There was a moment during the speech Cate Blanchett delivered at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service on Wednesday when the headlines got up and wrote themselves. It took 51 seconds and began with the following eight words: ‘I am the beneficiary of free, tertiary education.’
While the majority of the crowd showed their support for the actor’s agenda with a thunderous seventeen-second round of applause, a small coterie of others set their faces to a stony neutrality. Blanchett continued: ‘I am the beneficiary of good, free healthcare, and that meant the little I earned after tax and rent could go towards seeing shows, bands, and living inside my generation’s expression’. She followed up with an account of her experience making the film Little Fish ⎯ a film about a heroin addict set in Fairfield and Cabramatta: suburbs within Whitlam’s former electorate and the site of his family home.
Blanchett’s speech was greater than the sum of these small parts, but what has been interesting to observe in the days since she made it is how the conservative commentariat has responded. The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt took particular umbrage with Blanchett’s remarks. He took a few easy, auto-pilot shots, firstly in his rolling blog which reported the service as it happened, then in an opinion piece published yesterday. In the live report, Bolt sniped that Blanchett was grateful for her free education and free medical care so she would have ‘more money to spare for going out to clubs or something’. Then, that she credited Whitlam for
changing the culture to make possible her film Little Fish, actually made 30 years after Whitlam fell. The film gets a very long plug. The film, this tribute to Whitlam’s legacy, involves drug addicts from broken families lying to each other and then planning a drug deal that goes badly wrong.
But what Bolt missed were the deeper implications of the speech. Blanchett was not thanking Whitlam for pocket money to socialise, she was highlighting the importance of providing a space for young people to emerge from childhood and enter into their generation’s cultural and intellectual life, a life that is enriched by participation. In making the claim, she was also suggesting that the arts needs audiences to thrive which means, in turn, providing a supportive cultural and economic environment. Nor was Blanchett using the occasion to plug Little Fish; she was using the film as an example of the kinds of inter-generational, cross-cultural storytelling that Whitlam’s cultural, political, gender and race reforms enabled. She was arguing that the Whitlam agenda had had a direct impact on Australia’s film industry, as well as the nation’s cultural identity; and that it allowed, in her opinion at least, not only for the stories of the victors to be told, but also the stories of marginalised Australians. She said it plainly enough: ‘In 1972 an Australian film or drama would have been a kind of country idyll, with no connection to urbanity or multiculturalism.’ A story like Little Fish would never have been told at all.
Whitlam understood the dangers of insularity and myopia, particularly its effects on the arts. Blanchett knows it too, and she knows the place of education in cultivating a flourishing arts practice. It is for these reasons, I imagine, that she decided to conclude her speech with a galvanizing statement from Whitlam himself, one that deserves to be remembered:
In any civilized community the arts and associated amenities must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be seen as remote from everyday life. Of all the objectives of my government, none had a higher priority than the encouragement of the arts; the preservation and enrichment of our cultural and intellectual heritage. Indeed, I would argue that all other objectives of a Labor government – social reform, justice and equity in the provision of welfare services and educational opportunities – have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts and the appreciation of spiritual and intellectual values can flourish. Our other objectives are all means to an end. The enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the vigorous criticism of creative writing courses and arts funding schemes by former permanent (a contradiction if ever there was one) secretary of the Nobel Prize, Horace Engdahl . Engdahl, you may recall, told a reporter for La Croix that writers’ increased reliance on financial supports and institutions was having a detrimental effect on literature. At the end of that dispatch, I mentioned that a group of creative writing academics were preparing to respond to Engdahl’s claims. That response appeared today in The Conversation. Written by four senior Creative Writing academics, ‘University writing programs deliver, so let’s turn the page’ offers a robust defense of Creative Writing programs, arguing not just for recognition of outstanding and successful graduates, but for the broader intellectual contributions these students make at a ‘time when literary culture, publishing and reading itself are seen to be under threat’.
Meanwhile Australia’s international literary profile continues to rise. Only a fortnight after Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize win, Australian novelist Lily Brett has taken out the Prix Medicis Etranger ⎯ the premier French literary award for an author whose work has been translated into French. Brett won the prize for Lola Benksy (2012), a novel that was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. She is only the fourth woman to have won the French prize. Unlike the Man Booker, there is no lucrative cash reward for the Prix Medicis Etranger. As Brett told Jason Steger in an interview for the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘the French are all about honour’.
Another Australian novelist whose international career is now firmly secured is Hannah Kent. Since its release in 2013, Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites has been translated into twenty languages with a further eight expected in 2015. Now, after appearing on nearly every major prize shortlist in 2013-2014 – and winning her fair share too – Kent has been shortlisted for the International Author of the Year Award in this year’s National Book Awards in the UK. She is one of six authors in line for the prize, with the shortlist also including Eimear McBridge, Jonas Jonasson, Jeff Kinney and Karen Joy Fowler. The announcement will be made on 26 November.
On the domestic scene, author and playwright Brian Castro has just been awarded the 2014 Patrick White Literary Award. Presented this morning, 7 November, the award is presented to writers who ‘have made a significant but inadequately recognised contribution to Australian literature.’ The judges noted Castro’s ‘continued willingness to take imaginative risks’ in his existing novels, a talent that would also likely lead to more ‘significant work’. Readers interested in Castro’s work can read his SRB essays and Bernadette Brennan’s review of his most recent book Street to Street (2012).
One of Gough Whitlam’s lauded achievements was his ground-breaking visit to China in 1971 when he was still in opposition. As the Chinese Embassy said following Whitlam’s death, the trip ‘ushered in a new era of China-Australia ties’. Some forty years on, the wisdom of that visit is evident in the rich cultural partnerships that now exist between the two countries. The Australian Embassy Beijing has today announced that A. J. Betts, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Tim Cope, Brooke Davis and Damon Young have been selected as guest authors for the 2015 Australian Writers Week in China. The five writers will speak at the Bookworm International Literary Festival, the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival, and at schools, libraries, bookshops and universities across the country.
This week’s Sydney Review of Books also takes, as its focus, China’s rich literary culture. Our first essay is by Seizure editor and Managing Editor of Giramondo Publishing, Alice Grundy. ‘Editor’s Cut: Notes on the Chinese Publishing Industry’ is an intimate reflection on Grundy’s recent trip to China, which she took under an Australia Council-funded Editorial Professional Development grant. ‘Editor’s Cut’ is an insightful essay that asks, among other questions, what it means to work in a cultural industry in a nation where culture is so controversial.
Our second essay is from Nicholas Jose, a novelist and academic with a longstanding interest in China. ‘In Hot Water’ surveys the peculiar dynamic of post-Tiananmen Chinese literature and art, on the way to reviewing Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi, a speculative novel that tells the ‘tale of two Chinas, but not the usual contrast of urban and rural or rich and poor. Rather, it is a contrapuntal figuring of two opposed dreams of what China could be.’ Jose uses his considerable expertise to read across the complex, violent histories embedded in this urgent, poetic and richly allegorical novel. The review ends with a compelling endorsement:
Anyone remotely interested in an insider’s untrammeled, authoritative vision of what’s going on in China will jump into this fascinating cauldron of a novel, at risk of being boiled alive.
Our selection From the Archives is Ben Etherington’s forensic critique of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. ‘The Real Deal’ considers the novel in terms of its critical reception with Etherington noting that, ‘in order to distinguish authentic aesthetic judgements amongst the reviews it will help to consider the way the advance for Burial Rites fits into the logic of trade book publishing.’
Our image this week is from artist Mandy Martin, which is part of a politically and environmentally charged exhibition Playing with Fire, beginning on 11 November at the Roylston Galleries in Paddington, NSW. SRB would also like to extend its thanks to Yu Youhan and the Queensland Art Gallery for granting permission to reproduce Yu Youhan’s luminous painting Flowery Bicycle alongside Nicholas Jose’s essay.