In the 1960s and 1970s one figure commanded the [Australian] literary landscape, and ruled the artistic life of Sydney like an (intermittently) benign despot. Nobel Prize winner, patrician activist, host of legendary proportions, he was famed for his savagery as well as his generosity, his intolerance of fools and charlatans, his immense warmth and his uncompromising intelligence.

James Bradley, ‘Me and Patrick White’

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre entitled “The Late Great Patrick White.” It was the first in the Centre’s series of discussions about the lives and works of Australian writers who are no longer with us. I can only hope that the others turn out to be as fulfilling as this one because it was a fantastic event: impassioned, intelligent, often very funny. Happily, there’s no need to recount the discussion in detail now that the Centre has uploaded video, but I do want to add a few general remarks on White and the event participants and to point towards what I think were some of the night’s most valuable moments.

Chaired by the critic and polymath Stephen Armstrong, the panel of three speakers consisted of the poet and novelist David Musgrave, whose outstanding Glissando owes an enormous debt to White’s Voss; the actress Kerry Walker, a friend of White who first met him when she won the lead role in Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of White’s The Night the Prowler; and David Marr, another friend of White who also served as White’s official biographer and as editor of White’s posthumously published Letters. On the whole, the panellists were well-chosen. Musgrave offered a respectful first-hand account of White’s literary influence, while Walker shared a few amusing personal anecdotes to flesh out the man behind the prickly public persona. And Marr? As is his wont, of course, he dominated the proceedings, seizing as much speaking time as Musgrave and Walker combined. That’s no bad thing, however, since he is a fiercely engaging speaker who communicates not only a great passion for White’s work but also an encyclopedic knowledge of his life and legacy. If only Randolph Stow had an admirer of Marr’s ilk.

Among Marr’s best contributions to the discussion were his remarks on White’s legacy in American literature and on the Wraith Picket hoax of 2006. In the first set of remarks, Marr noted that “you can hear the voice of Patrick White in The Shipping News” because Annie Proulx is a fan of White’s work, while Cormac McCarthy, too, could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.” In the second set of remarks, Marr revealed that he thought the hoax was unfair because the work sent to publishers — the third chapter of The Eye of the Storm — was far from White’s best work. “I’m not somebody who says that every word Patrick White wrote is a work of genius,” he admitted to my satisfaction. White may well be the best writer Australia has ever produced, but in my view, after hitting his stride with The Tree of Man, Voss, and Riders in the Chariot, he went slack until he rebounded with A Fringe of Leaves and The Twyborn Affair — the latter being identified by Marr as White’s singular masterpiece.

My favourite moment, though, was when Marr tried to articulate White’s worldview — a worldview that manifests in a tension, throughout all of White’s work, between grotesque carnality and humanistic charity — in the context of White’s persecution by literary censors. Just before he offered a lengthy but engaging summary of the Menzies Lecture on White that he delivered last year, now available in essay form in Best Australian Essays 2010, he made these comments at about the 38:30 mark in the video I linked to above:

Because White was a huge figure in Australian literature, there [were] a lot of effort[s] to try to corral him… [on the part of] the moral forces who wanted to keep literature polite in this country. Literature was… a battleground for respectability and for decency and for that kind of thing. Now, what these idiots… didn’t realise about White is that he was the most powerful spruiker for morality that anybody was gonna read in an Australian work.

[But] this is the thing about White. What makes him extraordinary — and makes him, for many people, uncongenial — is that his work is not about finding happiness in the usual ways that are celebrated in literature. You don’t find happiness, in Patrick White’s works, through sexual fulfillment. You do not fall in love. The conclusion — well, you can fall in love, but the conclusion of one of White’s novels is never that the lovers get together. That fundamental pattern of a novel is not White’s. His [work] is warning people against easy pleasure. It’s warning them against the pleasures of drink and food and sex and laziness and relaxation. It’s warning them against the dangers of living in this country, and it is telling people that the point of living is to work, and to work with what God has given you as your talents.

And the greatest failures in his work and… the people he fucked off in his life, viciously at times, were all the people that he believed had failed their own talent and not lived up to the promise that was in them at birth. And [yet] here were these petty little would-be moral tyrants whingeing about this man whose greatest message about this country, in the end, was that we are an unprincipled people. And that’s, for me, why White remains a strong force in this country… and a voice that still speaks here.

As luck would have it, the Wheeler Centre event coincided with the welcome news that White will continue to speak here well into 2011. Later this year, an as-yet-undisclosed publisher will bring out The Hanging Garden, one of the three unpublished novels found in the White archives acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2006. Funnily enough, even though I read about the announcement an hour or so before I set off for the Wheeler Centre, I’m not sure that the news had reached the panellists on stage, since David Marr in particular made no mention of it despite having written about the novel a few years ago in The Monthly:

The survival of 32 boxes of White’s papers was revealed [in 2006] with immense hoopla. ‘Patrick White’s return from the pit,’ read the banner headline in the Sydney Morning Herald. For the first time in many years, White was back on the front pages of the papers. But here was something curious: while the press, fans and scholars dived on the biographical material — the notebooks and letters — we shied away from the manuscripts. It says a great deal about the sinking reputation of the most prodigious literary imagination in the history of this nation that we were all more curious about the life than the writing. After being displayed for a few triumphal weeks, the three manuscripts were returned to the library’s strongroom all but unexamined.

I’ve now read them from beginning to end, the first person to do so, it seems, since White put them away in his desk. I already knew a good deal about two of them. ‘Dolly Formosa and the Happy Few’ is a fragment of a novella about an ageing actress. ‘The Binoculars and Helen Nell’ is a great fat novel of about 160,000 words about the many remarkable lives of a cocky farmer’s daughter. Both projects were begun and abandoned in the late ’60s. Letters White wrote at the time discuss their plots, their progress and his reasons for putting them aside. Having them to read is a wonderful experience, but they don’t give any radical, fresh insight into White and his work.

The third is a different kettle of fish. When I was writing White’s biography, I came across brief references to a novel begun and put aside in 1981. I gave the project the code name “Novel Y” in my research notes and its fate rates a bare mention in my book. But here is the manuscript, and having read it I realise ‘The Hanging Garden’ was a masterpiece in the making and its abandonment after 50,000 words was a watershed in White’s life and a loss, a damn shame, for Australian writing.

Not anymore; and with discussions like the one at the Wheeler Centre working to remember White, his legacy seems to be in much better shape than it was just five years ago. Next at the Centre: “The Late Great Thea Astley” on April 19, a great second choice for a promising series of events. Like White’s work, hers could also use a little remembrance — and deserves it, too.

Critical Failure, Redux

September 22, 2010

My post from a couple of weeks ago left a few threads dangling which I hope now to tie up. Last weekend, that post also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me which I’ll explain in a moment. First, though, for those who wish to see for themselves the event I discussed in that post — the ‘Critical Failure’ debate on the current state of Australian literary criticism at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — a lightly edited video is now online at the Centre’s website. Witness the great Peter Craven in all his grotesque glory.

A couple of other posts discussing the same event have since sprung up online. Here, for example, is Rebecca Starford, one of the four panellists at the event:

I had been looking forward to a nuanced conversation with Peter Craven, Hilary McPhee and Gideon Haigh about the traditional modes of Australian literary criticism, the problems they encounter (shrinking editorial space, dwindling readerships, erosion of critical authorities, among others), how the digital world destabilises/complements this forum, and where Australian literary criticism is — if indeed it is — moving forward.

Unfortunately, I (and I suspect many of the audience) came away from ‘Critical Failure: Books’ frustrated and disappointed (in myself, it must be said). The panel had failed in its intentions: to generate a rigorous, considerate, balanced discussion about Australian book criticism in all its forms and the changing shape of critical thinking.

Meanwhile, Emmett Stinson offers a provocative take on the nature of book reviews in general:

There is a weirdness… in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation. Of course, reviews may contain incisive analysis as well (indeed, it may appear as if they only contain such analysis), but reviews are absolutely tied to the notion of the book as commodity, and it is for this reason that virtually all book reviews cover new releases. In this sense, the book review is a deeply strange hybrid genre, which combines literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy ‘event’).

He also makes a proposal that has long been a favourite of mine:

[Y]ou will rarely see negative reviews on this site (or hear me give negative reviews on Triple R). It’s not that I like everything I read (indeed, the amount of fiction I like would comprise a tiny fraction of what’s published–certainly less than 5%), but rather that I only try to review books that I actually like. Doing this requires selecting carefully and reading a bit of a book before I decide to review it, but I see this as one excellent possible mode for book reviewing: review only the books that you enjoy reading. … [R]ather than spend my time readings books I don’t like, why not discuss only the books that I actually think merit discussion? In this sense, I critique by omission, and praise by inclusion.

I like that approach. After all, any attempt to discuss a book carries within it the implicit judgement that the book in question is worth discussing, which in turn carries the implicit suggestion that if it is worth discussing then it must be worth reading. The substance of a positive book review would therefore make explicit what is implicit in the book review as a form.

Anyway: both of those responses went online in the middle of last week, about a week after the event at the Wheeler Centre. Then, at the end of last week, I and a handful of other local bloggers were invited to participate in a second event at the Centre which was, in a sense, organised as a means of redressing the imbalance caused by the original ‘Critical Failure’ events. Which is a diplomatic way of saying that the original events — lacklustre when they weren’t outright infuriating — kicked up such a shitstorm online that someone thought it would be a good idea to bring together some of those who raised complaints and to also solicit their thoughts on the state of contemporary criticism. So I spent the lion’s share of Sunday at the Wheeler Centre discussing the ins and outs of online criticism in the company of bloggers and online journalists with interests in critical approaches to literature, film, theatre, the visual arts, and video games, as well as a concern for the state of cultural policy in Australia. Here’s the full line-up, running clockwise around the table as I saw it from where I sat: Estelle Tang, Pat Allan, Mel CampbellBen Eltham, Richard Watts, Mark HolsworthAlison Croggon, Angela Meyer, . Lisa Dempster, Paul CallaghanNikita VanderbylW.H. Chong, and George Dunford.

Not too long ago, sometime in early August, I had some harsh words for the Wheeler Centre. My gripe was twofold. First, as compared with the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature initiative, I didn’t like the extent to which the establishment of the Wheeler Centre had come to dominate Melbourne’s City of Literature initiative to the exclusion of almost all other literary endeavours. Second, I didn’t like the way in which the Centre, as a venue for literary events, had become a sort of enclosure — rather than a platform — for literary discussion in Melbourne. “Within a certain set of parameters,” I wrote, “the intellectual life of Melbourne is surely more vigorous for the establishment of the Wheeler Centre. But insofar as the Centre has dominated of the City of Literature initiative, it has also to some extent kept the facilitation of literary discussion cordoned-off from the outside world.” After Sunday’s discussion, I still haven’t seen anything that would lead me to reconsider my first problem with the Centre, but I’m happy to say that the Centre seems to have heard the second problem and taken steps to address it.

On one level, what I saw on Sunday was a group of people drawn together to discuss the shortcomings of the ‘Critical Failure’ events and to thresh out some possible strategies for avoiding those shortcomings in future publications and at future festivals and so on. On a deeper level, though, what I saw was an organisation first hosting a series of public events and gauging the public response to them, and then turning its attention to those voices that were largely excluded from the original events, listening to what they had to say, and sending them back out into public to share what they had said and heard. In other words, the Centre has finally found a way of not only fostering a discourse within its four walls but also encouraging that discourse to break out of those confines and enter the broader public arena. It’s a great thing to see. In the words of one of Australia’s greatest public intellectuals: “Ten out of ten and a koala stamp.” And, of course, I’d say exactly the same thing even if I hadn’t been there. I hope it represents the beginning of a pattern of behaviour for the Wheeler Centre.

I won’t recount the discussion point for point. At present, Mel and Lisa both have brief summaries up on their respective blogs, while Paul has written a more in-depth response to some of the points raised by the group and Nikita has published the first of two posts outlining the course of the conversation. I will say that both Paul and Nikita have a few notes on my favourite part of the discussion: “the art of criticism.” Before heading to the Centre, I was a little worried that the discussion might too easily become a conversation about the technical side of blogging or perhaps even a self-congratulatory celebration of the imminent death of print criticism — I was worried, in short, that the discussion would take the activity of criticism for granted rather than making an issue of it and questioning its associated motives, purposes, and aesthetics. I needn’t have worried at all. The group covered these topics thoroughly.

Here, though, I do want to elaborate on some remarks I made during the discussion which have since popped up, paraphrased, on Nikita’s blog:

Daniel Wood from Infinite Patience pointed out that a blogger’s archives are another feather in their cap. They are in effect far more permanent than the print critic’s weekly column on paper, or the newspaper’s online archive (which, I don’t know if you’ve tried, are impossible to navigate). If ease of access is valuable to readers then blogs have long fulfilled this niche.

I think that’s obviously true, but there’s a bit more to it than that. At the heart of the point I sought to make was not the issue of the accessibility of blog archives versus the accessibility of newspaper archives per se, but the much more slippery issue of the critical legitimacy of a book reviewer and the extent to which that legitimacy is inextricably bound up with the accessibility of the reviewer’s archives. In effect, a book reviewer writing for a newspaper obtains an aura of critical legitimacy because the newspaper’s financiers have agreed to pay the reviewer for his or her judgements. In making that payment, the newspaper effectively announces to its readers that it is familiar with the reviewer’s previous writings and it expresses confidence in the reviewer’s critical judgements on the basis of those previous writings. The reader of the newspaper, however, can only take the newspaper’s expression of confidence in good faith, since he or she does not enjoy access to the reviewer’s previous writings which, after all, simply can’t fit on the newspaper’s pages.

In this institutional context, then, a book reviewer obtains two different sorts of critical legitimacy from two different sources: the institution — that is, the newspaper — acknowledges the critical legitimacy of the reviewer on the basis of his or her previous writings, whereas the reader of the newspaper acknowledges such legitimacy on the basis of the pay cheque that the reviewer receives from the institution that maintains exclusive access to those writings. In the individual context, however, wherein a book reviewer runs an independent blog, he or she obtains critical legitimacy directly from the aggregate of the posts in his or her archives. Without the newspaper as middle-man — without the media as mediator — the reader has a direct connection to the reviewer’s previous writings and thus a direct means of discerning the reviewer’s critical legitimacy. On the one hand, this makes the online reviewer more familiar to the reader, allowing the reader to better gauge the reviewer’s tastes, inclinations, and standards of judgement. On the other hand, it makes the reviewer more accountable for his or her past judgements as well as future judgements make on the basis of past criteria. In the long run, whatever these developments may mean for particular critics, I can’t see how they could possibly do anything other than advance the quality of literary criticism overall.

ADDENDUM: A few more reports from those who attended Sunday’s event have appeared in the two days since I published this post: Ben Eltham and Mark Holsworth have both chimed in, W.H. Chong has uploaded his sketchbook featuring drawings of most of the participants including myself, and Estelle Tang offers a brief round-up that concludes with a nice reflection on the more down-to-earth aspects of blog-based literary criticism:

What impressed me was how mindful many of the attendees were of their writing practice, their aims, their ethics and the new terrain they were writing in and forging, whether in their blogging or print work. I have to admit I’ve never given my blog much thought. … But the one very constant and pressing thought I’ve had since the Critical Failure panel series is that, despite the throwaway nature of this blog’s genesis (Golly! Let’s start a blog!) and despite the fact that sometimes all I do is talk about foodstuffs, what this blog enables me to do is write regularly. There you have it: modest, yes, prosaic … but true. And that weekly process of attempting to honour a reading experience by fixing it in my own words has been valuable. You only need to go back and read my first few posts to see that. Not just because what I write these days is more coherent or readable, but because I feel more steady-footed when approaching a book; I feel like reading is much more reciprocal now.

Critical Failure, Indeed

September 8, 2010

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?

A Tale of Two Cities

August 9, 2010

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas in central Melbourne. In 2008, Melbourne become the second UNESCO City of Literature following the initial granting of that title to Edinburgh in 2004. As part of the city’s bid for the title, the Victorian state government agreed to build and fund in perpetuity a dedicated space for regular literary events in an atrium attached to the State Library. When additional funding was offered by Tony and Maureen Wheeler — they of the Lonely Planet phenomenon — the proposed space was named in their honour. The Wheeler Centre opened earlier this year and now holds daily literary events, all of them accessible to the public at no cost, as well as providing a home for six resident literary organisations: festival organisers, independent publishers, small-press journals, and so on. Yesterday the Wheeler Centre threw open its doors and gave the public unprecedented access to the entire site, including those areas that are off-limits throughout the week. I thought it seemed like a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the Centre, and, more importantly, to take a fresh look at Melbourne’s City of Literature status in general.

First, to the Wheeler Centre itself. I appreciate the sentiment behind it. The construction of such a dedicated literary space and the hosting of free daily literary events can only be a good thing. Still, I have some reservations about the way those events are run. Since the Wheeler Centre is self-professedly “the centrepiece of the Victorian Government’s City of Literature initiative,” one would hope that the events held at the Centre are essentially and recognisably literary in nature. The fact is, they’re not. The Wheeler Centre’s full title is the giveaway: it is, as above, the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas, and, with the inclusion of the word “ideas,” the Centre gives itself a free pass to downgrade the literariness of its events. The “ideas” on view at the Centre are the sorts of ideas that attract immediate public interest insofar as they are “ripped from the headlines.” Domestic politics, environmental initiatives, international affairs, and so on: these “ideas” dominate the program at the Centre and thus sideline the discussion of literature that is, by nature, of less immediate interest because it makes a bid for long-term value. Not only that, but even when such literature does receive attention at the Centre, it is largely approached as little more than a vehicle for “ideas” and evaluated according to its ability to offer a distinctly human response to various social and political dilemmas. In short, the Wheeler Centre tends to look upon literature as either explicitly polemical non-fiction or as a polemic with the aesthetic veil of fiction cast over it, rather than as a product of laborious and sophisticated artistry. So the value of literature is found in its ability to “say something” about the world we inhabit and about “what it means to be human.” I would sacrifice my firstborn to be able to go there and hear someone discuss literature as literature.

This wouldn’t be such a disappointment, of course, if the Wheeler Centre did not so completely dominate the City of Literature initiative. Although it is referred to as the “centrepiece” of the initiative, it is in effect the totality of that initiative and, as a result, there is a dearth of literariness to be found elsewhere in this City of Literature. And this, in turn, wouldn’t be so disappointing if Edinburgh did not already provide such a stunning example of how to both invest the quality of literariness in a City of Literature and bring out the literariness already extant. On this point, I confess to a bias: I spent about four years living in Edinburgh before I moved to Melbourne in early 2009; I relocated from the inaugural City of Literature to its immediate successor. And I confess to a second bias: I have little love for the city of Melbourne because my heart remains very firmly in Edinburgh. Of course, Melbourne simply cannot compete with Edinburgh in the literary stakes. Edinburgh has hundreds of years of literary history behind it, whereas Melbourne wasn’t even founded until 1835 and didn’t become a city until more than a decade after that. Nevertheless, Melbourne has put little effort into making itself a City of Literature by bringing literature into public spaces so that the very streets are suffused with it. It could learn a lot from Edinburgh’s efforts to locate its literary history at street level so that literature appears before your very eyes no matter where you look.

Holyrood Park, at the base of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, is home to Arthur’s Seat, a great volcanic peak surrounded by acres of heath, knolls, lochs, and crags. It gave Arthur Conan Doyle the inspiration for the setting of The Lost World, and was used by James Hogg as the setting for his hero’s eerie encounter with his doppelganger in Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Edinburgh and set large parts of Kidnapped in and around the city as well as obviously drawing on many of the city’s characteristics to give his London a gothic twist in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. John Buchan immortalised the city in The Thirty-Nine Steps. Ian Fleming found a home for the young James Bond at Edinburgh’s Fettes College. Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman have each co-opted parts of the city in their work — and, of course, in doing so they place themselves in a tradition that dates back two centuries to the pinnacle of Scottish romanticism under Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, both of whom made the city distinctly their own in the literature they wrote in it and about it.

Shall I go on? J.M. Barrie lived in Edinburgh and wrote the early drafts of Peter Pan there. Charles Darwin was a student at Edinburgh University; I used to pass his old lodgings on my way to work each day. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited the city a number of times, with Boswell writing of their adventures around Edinburgh in his work on the life of Johnson. The poet Robert Fergusson lived and worked in Edinburgh. Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows whilst living and working in Edinburgh. The two great poets of World War I, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, met in the Military Hospital at Craiglockhart in the suburbs of Edinburgh. It was on a visit to Edinburgh that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein. Three of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known — David Hume, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill — all lived and wrote their masterpieces in Edinburgh and its surrounds, and Hume and Smith are both buried in Edinburgh and honoured with commemorative statues on the Royal Mile. Thomas Carlyle was right there in Edinburgh alongside those philosophers. Lewis Crassic Gibbon followed. Hell, Chris Claremont even set a couple of issues of The Uncanny X-Men at the top of the Holyrood Crags. More recently, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro both lived as students in Edinburgh and continue to return there almost every year, even taking the city as the subject of their fictions. Almost all of the locales and authors I have named so far are mentioned on a plaque or a monument somewhere in Edinburgh to give them due credit for their place in world literature. Additionally, the Royal Mile is dotted with literary institutions: the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Scottish Poetry Centre, the Scottish Book Trust, and the Writers’ Museum. The National Library of Scotland is just around the corner on George IV Bridge. Step off the Royal Mile into Lady Stair’s Close and you’ll find Makars’ Court, where poetry is etched into the stone slabs on the ground. Even when buildings around the city are due to undergo renovations or reconstruction, the giant tarpaulins that shroud the buildings to keep the construction site out of public view are covered from top to bottom in poetry. The last one I saw was just off the intersection of South St. David Street and Princes Street — a stone’s throw from the foreboding Sir Walter Scott Monument at the edge of the Princes Street Gardens, just opposite Waverley Station: a central train station named after a work of literature. The city is positively ablaze with traces of the written word.

And that’s just off the top of my head. The city council’s own promotional material lays out an even more distinguished literary history. Blackwood’s Magazine, the first publication ever to print the work of George Eliot, was established and published in Edinburgh. John Murray Publishers brought Lord Byron and Jane Austen into print with offices based in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Review, which featured Thomas Carlyle and Sir Walter Scott as contributors, was one of the most widely-circulated periodicals in the British Empire: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both among its longstanding admirers. Even Edinburgh’s social and political history obtains a literary quality within the space of the city itself as an overabundance of historical sites are accompanied by narrative explanations of their significance that dominate the city’s public spaces. Tales of plague and war and witch-burnings are told and re-told on the walls of the buildings near which such events occurred, even though those buildings that are today nothing more illustrious than pubs, cafes, shops, or other small businesses. Every site of significance is given its due in the form of a story made visible in the public arena, from the arrival place of Oliver Cromwell to the city lodgements of John Knox — to say nothing of the locales associated with Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Bonny Prince Charlie, and on and on and on. Beyond the broad strokes of its literary history, Edinburgh is alive with small-scale literature as story after story after story adorns every possible surface of the city. And that is to say nothing of the contemporary authors whose work makes Edinburgh a renowned city today: Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, Irvine Welsh, and J.K. Rowling. All of them have at some stage lived and worked in Edinburgh, most of them continue to do so, and collectively they have written about the city at such extraordinary length that the city as it exists in reality and the city as it exists on the page have long since become inextricably bound up with one another. As well as being unable to walk the streets of Edinburgh without spotting here and there some artefact of literary history, history itself is transformed into literature on the city streets while the city continues to inspire fresh literature today.

As I said above, I know that Melbourne is simply unable to compete with Edinburgh. To be sure, it has seen its share of literary luminaries in the past. Henry Handel Richardson, Marcus Clarke, Barbara Baynton, Neville Shute, Joseph Furphy, and Joan Lindsay all lived and wrote in or around Melbourne, and all of them produced work that has since either obtained classic status or is on its way to doing so. Someday, the work of Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Carey, and Helen Garner will probably also do the same. Brian Castro and Gerald Murnane are two of only three world-class novelists currently at work in Australia and both have written some of their work in and about Melbourne — although Castro has recently relocated to Adelaide where he now works alongside J.M. Coetzee, the third of those three world-class novelists. But beyond those authors, the leading lights of Australian literature are more evenly distributed throughout the country. Tasmania claims Christopher Koch and Richard Flanagan; the Northern Territory claims Xavier Herbert; Western Australia claims Tim Winton, Elizabeth Jolley, Randolph Stowe, and Katharine Susannah Prichard; Queensland claims David Malouf; and New South Wales claims, impressively, Patrick White, Thea Astley, Kate Grenville, Henry Lawson, Christina Stead, Thomas Keneally, and Delia Falconer. That’s about it — but, at the same time, it’s enough to work with. How about some way of identifying landmarks and locations around the city that have been incorporated into the literature of some of these writers? How about some way of identifying locations that have been marked by the personal presence of these writers? And if that’s not enough, why not turn to those writers who at some stage visited Melbourne and remarked upon it? Mark Twain lectured in this city. So did Anthony Trollope. So did Rudyard Kipling. So did Joseph Conrad. So did Arthur Conan Doyle, an Edinburgh native. Robert Louis Stevenson never visited but certainly expressed some strong opinions on Melbourne. How about a commemorative statue or two? At the moment, Melbourne features only three statues of a literary nature: an Australianised Peter Pan at Melbourne Zoo, a statue of Adam Lindsay Gordon outside the State Parliament, and — irony of ironies — a statue of Robert Burns in the Treasury Gardens. It also features a single, solitary brick taken from the boyhood home of James Joyce and placed on the periphery of the State Library, but let’s be honest here: the elevation of a brick to the status of a literary landmark couldn’t even be described as a mediocre effort without giving it undue credit. And even if we set aside these sorts of literary landmarks, why can Melbourne not follow Edinburgh’s lead in developing programs that define the reading of literature as a social act and encourage reading in the public arena? Each year, Edinburgh runs the “One Book — One Edinburgh” program, an enormous citywide initiative which aims to have everyone in the city reading the same book at the same time after having picked it up for free in any one of a number public spaces that serve as impromptu distributors. Is Melbourne unable to follow suit or is it simply unwilling? Either way, something more is needed to make this UNESCO City of Literature an essentially and identifiably literary city. The fancy title and the Wheeler Centre alone just do not suffice.

This is, of course, a futile plea. The Wheeler Centre’s promotional material states the matter very bluntly: “Our City of Literature status is not about Dickens on the tram, Nabokov in the Great Southern Strand or a Bronte or two over breakfast. It’s a recognition and celebration of Melbourne’s passionate readers.” But the act of reading involves opening oneself to the reading experience even when one is not staring at the words on the page, when one is going about one’s daily affairs. To take reading seriously involves thinking throughout the day about the books that one has previously read, as well as entertaining a curiosity about the books that one has not yet been enticed to read. More recognition of Melbourne’s literary history in the city’s public places would not only call to mind the various reading experiences of those who recognise city landmarks from where they have encountered them in literature, but would also stimulate the curiosity of those who have not read such literature and would increase the likelihood of their reading it. A citywide reading initiative would do likewise. This is the Edinburgh strategy: saturate the city with an overabundance of literary aides-mémoire in a way that makes literature an absolutely integral part of everyday life. The Melbourne strategy, at present, involves confining literary events to a fixed and dedicated space and refusing to let literature itself penetrate those four walls. Within a certain set of parameters, I admit: the intellectual life of Melbourne is surely more vigorous for the establishment of the Wheeler Centre. But insofar as the Centre has dominated of the City of Literature initiative, it has also to some extent kept the facilitation of literary discussion cordoned-off from the outside world. In Edinburgh, literature has air of vitality about it because you find it everywhere you go, in everything you encounter. In Melbourne, it feels much less vital and therefore like a mere indulgence because you have to go to a very specific location, at a very specific time, in order to encounter it — and even then, of course, you’re more likely to encounter “ideas” instead.

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