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Often engaging and well-written, [literary histories] are also in general derivative and conservative… New histories cannot but rely to a considerable extent on previous ones… It remains to be seen whether the possibilities offered by the web, and by electronic communications in general, will allow for a ‘flatter’, more horizontal and extensive, even more ‘democratic’ form of history production in the future.
In the popular imagination, archives remain dusty, hidden, forgotten places; in fact, they are increasingly likely to be digital and available online. By changing the form that archives take, technology also transforms the ways in which they can be searched and the types of questions that can be asked of them. This shift affords opportunities for more extensive, data-rich and quantitative approaches to literary historical scholarship. But it does not negate – it actually increases – the potential for what we find in the archives to challenge and transform the way we understand the past. That, in a nutshell, is the premise and the aim of Reading by Numbers. By mining, modelling and analysing data in a digital archive – AustLit, a comprehensive, online bibliographical record of Australian literature – I present a new history of the Australian novel: one that concentrates on the nineteenth century and the decades since the end of the Second World War, and aims precisely for the more ‘extensive’ and ‘democratic’ historiography encouraged by the epigraph.
The history of the book in Australia may be characterised as the movement of durable cultural goods over very large distances. Raw material was dispatched to Britain in the form of stories and other texts to be converted into books at the industrial heart of Empire. These were then shipped back to the Antipodes along with numerous other books to satisfy the prodigious appetites of Australian readers. Local publishing was a sideline undertaken by enterprising printers and booksellers.
Over the last decade, Australian literary studies has undergone a ‘transnational turn’, with a number of the field's leading scholars urging a shift ‘beyond the national paradigm’ to ‘explore and elaborate the many ways in which the national literature has always been connected to the world’. Book histories have been at the forefront of this process, with particularly profound consequences for conceptions of nineteenth-century literary culture. Where earlier literary histories sought in this century – especially the 1890s – the origins of a recognisably national literary tradition and canon, histories of the book (and of publishing and reading) in Australia emphasise the fundamental importance of British publishers and books for colonial authors and readers. This recent scholarship highlights Australia's position as a major export market for British books, ‘the largest…from at least 1889’, and according to Alexis Weedon, since 1878. British publishers are described as not only the main source of books for colonial readers but, as Craig Munro and John Curtain state in the epigraph to this chapter, essentially the only avenue of publication for Australian authors.
Feminist criticism has had the single greatest influence in reshaping the nature of Australian literary studies, not only in its critique of the masculinism of the nationalist tradition and the established canon, but positively in the rediscovery of midcentury women writers and the recovery of colonial romance and autobiography genres.
Where feminism has clearly transformed Australian literary studies, the same cannot be said of publishing history. Despite some excellent analyses of publishing through a gendered framework, for the most part, as Mary Eagleton says: ‘Feminism's lack of interest in publishing history is equalled only by publishing history's similar disregard for feminism.’ Blackwell's recent A Companion to the History of the Book is a prime example of this ‘disregard’, including no dedicated discussion of gender in its almost 600 pages. The next two chapters aim to contribute to bridging this divide between feminism and publishing history by exploring, and demonstrating the profound interconnections between, publishing and gender trends in the history of the Australian novel. This analysis will also add another layer to the revised history already presented in Chapters 2 and 3, with this chapter focusing (like Chapter 2) on the nineteenth century, and the next one (like Chapter 3) considering the decades since the end of the Second World War. The connections that emerge between publishing and gender trends extend understandings of the history of authorship, publishing and reading in these periods.
The next big idea in language, history and the arts? Data.
This epigraph – from an article in the recent series by the New York Times, ‘Humanities 2.0’ – reflects growing interest in the way data and data-mining, and digital tools more broadly, are changing humanities scholarship. In ‘The Digital Future is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities’, Christine Borgman similarly identifies ‘data- and informationintensive… research’ as a major future direction for the humanities. Just as the ‘availability of large volumes of data has enabled scientists to ask new questions in new ways’, she argues that increased existence and awareness of humanities data – largely in the form of cultural records and ‘especially as more records are digitised and made available to the public’ – will enable new approaches to, and perspectives on, research questions across the humanities. The editors of A Companion to the Digital Humanities agree, identifying data-mining as a common feature of the contributions to that collection, and a central component of future humanities research:
This method, or perhaps we should call it a heuristic, discovers a new horizon for humanities scholarship, a paradigm as powerful as any that has arisen in any humanities discipline in the past – and, indeed, maybe more powerful, because the rigor it requires will bring to our attention undocumented features of our own ideation.
Despite the prognostic tenor of such claims, quantitative and digital methods have a long history in the humanities.
Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field is the first book to use digital humanities strategies to integrate the scope and methods of book and publishing history with issues and debates in literary studies. By mining, visualising and modelling data from AustLit an online bibliography of Australian literature that leads the world in its comprehensiveness and scope this study revises established conceptions of Australian literary history, presenting new ways of writing about literature and publishing and a new direction for digital humanities research. The case studies in this book offer insight into a wide range of features of the literary field, including trends and cycles in the gender of novelists, the formation of fictional genres and literary canons, and the relationship of Australian literature to other national literatures.
[T]here is no method, however well adapted to a given science, that literary history can transplant and apply to its own researches. The illusion that this is possible is responsible for much poor and childish work: statistics and charts, evolution of species, and quantitative analysis are processes, methods, and hypotheses excellent in their place, but their place is not literary history.
In the last decade, and especially in the last four or five years, the insistence in this epigraph – that quantitative methods have no place in literary history – has been repeated many times. The fact that this particular passage comes from a book first published in 1922, and intended as a guide for graduate students, should demonstrate that both the application of such methods, and the resistance to them, are of considerably longer standing in debates about literary history than is generally acknowledged. Nonetheless, discussion of quantitative methods has almost certainly never been as heated or as widespread – or as apparent to the majority of literary scholars – as it is today. While there are a number of quantitative approaches to literature, the current debate focuses on Franco Moretti's work in literary history. As Priya Joshi says, literary scholars have for a long time ‘regarded quantitative analysis with suspicion bordering on contempt’. But in the response to the publication in 2000 of Moretti's ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, and in 2005 of his book Graphs, Maps, Trees, this contempt has escalated – especially in the American humanities – to an intense stand-off.
The prominence of women's writing [in the 1980s] has been such that the WACM (as Elizabeth Webby dubs the white Anglo-Celtic male who has been the icon of Australian literary traditions and patronage) has suffered considerable anxiety.
I began Chapter 3 – which, like this one, explores the Australian novel in the post-war period – with Webby's description of the 1970s and 1980s as a ‘golden age of Australian publishing and the promotion of Australian literature’. What I did not discuss in that chapter were the specific connections Webby draws between the rise and fall of this ‘golden age’ and gender trends in Australian authorship. According to Webby, Australian literature in the decades prior to 1970 was dominated not only by publishing interests external to the nation, but by male authors, or the ‘WACM – WHITE, ANGLOCELTIC MALE’. Progressive cultural politics of the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘from the student, feminist and black power movements’, as well as animating an independent local publishing industry, fundamentally undermined the institutional and social structures that had maintained ‘the former supremacy of the white, heterosexual, Anglo male’. In altering the ‘stories we…tell about ourselves’, and the subjects ‘able to assert their… subjectivity’, these political changes sponsored a proliferation of authors other than white men, of whom women were the major group. The economic shifts of the 1990s and 2000s, which supposedly brought an end to the ‘golden age’ of local publishing by enabling multinationals to enter and dominate the Australian market, also signalled the resurrection of ‘WACM power’.
The golden age of Australian publishing and the promotion of Australian literature, primed by the 1972 Whitlam victory and kept going through the 1980s by the financial largesse associated with the celebration of the 1988 Bicentenary of Australia, is well and truly over.
The previous chapter ended with the 1890s, described by Martyn Lyons as ‘perhaps the most mythologised decade in Australian cultural history’. He identifies the ‘generation of the 1950s [as] largely responsible for idealising the 1890s, as intellectuals searched nostalgically for roots that might sustain a post-war resurgence of Australian literary culture’. This generation, he argues, imagined the 1890s
as a creative moment when a specifically Australian literary nationalism took shape, based on a democratic and fiercely independent spirit located in a mythologised version of life in the bush. The bushman was a folk-hero…questioning dependence on Britain and challenging pretensions of the powerful.
This understanding of the 1890s has been widely recognised and critiqued – or as Lyons puts it, ‘thoroughly contested’ and ‘severely punctured’ – by the generation that followed that of the 1950s, commonly referred to as ‘baby boomers’. Indeed, one could argue that the major movements in literary studies spearheaded by this generation since the 1970s – Marxism, feminism and post-colonialism – have been articulated in the Australian context as a series of challenges precisely to this 1950s definition of ‘Australian literature’, and the literary nationalism underpinning it.