How to read Australia’s literary obsession with the North Atlantic

What time is it in Europe? Why are we still looking to the north Atlantic for cultural role models? leoplus

Last weekend columnist and broadcaster Phillip Adams published a piece in The Australian lamenting what he called the “coca-colonial cringe”:

Like you I measure my life with American movies, music and literature. But it’s a pity about ours.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, not least because of my recent involvement in a literary world that seems obsessed with North Atlantic figures, often to the detriment of the local. When the very successful Sydney Opera House Festival of Dangerous Ideas presented a pop-up version of itself in Melbourne it featured five speakers – all from the United States.

In this they were following the lead of Q&A’s broadcast from the Festival, which at least included one Australian — Germaine Greer.

Equally the Melbourne Writers Festival has for the past two years centred the spotlight on overseas, but specifically North-Atlantic, writers.

Thus their most recent post-festival blurb proclaims:

We have captured some of our favourite Festival events on film! Watch our popular keynote addresses delivered by Boris Johnson, Tavi Gevinson, and Anne Summers. See international guests Ophira Eisenberg, Doug Johnstone and Laurent Binet as well as the esteemed literary team from the London review of Books including Colm Tóibín and Andrew O'Hagan.

Other than Anne Summers everyone named lives and works in the US and the UK.

I should note that I appeared at both of these festivals and was treated with great courtesy; if this article sounds like sour grapes it is not written out of a sense of exclusion.

A literary cultural cringe?

Several generations ago, Australians felt we had to go overseas to “make it”, and it appears this attitude is back – though our cultural festivals are now far more adventurous in seeking performers from across the world. But in the literary world there remains an ongoing cultural cringe, combined with a remarkable disinterest in what ideas and writings might be happening outside the Anglosphere, a term popular with the current prime minister.

Of course we should encourage and welcome the interchange of ideas with overseas writers. But the key here is “interchange”, not celebrity worship.

Australia remains the place where established celebrities from the northern hemisphere migrate to luxuriate in refound fame, unless, like Frank Sinatra, they offend the local press. (When Sinatra visited Australia in 1974 he attacked local journalists, which led to a union ban on his tour.)

This assumption is widely shared in our universities, where graduate students in humanities and social sciences are often far more versed in the latest North Atlantic fashion — sometimes shaped by the Iron Triangle of New York, Paris and London — than in local theorists.

Even graduate students writing about specifically Australian topics feel the need to frame their analyses in terms almost entirely derived from overseas – without considering the extent to which theory is always a product of particular times and places, and that there may be far more relevant local sources.

The local and the global

How we balance the local as against the international is always a hard choice for a small English-speaking country. But when our weekend newspapers republish overseas reviews of books published in London and New York they are implicitly cutting out both Australian books and Australian critics.

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There is an ongoing dilemma for a relatively small nation that shares a language and therefore a culture with the most powerful nation on Earth, and where its citizens grow up on a diet as much made up of American, and to some extent British, cultural produce as their own.

This makes us in some ways more cosmopolitan, but it can reinforce our feeling that we are second-rate, unable to recognise our own achievements because we measure them against the imagined glories of a North-Atlantic paradise.

This is not an argument for a chauvinistic nationalism, but rather for a recognition that what is written and published and discussed in Australia demands intelligent discussion that the constant focus on overseas celebrities overshadows.

Why can our festivals and book reviewers not think more imaginatively of dialogue, of encouraging established overseas writers to read and comment upon our books, rather than assuming it is our role to act as the grateful recipients of overseas wisdom?

Beyond New York and London

And when we look overseas why is it always to New York and London?

There is a flourishing literary and intellectual culture in many parts of the world that remains uncharted territory here in Australia. I once had the privilege of taking part in an extraordinary discussion of sex and globalisation with some leading Mexican intellectuals, at a level that frankly made the recent discussions at both Sydney and Melbourne festival seem puerile.

Sociologist Raewyn Connell is one of the few Australians who has tried to reorient our attention to southern thinkers; perhaps her book, Southern Theory, could be compulsory holiday reading for 2014 festival directors.