There is a GAN, that is we attach more value to some novels than to others, but in checking out ANZ litlovers’ Best Australian Books and Whispering Gums’ Australian Canon I was surprised that neither included the wonderful, idiosyncratic Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). I was also surprised by how many of the novels that they did include were amongst my all time least favourites; My Brother Jack (embarrassingly self-aggrandising), The Tree of Man (the Lone Hand as hobby farmer), Cloudstreet (spiritualist twaddle), The True History of the Kelly Gang, The Secret River (false histories). The other surprise inclusion was The Magic Pudding which I would regard as great but not a novel.
So, unlike WG, I will attempt a definition. The Great Australian Novel should tell us something about Australia or being Australian and it should be Literary, by which I mean it should contribute to the art of writing. My top ten are:
Voss (1957), Patrick White, one of the great modernist works of any country and clearly a major contribution to the Australian Legend.
Such is Life (1903), Tom Collins, the highly educated musings of a bullock driver.
My Brilliant Career (1901) and My Career Goes Bung (written 1902, rewritten and finally published 1946), Miles Franklin. Read together they provide a very post-modern discussion on the intersection of fact and fiction, with the author writing of herself as both a fictional author and the fictional subject of the fictional author’s mock autobiography.
The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead, this is Stead at the height of her powers and, although the setting is American, the “Man” is clearly based on Stead’s (Australian) father.
The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson. Until White and Stead were reappraised in the 1960s Richardson was generally regarded as Australia’s premier novelist.
The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark, a remarkable attempt at re-imagining the early days of white settlement and first contact from both sides of the Settler/Indigenous divide.
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland. There were earlier urban novels but this is set in the heart of gritty, heavy industry.
The River Ophelia (1995), Justine Ettler, inner-city grunge, just edging out Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977).
Loaded (1995), Christos Tsiolkas, the other Great of our limited (and contested) Grunge tradition. Tsiolkas is well on his way to being the dominant novelist of his generation.
An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin, a long and philosophical novel about one woman’s love for one man and her unsuitable marriage to another.
A number of the writers above could easily have had a second novel included – White, The Twyborn Affair (1979), Richardson, Maurice Guest (1908), Stead, For Love Alone (1945) and I’m a bit sad about those I had to leave out, although not Peter Carey, who I don’t like much, but Oscar and Lucinda (1988) should probably have been included, and Eve Langley’s strikingly poetic The Pea Pickers (1943) and Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley only missed because I haven’t read them critically yet, but I will! And then there’s J.M. Coetzee whom I’m sure we will claim one day soon and all the new and not so new writers I just haven’t got round to reading.
Finally, there’s that other GAN (GUN really). My pick for number one is U.S.A. (1938), John Dos Passos, although my favourite is The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne.