Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Responsibility of a Critic

Last month the literary blogosphere became all atwitter over Anthony Gottlieb's review of Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein. Many bloggers have taken issue over Gottlieb's lengthy historical analysis of the subject (Wittgenstein Family) matter. His review seems to be written at the expense of providing a detailed critique of how Waugh deals with and presents the subject in the book under review. Wyatt Mason over at Harper's Magazine struck at the heart of the matter by suggesting that arguments of the kind we're seeing at the moment are normally fuelled by a "philosophical difference over what responsibility a reader has to a book".

I agree with Mason on this point alone. He represents one camp of readers who say that "criticism that doesn't read closely isn't literary criticism" at all. This view works on the assumption that the potential book buyer would prefer an intimate examination of a book's prose, which would, in turn, inform their buying decision. I think this dictates a disturbing limit on the role a literary critic can play in society. It takes us back to the nineteenth century. Back to a time before Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist unveiled a new and challenging take on the critic as an interpreter of art who uses an original work as a starting point for new and independent creations. Wilde says this type of subjective translation of literature is an essential and organic process that will always “show us the work of art in some new relation to our age". This challenge is always at the front of my own mind when I attempt to review any piece of literature.

I position myself firmly alongside Wilde when I suggest that any book under review should be treated by the critic as just one idea that can be used as a raw material to "invent fresh forms" of meaning for generations to come. In short, I believe a reviewer is not obligated in any way to focus solely on the book under review. I'm sure the majority of readers who scour the lengthy and richly contextualised reviews in the pages of The Australian or The New York Review of Books wholeheartedly agree with me on this issue.

The Health of Australian Literature

Since July of last year, I’ve closely followed heated discussion surrounding the Productivity Commission’s investigation into the estimated costs and benefits of lifting parallel import restrictions (PIRs). This highly contentious territorial provision currently provides “publishers and/or authors, who hold the Australian rights to a title, protection from competition from foreign editions of that title”.

Discussion draft submissions from Peter Carey, Nick Earls, and Tim Winton have been published recently by the Commission, and all of them suggest that the quantity and quality of Australian literature will deteriorate markedly if these import restrictions are lifted. This foreseeable deterioration is directly linked to the financial health of the Australian publishing industry, which may come under threat if faced with a flood of competitively priced imports. Our publishing houses are viewed by many stakeholders as an essential “part of a delicate ecosystem, where the seeds of our culture need protection”. Carey, twice Booker Prize winner, is just one of many authors who have benefited from this kind of protection. He remembers the "Australian publishers who accepted [his] work when it was rejected in London and New York. One just has to browse through the submissions from UQP and The Queensland Writers Centre to understand the vital role Australian publishers have played in the exposure and support of new Australian authors who have gone on to achieve national literary iconic status.

After hours of wading through these submissions from Australian publishers, booksellers, and authors, I can detect a thread of frustration in trying to accurately assess the cultural value of a healthy local publishing industry. As an undergraduate English student who has had the privilege of exploring our nation’s literary classics, I know it’s near to impossible to quantify the cultural benefits associated with reading works by the likes of Patrick White and George Johnston. These books are invaluable tools of reflection, which foster deep and imaginative analysis of historical events that have shaped the lives of Australians. They allow space for reflection on ourselves, as Australians with our own idioms and values, and I see this as the unique purview of our national literature. This is why all efforts should be made toward its growth and preservation for the sake of generations to come.

The Role of Literature in the Classroom

Anyone who follows the Review pages of The Australian will be familiar with ongoing debates over the role literature should play in the teaching of English in our schools. On one side of this debate sits conservative opinion, spearheaded by the likes of Imre Salusinszky and Kevin Donnelly, who both believe that "enduring classics associated with the Western tradition must be given pre-eminent status" in the classroom. On the other side sits post-modern argument, voiced by the likes of Mark Howie (Australian Association for the Teaching of English), who sees immense value in studying other forms of text that fall outside traditional definitions of literature.

In the past month this debate has come to a head as the National Curriculum Board takes its final submissions for the development of a "rigorous, world class national curriculum” to be implemented in 2011. To discuss the finer points of the submissions, ABC Radio National’s Ramona Koval brought together both Donnelly and Howie on the Book Show. It is this discussion in particular that sparked my interest in the matter. Previously, I thought Donelly was just another elitist cultural defender, incapable of recognising the value of studying various forms of popular culture, such as film and television, in the classroom. Now, after listening to his interview with Koval, I’ve found his views on the humanising dimension of literature compelling, and not dissimilar to my own. I now realise that we both think literature can strengthen our ability to find connections between ourselves and others, and we both believe this enlargement of sympathy can have a positive social impact that starts first in the classroom. In short, Koval’s interview fleshed out Donnelly’s overall concern about the potential “reduction in literature in the [new] curriculum”, and now I find myself sharing in Donnelly's concern.