Wow, I’ve just finished a ripper of a book – a rundown on some of the best of Australian books and writers, the 2010 edition of ‘Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works‘ by Jane Gleeson-White.

If you want a crash course in Australian literature, you could do a lot worse than start with this book. Gleeson-White has selected her vision of what are some the greatest Aussie books (novels, poems, short stories, children’s books and non-fiction). Each section gives an outline of the classic book and also the author. She is an eminently readable writer and the volume flows effortlessly (far from being a dry and academic reference book).

I won’t list all books but some classics covered include:

‘Robbery Under Arms’ by Rolph Boldrewood
‘The Sick Stockrider’ by Adam Lindsay Gordon
‘Seven Little Australians’ by Ethel Turner
‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ by Joan Lindsay
‘Five Bells’ by Kenneth Slessor
‘Power without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland
‘The Magic Pudding’ by Norman Lindsay
‘Voss’ by Patrick White
‘An Imaginary Life’ by David Malouf
‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ by Thomas Keneally
‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner
‘The History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey
‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

She has also asked over 40 of Australia’s distinguished writers, readers and editors (including Les Murray, Tim Winton, Sophie Cunningham, David Malouf) to provide their own list of favourite 10 Australian books. I enjoyed reading these lists a great deal (they are interspersed throughout) and it provides a nice counter-balance to Gleeson-White’s list.

The books on my own list seem to be missing in action πŸ˜‰ (Ruth Park’s ‘Muddle Headed Wombat‘ is no-where to be seen; and what about John O Grady’s ‘They’re a Weird Mob‘). I might save my list for another blog post or wait until I have read more of these classics (some I had never heard of – I’ll blame my school teachers for that).

The problem now for me is that I want to get most of these books. I’m making a list (I know I don’t usually do lists, but I am making an exception for this important reminder to self) and I’m checking it twice (sigh) – I will have to prioritise.


34 thoughts on “Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works

  1. When I buy books it is like a domino effect and one things leads to another – I bought this book because my son Michael was asked to read an Aussie bush ballad at school and I realised I hardly had any Australian poetry books – eek! One thing led to another πŸ™‚

  2. Great stuff! Now: most of my reading is done by audiobook. Which would be the most well suited to keeping us on the edge of our seats through the night? I feel an Aussie literature fest coming on.

    1. I would recommend starting with ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ – not that I’ve read the book but the movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen – it will leave you feeling a great sense of unease (so well suited to keeping you on the edge of your seat – haha).

  3. What a wonderful resource to know about. I am appallingly uneducated as to Australian literature. I think the only Australian book I know is “My Brilliant Career,” which became a movie in 1979 which I saw and found mesmerizing enough that I bought the book afterwards so as to experience the original. Ah, and that was a long time ago!

    But I know some Australian poets now!

    1. Yes you do Aletha πŸ˜‰ I saw My Brilliant Career at the movies with my Mum (we didn’t go to many movies together so I am unsure why she was so keen to go to this one) – I will have to read the book. There is an interesting back story to the book (the author wanted it published under a pseudonym – pretending to be an old man – but things stuffed up and they produced it under her real name and age – she was quite young – so she withdrew it until after her death). I am appalled how uneducated I am on Australian literature πŸ˜‰ (except plays which I studied at Uni and did all the main Australian ones) – I was always more interested in European literature.

  4. I was just now looking at a trailor for the movie, first time since 1979 that I’ve seen it. I think I believed that Australia is like that — was like that — even in 1979. But it’s not true. There are no big spiders in that movie. πŸ˜‰

  5. Enjoying these book posts of yours, Gabe πŸ™‚

    I enjoy Helen Garner’s writing, and the Kenneth Slessor and David Ireland books sounds like good reads, but will most definitely give Patrick White a miss πŸ™‚

    PS – Have you read the YA fiction book ‘The Red Shoe’ by Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky?

    1. I haven’t read The Red Shoe (sounds familiar though). I want to read ‘Monkey Grip’ and ‘The Glass Canoe’ first – in fact The Glass Canoe sounds like a novel I want to write on Aussie pub culture πŸ˜‰ but I’ll have to change the names of all my old friends – hahahaha

  6. I realise you didn’t list everything, and wondered if the following were there:

    1. SNUGGLEPOT AND CUDDLEPIE – that has to be THE greatest Australian book ever written – fun for kids with jokes that appeal to the parents , over the heads of the kids (eg the one about editors writing backwards on the scribbly gum trees, and the one about kookaburras sending messages from post to post ‘and that is called sending things by post’, and others). PLUS all that wonderful education about Australian plants and animals, and all the messages about conservation of our wildlife (ahead of her time, but still pertinent today). PLUS, and MOST OF ALL wonderful, wonderful writing and absolutely amazing stories.

    2. I liked Oscar and Lucinda better than some of the others on the list.

    3. Judith Wright???? Any one of her poems beats half the things on the list.

    (I guess I’m just showing up the permanent problem with lists. If this had been called an anthology, then it is obviously just personal choice, but calling it ‘the best’ or ‘the top’ of anything only brings oneself into disrepute with at least someone else).

    And buy a Kindle and see how many of the ‘classics’ are available for free – and if some of the others may be cheaper that way than buying hard copies. Even if only a few are available, it will be quicker and easier to start your program.

    Is this your New Year resolution?

    There is also some challenge that my daughter is undertaking, to read 10 Australian women authors and write about them. I will find the details.



    1. It’s not a New Years resolution d – I don’t make them (but I might try to read as many as I can and write about it – I do want to pursue the Australian slant though). Oscar and Lucinda was not on the list but was on a number of the other writers lists (I read about a third and gave up on it – just didn’t like it that much – maybe it gets better near the end πŸ˜‰ ). Judith Wright is definitely on the list (and on nearly everyone else’s list). Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is not on her list but mentioned by many of the other writers (and I agree with you that it should be there). I will be able to borrow many of the books on the list or read them for free on my Kobo reader (I have a few already that have remained on my β€˜waiting list’ to be read.)

  7. Hi Gabe, nice post – thanks for telling us about the book. I’ll have to go get myself a copy. For what it’s worth, here’s my list of Top Ten books by Australian writers. In no particular order:

    – ‘Dog Boy’ by Eva Hornung. Grim but an extraordinary piece of imagination.
    – ‘Disgrace’ by JM Coetzee. True that he wasn’t Australian when he wrote this masterpiece, but he lives in Adelaide now.
    – ‘Summertime’ by JM Coetzee. This guy is a literary god as far as I’m concerned.
    – ‘The Lakewoman’ by Alan Gould. A beautiful romance by an under-rated writer.
    – ‘The Merry Go Round In the Sea’ by Randolph Stow. The first novel I properly fell in love with.
    – ‘The Monkey’s Mask’ by Dorothy Porter. A modern Australian classic. Just so happens to be one very long poem.
    – ‘Eminence’ by Morris West. This is based on the premise: what if the pope-in-waiting was actually an agnostic? Brilliant stuff.
    – ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ by Joan Lindsay. Just don’t by a copy of this book with the missing final chapter reinstated. The original publisher was right: it’s best not to know what happened to the girls.
    – ‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton. Most lovers of Winton turn their noses up at this book, but I think it’s his best, because, ironically, it’s his least ‘Australian’.
    – ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner. This is the only non-fiction book in the list, but it’s heartbreakingly good.

    1. Thanks Nigel for your list πŸ™‚ I had read about the final (unused) chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock but I didn’t know it was actually published – that’s a bad move (much better left with the mystery).

      1. This is a great book, I agree, Gabrielle … And it must be doing well as my edition has an orange/red cover. As for Nigel’s list … Great taste Nigel – I love most of those books you’ve listed, but it is cheeky including Disgrace! I agree re Joe Cinque … An excellent read.

  8. Just goes to prove my point that these should be called ‘anthologies’ as no-one can ever agree on ‘best’.

    I assume, since you were originally looking for bush poets, that there is some Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson on one or more of those lists – and I think that your son is of the age when he would really-truly LOVE ‘The Ballad of Bloodthirsty Bessie’ by Ronald McCuaig – I had never heard of it until I got married and my hubby brought a copy into the household.

    And I also wondered if any of those eminent writers had highlighted Vance Palmer. And some of Barbara Baynton’s short stories are very, very dark but thoughtful and evocative of a harsh way of life.


  9. Here is the link to the challenge my daughter is undertaking – to read and review Australian women writers during 2012


    My daughter is adding the following extra challenges to her personal quest: to read 10 authors she hasn’t read before, in 10 different genres – and to include at least one indigenous author, at least one set in a rural setting and at least one ‘migrant’ author.

    She and I just ‘happened’ to find the one new bookshop and two secondhand bookshops in Camden when she was home for Christmas … as we do when together… so she went back to the city on the train with a bag and a box of extra books, and refused all offers of help from others, to deliver them to her place of abode.

    That is dedication to the Year of Reading! (But consistent with her behaviour since she was a tiny tot).


      1. Thanks, I will send it on. At present she has many more THINGS than in her original challenge, but really she doesn’t mind – it isn’t much more of a ‘challenge’ to her, if you know what I mean.

        ps she reads ANYTHING – and anytime, anywhere. I mean it.


  10. I think we have some very gifted writers in Oz. I really like DBC Pierre. He’s a bit edgier than your standard Aussie writer. I also love Tim Winton and Kate Grenville. Geraldine Brooks is very good too. Lot of writing, lot of reading. Keeps me out of trouble!

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