PM’s Literary Awards: how reading opens us to a world of pain

Books do not necessarily bring us all together, tell ‘our’ story, unite us. AAP/Joe Castro

On Monday night, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards were announced with a tie in the fiction category between A World of Other People by Steven Carroll and the Booker Prize and Queensland Literary Award winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Both very interesting novels by two working class boys who are “making good” in the world of literature.

But the awards raise some questions for me around the value of reading in our society.

A World of Other People (2014). Harper Collins

Flanagan’s moving gift of A$40,000 to the Indigenous Literacy Fund is exemplary, and his acceptance speech a tour de force.

Flanagan argued on behalf of the power of symbolic life for the nation, pointing to the fact that actions are symbolic, and symbols are actions.

In the history section there were two more winners sharing the prize: Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, and Hal Colebatch’s Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, published by Quadrant Magazine Publishing.

On top of these wins, the Prime Minister announced the formation of a new literary body, the Book Council of Australia.

Australian books are going to be marketed and sold more efficiently internationally, we are told. We (including most of the so-called book industry) will await the details, but the head of Melbourne University Publishing Louise Adler is quoted, in the light of Abbott’s announcement, saying:

The Book Council declares to the nation that Australian writing matters and that building future generations of writers and readers is vital to a civilised and free society.

This cannot be a bad situation.

But if we step a little aside from the glitz of the prize-giving, from the claims that literacy changes lives (as it potentially does), and that books are a huge part of civilised society, there are some important questions to be asked.

Questions which don’t necessarily fit easily with market values, or even values about literacy. Consider for instance the argument by literary critic Michael Bérubé, in his 1996 essay Aesthetics and the Literal Imagination:

… it has been some decades now since George Steiner and Thomas Pynchon reflected, in their different ways, on the phenomenon of Nazi officers with a fine appreciation of aesthetic excellence.

Literacy and its importance in the education of individuals seems a given. But what is so often occluded or skimmed over in many of the prize-giving activities of the book industry is that literacy on its own is not necessarily a good.

Australia’s Secret War: How Unions Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (2014). Quadrant

It might be bad in the modern world not to be able to read (bad meaning powerless, underprivileged), but learning how to read – that is, how to think, analyse and challenge prevailing ideas (including those appearing in many works of literature, many histories) needs to be considered more coherently alongside the mechanics of book distribution, book marketing, learning the alphabet.

No, not all literate, literary, book-educatedness is good in itself. Hence Bérubé’s point above. In Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, the figure of the vicious and violent prison guard is also notable for the way he quotes the exquisite poetry of Basho, even as he inflicts maniacal harm on prisoners.

That books are sites where ideological and aesthetic values are fought out, at both conscious and unconscious levels, is well known to both right and left-wing scholars and readers. Books do not necessarily bring us all together, tell “our” story, unite us.

The furore that has erupted over the award to Hal Colebatch demonstrates that culture is always contested, and always ideological.

The best books, it might be argued, challenge, divide, set up differing modes of understanding about who “we” are, who “we” would like to be. Perhaps this kind of book – exemplified by Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (2013) – challenge us rather than please us with myths about ourselves.

I do not find The Narrow Road to the Deep North satisfying or cohesive. It may be a good read, but it, like all writing, is open to critique, to questioning about the values it purveys, as well as the values it is quite unconscious about.

When Dorrigo Evans, the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, of the novel contemplates his war experiences, he does so in these words:

Decades would pass. A few sections would be cleared by those who thought memory mattered, transformed in time into strangely resurrected, trunkless leg − tourist sites, sacred sites, national sites.

For the Line was broken, as all lines finally are; it was all for nothing, and of it nothing remained. People kept on longing for meaning and hope, but the annals of the past are a muddy story of chaos only.

And of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014). Random House Books

This passage, to this reader, is full of unfruitful contradictions that seem to undo the novel’s own “longing for meaning and hope”, if it can be said to demonstrate such a longing.

Yes, it’s the character’s thoughts and not the author’s that we are reading here, but I would argue that they are so entangled in each other that the novel, like the great failed actions of memory it narrates here, falls into long grass too.

Likewise, the ending of the novel, might be read as representing Dorrigo’s stoicism, or his nihilism, or his failure to establish any meaning or hope.

These are all viable readings of the novel – and there will be others – but they do not simply equate to the story of “us”. They set us a task – of interpretation, of deciphering and arguing values, of challenging and being challenged by the work of the novel. Tasks that may unravel us, as much as establish our fullness.

If we are, like Dorrigo, privileged enough to be able to read, we are opening ourselves to a world of pain, as much as entertainment. Flanagan’s novel ends with Dorrigo remembering his time in the prison camp, reading a cheap novel in order to escape the horror of the camp, but he recalls that the last page of the book is missing:

The book of his life just broke off. There was only the mud below him and the filthy sky above. There was to be no peace and no hope. And Dorrigo Evans understood that the love story would go on forever and ever, world without end.

He would live in hell, because love is that also.

He put the book down …

The PM’s Literary Awards seek to encourage us to keep picking up works of Australian literature. This is a worthwhile enterprise, but as we read, we should not shy away from the harder challenges to which our literacy exposes us.