – which is another predicament that Australian Literary Studies now finds itself in.

If Australian Literary Studies is part of what is called the ‘new humanities’, and if the new humanities increasingly find themselves in bed with the ‘new economy’, then perhaps we also ought to begin – if we haven’t already – thinking in what we might call industrial terms about this sub-discipline. We know about the Faculty of Creative Industries at Queensland University of Technology, the most successful Arts faculty outside of the sandstone universities, which has built itself around arts and industrial/commercial connections. More recently, the outgoing President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Iain McCalman, delivered an address (his ‘Telstra Address’ given to the National Press Club, published in the latest issue of the Cultural Studies Review ) which sketched out a not dissimilar kind of future for Literary Studies, and for Australian Literary Studies. McCalman’s address begins by turning back to James Joyce for inspiration: but quite a different kind of inspiration to the sort Chris Lee had found with Henry Lawson. McCalman takes Joyce conventionally as a genius, a ‘cultural innovator’, and so on. But Joyce’s novel Ulysses also gave us Bloomsday – 16 th June, the day McCalman delivered his Telstra Address – and so established a tourist industry with significant market value: nationally, since it’s cast as quintessentially Irish, as well as globally with Bloomsday celebrated in Australia amongst many other places. So Bloomsday, McCalman says, ‘shows us the serendipitous way that humanistic culture can bring economic effects to the nation, or to use the jargon of our day, how it can produce commercial spin-off’.6 One can almost see the National Press Club audience nodding with approval here as McCalman gives them an account which sees literary genius seamlessly entwined with exactly the kind of ‘national market’ Chris Lee’s book had so disdained: as if Ulysses, an otherwise inaccessible novel that very few people ever actually read, was perhaps for precisely this reason destined to become a Creative Industry: what Roddy Doyle elsewhere has bitterly referred to as ‘the Joyce industry’.7

Although I’m critical of Chris Lee’s disdain for national markets, I also can’t accept McCalman’s excitable vision of a new humanities world that sees authors, nations, industries and markets so seamlessly stitched together. When McCalman turns from Ireland to Australia, he calls for a literature that ’embodies and represents the culture of an entire nation’: something not even Ulysses could hope to have done.8 He goes on to complain about the fact that so much canonical Australian literature is out of print, as if industry here – the publishing industry, the literary marketplace – has abandoned its literary interests as well as its commitment to the nation altogether, which may well be true. So he ends his talk by drawing attention to a new national literary project: a joint venture by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Macquarie University and Sydney PEN to produce what he calls ‘a really major anthology of Australian literature’. This anthology, he says, is designed to ‘teach our kids their cultural heritage’.9 We might pause to ask: whose kids? And what heritage? No content has apparently yet been assigned to this anthology, which at the moment seems something like a blank slate: so that who is able to write on it, and lay claim to some sort of national significance, has yet to be determined. But a great deal of public – and perhaps even some industrial – money is being invested here (the anthology has an estimated budget of $1.5 million) and even though such a project may very well end up fracturing associations between authors, nations and markets, we can at least see that the national as a category does indeed – for better or worse – retain a great deal of cultural, political and commercial force.

Part of one’s accountability as a researcher in Australian Literary Studies lies in the fact that one is, at least in theory, operating in and through a national market: whatever limits that might have in an increasingly global economy. So one of the problems for researchers in this sub-discipline lies precisely in the tension between the need to speak to that national market – to be national – and the necessary (or perhaps, depending on your point of view, unnecessary) disavowals that must accompany this need: which fracture and contest the national counter-culturally. At the moment, the national – as far as Australian Literary Studies is concerned – has some public money underwriting it, even if it has very little industrial money, and this helps to secure the national as a category in spite of the fact that that assurance is in many respects partial at best. The idea of a representative Australian literary anthology may from one perspective be completely fanciful, but it’s also sufficiently powerful to gain the project considerable state subsidy: this is precisely a version of the kind of ‘cultural diplomacy’ David Carter had talked about in relation to Australian Studies. By comparison, other federally and publicly subsidised literary projects – like the Australian Defence Force Academy’s Australian Scholarly Editions Centre’s Colonial Texts series – might seem to be not fanciful enough. This is a project (and we could say the same thing about the ASEC’s Academy Editions) that never makes its relation to the nation clear at all, as it goes about reprinting the occasional colonial literary text in a sporadic and essentially arbitrary way, retrieving some, forgetting about most of the others, and never bothering to address market issues in any way. Australian Literary Studies here is attached to an old economy, not a new one: protected by limited public monies, free from industrial and marketplace imperatives, and unwilling to mobilise the national as a category that can speak ‘productively’ to contemporary conditions. It seems to me that a much more systematic approach to (for example) the colonial literary archives is needed if we really think that this material is worth researching and repackaging for a readership out there today. Australian Literary Studies’ representative organization, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL), should be playing an active role here: refashioning the national as it embarks on a much more systematic, coherent and market-aware approach to national literary production, its evaluation and its analysis, and its ‘relevance’ to contemporary readerships both here and elsewhere. The typical paper presented at an ASAL conference and published in their representative journal – that is, a ‘close’ reading of a particular Australian author, usually ‘theoretically’ informed – will no longer do.

If we look at Australian Research Council (ARC) outcomes over the last few years, we can see that research in Australian Literary Studies is only now beginning to broaden its range and engage with the kinds of predicaments I’ve been outlining here. I think it’s important to talk about the ARC here, because this is precisely where research futures are mapped out and underwritten – and where researchers themselves, graduate students especially, can gain employment and experience. Amongst other things, the ARC funds postdoctoral fellowships (APDs): graduate students who intend to go on with academic research careers should be getting advice on how to apply for these. In my experience, graduate students often find these applications difficult to do precisely because this is the first time they’ve been asked to think about research in terms of accountability: or what I would call, more bluntly here, ‘fundability’. A PhD project doesn’t have to justify its claim on public money in the way an APD does: where, amongst other things, an APD applicant has to think about National Benefit, that is, how exactly Australia, the nation, will benefit from the research project you want to undertake. Rather like death, this can indeed focus the mind: and even now, very few applicants (whether APD or ARC DP [Discovery Projects]) respond well to this question. Over the last several years, Australian Literary Studies research projects have claimed between 30 and 40% of ARC funding in what is called Literature Studies: the category it competes in nationally for research money. In 2002, it got 4 out of 12: this was the year Margaret Clunies-Ross got $600,000 to produce editions of Old Norse poetry while Clive Probyn and Bruce Steele got $130,000 to produce new critical editions of Henry Handel Richardson’s Australian novels: at a time, perhaps, when National Benefit didn’t feature quite so prominently in the ranking of applications. In 2003, Australian Literary Studies got 4 out of 16 funded grants, including Robert Dixon’s project on Frank Hurley which worked Australia into a regional context; but this was a year in which canonical British literature also did surprisingly well, with funded projects on Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, the Brontes and Shakespeare. In 2004, Australian Literary Studies picked up 4 out of 12 funded grants in Literature Studies, including David Carter’s broad-based project on middlebrow literary taste culture in Australia and a fascinating collaborative project on the circulation of commercial mass-market novels in a selection of Australian towns and cities. The ARC head of Literature Studies over these years (its ‘College of Experts’ member) was Margaret Harris from Sydney University. In her final year, overseeing the 2005 grant allocations, things suddenly changed: Australian Literary Studies picked up 9 out of 25 grants in Literature Studies, a substantial and unexpected overall rise but still about the same proportion, 30 – 40% of the total discipline. All of the projects except one were again broad-based: for example, Nicole Moore’s study of 20thC literary obscenity and censorship in Australia, or my own study with Paul Salzman of Australian fiction from 1989 to 2005 in the framework of national and global infrastructures. (The exception was an editorial project devoted to the correspondence between Vance and Nettie Palmer.) The allocations for 2006, however, have slumped back to pre-2002 figures. Literature Studies itself picked up only 9 ARCs, with just two more literary projects in other disciplines. Of these, only four are Australian: two broad studies (colonial publishing, Australian women writers 1945-1965), another editorial project and a study of the Australian poet Vincent Buckley. This last project, it seems to me, goes against the trend of ARC funding in Australian literary studies over the last few years, which (outside of those editorial projects) has not been author-centred. The rest of the 2006 ARC allocations went mostly to British canonical literary studies (Samuel Beckett, Victorian women writers, early modern English poetry, George Eliot, late Georgian British theatre), along with another grant to Margaret Clunies-Ross to study medieval Icelandic literature. ‘This project’, the summary tells us, ‘has special significance for Australians. Iceland and Australia are both geographically isolated communities…’ Those researchers who have spent time thinking about Australia’s role both globally and in the region might very well smile at the naivety (or perhaps, the sheer audacity) of this description – and I have to say that it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Iceland and Australia so closely drawn together. There are worrying signs in the 2006 ARC outcomes for Literature Studies, and although Australian literary studies remains proportionate at around 35%, the small number of funded grants in Literature Studies and the higher proportion of funded British/European literary projects should be cause for real concern.

It is possible to argue that in terms of numbers of researchers in the field and the national funding they’ve gained, Australian Literary Studies is doing reasonably well; but it could do much better, and the better it does, the stronger its research future will become. Although it may be increasingly difficult to predict outcomes, it still seems as if the ARC has favoured large, broad-based projects that invoke the national and put it to use, rather than (say) single-author studies or micro-regional projects. It is also turning to projects that place Australia in regional and global contexts, or which draw on contemporary interdisciplinary methods: two funded Australian projects for 2005 had tied themselves to Multicultural Studies, for example. It seems to me that Australian Literary Studies can capitalise on these kinds of trends, working to secure its own research future for academics as well as for the graduate students they supervise and the researchers they help to employ. I think it should become more systematic in its approach, but also more pragmatic. It should also be both more selfless and more ambitious: working towards large-scale projects that help the sub-discipline by tying it to the nation and in the process give some configuration to the sub-discipline’s relations to national – as well as global – markets. The ARC now seems to like collaboration: teams of researchers with broad as well as deep visions: deep, because the ARC still seems to like archival research. Academic researchers and graduate students tend to work in isolation, doing their own research, individually. But I think it’s time researchers in the field sat down to talk about not just what they themselves are doing, but what Australian Literary Studies as a sub-discipline ought to do : to think precisely about ‘productivity’ here (what it is, how it can be invoked, what directions it might take), and to think in turn about what kinds of productive relationships Australian Literary Studies can develop between authors and archives, and with other disciplinary approaches, the wider realms of print culture and other media, the national market (however that might be understood) as well as transnational markets and interests in the region (S.E. Asia, the Pacific) and elsewhere.


Ken Gelder is a Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.


1. Ann Curthoys, ‘Windows Onto Worlds: Studying Australia at Tertiary Level (1987): A Reconsideration’, Thinking Australian Studies: Teaching Across Cultures, eds. David Carter, Kate Darian-Smith and Guy Worby. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004: p.70.

2. Cited in Ken Gelder, ‘Recovering Australian Popular Fiction: towards the end of Australian Literature’, in Philip Mead, ed., Australian Literary Studies in the 21 st Century.Sydney: Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 2001: p.113.

3. David Carter, ‘Minor Miracle, A Kind of Failure, and Some Small Successes: Australian Studies and Cultural Diplomacy’, Thinking Australian Studies, p.93.

4. James Walter and Susan Lever, ‘Cultural Export and Policy Caprice: The Relationship between Australian Studies and Government’, ibid., p.86.

5. Christopher Lee, City Bushman: Henry Lawson and the Australian Imagination. Fremantle: Curtin University Press, 2004: p.229.

6. Iain McCalman, ‘Making Culture Bloom’, Cultural Studies Review, 11 (March 2005): pp.175-6.

7. Angelique Crisafis, ‘Overlong, overrated and unmoving: Roddy Doyle’s verdict on James Joyce’s Ulysses’, Guardian, 10 February 2004: see,6109,1144626,00.html

8. Iain McCalman, ‘Making Culture Bloom’, p.180.

9. ibid., p.181.

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