‘Australia has lost its way: The inaugural Boisbouvier Lecture, Melbourne Writers Festival 2016’, The Monthly, 1 September 2016
This article, originally a lecture, is subtitled, ‘Does writing matter?’ The author says he does not believe in national literature, as such.
Nations and nationalisms may use literature, but writing of itself has nothing to do with national anythings – national traditions, national organisations, national prizes – all these and more are irrelevant. National anythings imply responsibilities, morals, ethics, politics. And writing, at its best, exists beyond morality and politics.
Flanagan muses about writing and writers in English and otherwise, in various countries, and goes on:
The history of letters is then a history of transnational ideas, styles and revolutions, which when they achieve fashion become celebrated and misrepresented as the reactionary virtues and stagnant spirit of nations. It is ironic, then, that at the moment Australian writing began to announce itself as a force in the world, that at the moment it became perhaps our dominant indigenous cultural form, there ceased to be very much about it that might fit the thin idea of a national literature. And that, to my mind, is no bad thing.
From the late 1960s Australian writing took off in all directions and since then has not recognisably been a ‘national literature’.
There isn’t and there doesn’t have to be a single united national project linking Benjamin Law to Tim Winton, that seeks resonances between Helen Garner and Omar Musa, that demands continuities between JM Coetzee and Alexis Wright. What matters is that we have these writers and their works in all their diversity, and so much more besides.
Flanagan looks at government assistance to writers in Australia and wonders ‘why our political class has such hostility towards writing’. There is a lot more in this long article but it ends with a series of quotes from the recent leaked Nauru files which are literature in their own way. He concludes thus:
Australia has lost its way. All I can think is, this is not my Australia. But it is. It is too easy to ascribe the horror of what I have just read to a politician, to a party or even to our toxic politics. These things, though, have happened because of a more general cowardice and inertia, because of conformity. Because it is easier to be blind than to see, to be deaf than to hear, to say things don’t matter when they do. Whether we wish it or not, these things belong to us, are us, and we are diminished because of them.