Last night, I spent some time at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas to listen to a panel discussion about the current state of literary criticism in Australia. The discussion was part of the Centre’s ‘Critical Failure’ series of events, and, of course, the series name clearly gives away the drift of the conversation: the panellists unanimously concluded that the state of literary criticism in Australia is currently pretty dire. On the panel were the publishers Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford as well as the critics Peter Craven and Gideon Haigh. To some extent, the need for such a discussion was identified by Haigh earlier this year, when he published a brief but powerful opinion piece on the failure of Australian literary criticism in the upstart journal Kill Your Darlings. After briefly outlining the abysmal pay and conditions that literary critics can expect to receive from editors around the country, Haigh concluded:
[T]here’s little incentive for sticking one’s neck out, for actually taking a position, for arguing that a book is bad, or sloppy, or stupid, or two or three iterations short of finished — an affliction staggeringly common among Australian books. Who needs the aggravation? [It is] far easier to summarise the contents, recapitulate the blurb, describe the author’s reputation, or examine the author’s politics in a thinly veiled op-ed — is he or she ‘one of us’?
For Haigh, then, responsibility for the parlous state of Australian literary criticism lies partly with critics too risk-averse to actually make a judgement of a book and partly with editors who decline to adequately remunerate both the formulation and the painstaking articulation of such judgements. The result of this situation that most infuriates Haigh is the rise and rise of the capsule review, “one hundred words or less, executed for beer money, and [published only] to convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page, one superficial but reverberating assertion at a time.” To my mind, though, the worse result of this situation is the current predominance of criticism in which the critic does not articulate his or her standards of judgement — either because the critic simply fails to articulate his or her assumptions or because his or her editor has not allowed the critic the space for any such articulation — which, in any event, operates on and thus perpetuates the simplistic assumption that all readers share the very same standards of judgement. Still, what irritates Haigh the most about the capsule review could just as easily apply to what irritates me about criticism without clear standards:
[A] competent book review should be a form of inquiry into what makes good books good — an inquiry with, as unfashionable as it sounds, the courage of its elitism. Without a benchmark of what constitutes excellent writing, scrupulous research and intelligent discussion, a reviewer is locked into a world in which ‘liking’ and ‘not liking’ are the only options — the Beavis and Butthead world, as the American literary critic Curtis White has put it, in which ‘this sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is just finally a lot stupid.’
Then, in advance and perhaps in anticipation of last night’s discussion, Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic for The Australian, published a critic’s “manifesto” as the cover story in this month’s Australian Literary Review and used Haigh’s screed as his starting point:
Journalist, author and critic Gideon Haigh has recently written and spoken of book reviewing in Australia as a discipline in decline, whose “besetting sin is its sheer dullness and inexpertise.”
Author and academic John Dale, writing on Page 14 of this issue [of the Australian Literary Review], doubts there ever was a golden age of literary criticism in Australia for us to decline from.
Unfortunately for everyone, despite Williamson’s efforts to establish a sense of antagonism between the two men, Haigh and Dale are both right. As Dale suggests, Australian literary criticism has not declined from some golden age because there never was a golden age from which it could decline — but that doesn’t mean that Australian literary criticism has always been consistently mediocre and remains so today. And, as Haigh contends, Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness. Worse than falling from grace, it has fallen from blandness.
Can it possibly be rescued and reinvigorated? With Haigh having issued his plea for its reinvigoration, Williamson has now taken a stab at thinking through the logistics of how best to go about the task. As he sees it, the most adept literary critics are those who have spent their lives training themselves to become literary critics, which is to say those involved in academic literary studies. Williamson is quick to add, however, that the very nature of the academy too often corrupts the ability of such critics to successfully communicate with a general audience:
Many of the best readers of my generation ended up teaching in universities. There, as a result of the zealously quantitative approach demanded of academic career building, they are obliged to produce mountains of words for peer-reviewed journals which few people read. Until recently, writing criticism for newspapers or magazines was not given any weight at all in hierarchies of valued publications. Imagine the insights and enthusiasms that have been lost to the general public as a result.
For Williamson, academic literary critics are shackled by both the bureaucracy of the academy and a blind fidelity to critical theory. He suggests that the first set of shackles are currently, if slowly, being cast off — the academy, as he says, undervalued criticism for the general public “until recently” — and so he has taken it upon himself to attempt to cast off the second set of shackles by producing this list of what to keep and what to discard from critical theory:
What to keep:
- A healthy suspicion of fixed literary canons.
- An appreciation of the socially mediated nature of literature.
- The quasi-scientific rigour of theory’s approach to textual analysis.
- Greater circumspection in making broad or universalist claims.
- An awareness of and respect for marginal, repressed, underground and countercultural traditions and communities, and the texts and voices that emerge from them.
- A taste for the positive, spark-striking aspects of interdisciplinary research.
What to discard:
- A lack of interest in the substance and real-world content of texts under discussion, unless it is to critique their ideological biases.
- A disregard for literature’s special status, lumping it with every other form of writing, from bus tickets to bumper stickers.
- A refusal to permit communication of enthusiasm or value judgments about a text.
- The outlawing of literary canons and historical traditions as a guide to merit.
- Displacement of the author from a position of authority over the texts they create.
- Extreme scepticism and relativism with regard to Western concepts, categories and metaphysics.
I agree with most of that, and what I disagree with does not aggravate me enough to challenge it at any length. What does aggravate me, however, is what Williamson writes next:
Much has been written about the revolutionary potential of the internet for criticism. It is ridiculously cheap, blisteringly fast and the online community it engenders is one that thrives on argument and constant to-and-fro. Most significantly, the web breaks the monopoly on criticism once held by analog-era organs and allows everyone to have their say.
Just because the medium allows argument to thrive, however, does not mean that it is ideal for criticism.
For every brilliant new blogger that has emerged, 100 pallid yes-men (and women) have sprung up. And while these bloggers often define themselves against in-house elitists who impose their tastes from above, they have a tendency to move in digital packs, to think as hive minds.
But there is nothing lonelier than a true critical response. Whether calling out a dud novel by a writer of reputation or trying to drag an overlooked work of merit from the swamp of mediocrity, the critic is doing their job to the degree that they achieve separation from massed opinion.
However marvellous it may be, the web is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a novel space.
How completely and disastrously wrong. That last sentence, in particular, is shockingly obtuse, from the capital ‘H’ in ‘However’ and onward through to the full stop at the end of the paragraph — not so much in view of what it says as in view of what it misses in so saying.
We want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘yes-men’ in literary criticism, the sort of ‘yes-men’ who write the capsule reviews that irritate Gideon Haigh. We also presumably want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘hive mind’ aspect of literary criticism, the sort of ‘hive mind’ that is perpetuated when literary critics fail to articulate their individual standards of judgement or are otherwise prohibited from doing so by their editors. In other words, those aspects of literary criticism in blog format that Geordie Williamson finds most objectionable — the supposedly disproportionate number of facile readers and the supposed tendency to not allow group assumptions to be challenged — are precisely those aspects of print criticism that have brought it to the very parlous state in which we now find it. Pot, kettle, black.
More importantly, though, these shortcomings of print criticism are direct consequences of the publication of literary criticism in a print format. They are the result of the physical constraints and demands of the printed page: the need, as Gideon Haigh writes, to “convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page,” as well as the reticence and perhaps even the inability of literary editors to provide book reviewers with adequate space in which to articulate their standards of judgement. Does it not then follow that a medium free of those physical constraints and demands is better suited than the printed page to avoid those shortcomings?
Unfortunately, not one of the four panellists at last night’s discussion seemed to think so, or even to have considered the question. Gideon Haigh and Hilary McPhee paid lip service to just one local litblog, Angela Meyer’s LiteraryMinded, while Rebecca Starford spruiked Killings — the blog associated with Kill Your Darlings, of which she is a founding editor — and the pompous and frequently condescending Peter Craven altogether dismissed the suggestion that a blog could provide a suitable venue for sophisticated but non-academic literary criticism. Worse, when a questioner in the audience asked the four panellists what they believed constituted a successful work of literary criticism, not one of them gave a direct answer. Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford didn’t answer the question at all, while Peter Craven laughed it off. Only Gideon Haigh offered a response to it, but he didn’t go any further than to reissue one of the less intelligent claims in his essay: that a successful work of literary criticism is “a lively and engaging piece of writing [that] informs and invigorates” and “a sparky, spunky, memorable bit of prose” — a definition of successful literary criticism that doesn’t exactly suggest an understanding of the specific aims and qualities of literary criticism that would differentiate a successful work in that genre from any other successful piece of writing. Across the board, the panellists — whose task was ostensibly to examine what has gone wrong with Australian literary criticism and to consider the ways in which we might set it right again — not only could not specify exactly what makes a work of literary criticism successful, but also would not take seriously a medium for literary criticism that is physically better suited to the production of successful criticism than is the medium that has brought it to its knees. Critical failure, indeed.
I don’t mean to suggest that the blog format will necessarily produce more sophisticated literary criticism than the print format; I mean only that it is more conducive to producing such criticism than is the print format because it allows critics to do what print does not. There are three key elements to a successful work of literary criticism. First, it must articulate a vision of what literature is and what it is for, based on the critic’s understanding of the particularities of the literary artform as distinct from alternative artforms. Second, it must show some understanding of the particular ways in which different works of literature can possibly, and have previously, made themselves “literature” in the sense just articulated. Finally, it must assess the ways in which, and the extent to which, a given work of literature either successfully or unsuccessfully makes itself “literature” in the same sense. In other words, a successful work of literary criticism must answer three questions: what is literature supposed to do, how has that best been done in the past, and how well or how poorly does the work under consideration do it?
The print format simply does not have the luxury of allowing literary critics enough space to include the first two of these three elements of a successful work of criticism. That is why, rather than articulating their own individual understandings of what literature is supposed to do, we find print critics almost unanimously assessing and pronouncing judgement on a work of literature by drawing on an assumption of a shared belief that the purpose of literature is to “move the reader” by placing “fully rounded characters” in a “carefully drawn narrative” and detailing their exploits in “finely wrought prose” — as if any work of literature that doesn’t tick all the boxes in that checklist simply isn’t worthy of an attentive readership. The blog format, on the other hand, allows for exactly what the print format does not — firstly in the essentially unlimited length of the individual blog post, and then in the comments spaces at the end of posts and in the aggregation of posts in blog archives which together allow for the perpetual elaboration on and refinement of standards already articulated.
I hope my own blog provides an example of what I mean: cumulatively, a number of posts over the last nine months (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) should give some idea of what I think literature is and is for, while the three on narrative voice (1, 2, 3) should give some idea of how I think certain works have been able to become what I think literature is. None of these has been specifically addressed to the question of how successfully a given work of literature makes itself “literature” as I conceive of it, but the pieces are there for later reference and assemblage — which is more than can be said for much of what appears in print in newspapers and magazines today. There may or may not be a cure for the current state of critical failure, but there is a medium that can soothe the symptoms. When will our otherwise attentive critics give it the attention it deserves?