The Australian voice became more in fashion after WW2, in a shift that was aided and abetted by Australia’s (well-founded) sense of itself as finally being a player on the world stage. This voice was encouraged by literary journals like Meanjin, and later Overland, as well as by newspapers of the day. It was a voice that was tied into a swelling of national pride.
These days, this association with a nationalist agenda complicates our relationship to the whole idea of an Australian voice. It’s a voice that can be associated with tirades and rhetoric. With blokes and the bush. With Les Murray’s attempt to write a preamble to the constitution for John Howard back in 1999: “We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.”
It can be hard to remember that our voice is more nuanced, less static, than these clichés would have us believe. It’s a voice created by poets (indeed, ones like Les Murray), by slam poets (looking at you Omar Musa and Easy Bee), cartoonists (take a bow First Dog), by essayists (Marie Takolander, Benjamin Law), historians (Michael Cathcart, Clare Wright), musicians (Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins), bloggers (Kerry Goldsworthy, Antony Loewenstein) and novelists (Christos Tsiolkas, Fiona McGregor). It’s not clear what it is that makes them distinctive, makes them Australian. But they clearly are.
Given that the move towards the digital realm follows on from other changes globalisation has wrought in the world of publishing and bookselling — debates around copyright, government policy making (parallel importation, etc), the financial imperative to reach an international audience — it’s hard not to imagine that Australian writers are in danger of losing their distinctive voice. The question we need to ask next is: does it matter?