“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Monday, June 10, 2013

Decline Polemics

Over the last year, there has been a lot of discussion about the role of popular criticism in Australian literary culture. I have written two pieces that touch on this subject in different ways: ‘Critical Danger’ for the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, and ‘In the Same Boat’ for the Sydney Review of Books. I have been very pleased that both of these pieces have received some attention, and also that they have been mentioned in two other very intelligent articles on Australian book reviewing—Ben Etherington’s ‘The Brain Feign’ and Kerryn Goldsworthy’s ‘Everyone’s A Critic’ (which, sadly, is behind a paywall). While I admire the work of both critics (indeed, Goldsworthy quite rightly received this year’s Pascall Prize for criticism), I would nonetheless like to clarify an important aspect of my position that these articles have, albeit understandably, misconstrued.
My critical stance towards aspects of contemporary literary culture has led both Etherington and Goldsworthy to presume my arguments are examples of the ‘decline polemic’, a genre that—as both authors suggest—is a commonly repeated lament across literary cultures throughout history. Etherington draws this conclusion by quoting the end of my article for the Wheeler Centre, mistaking the note I chose to end on for something more apocalyptic than I intended:
More recently, however, roused by Silverman’s complaints in Slate, Stinson has issued his own ‘decline’ clarion: ‘Australian literature should be embattled, passionately fought over … Australian literature doesn’t need saving or preserving – what it needs are partisans, contrarians and heretics.’ The change in pitch would seem to be the result of an increasing awareness of the ‘invidious networks of backscratching and bootlicking’ of online literary communities: it turns out that strongly critical voices are necessary … now!
My critique was not motivated by such ‘invidious networks of backscratching,’ nor do I think the existence of such networks indicates a ‘decline’. As I pointed out in the article, my belief is that social media has simply made these networks ‘newly open to public scrutiny’. In other words, social media, from my perspective, has not created a problem, but rather made explicit a set of networks that have more or less always been there. This is not a decline, but rather a historical continuity.
        Goldsworthy similarly sees both my piece and, interestingly, Etherington’s piece (which I have quoted above) as contemporary examples of ‘the “decline” theme’ which ‘have focused specifically on the Australian literary critical scene and have found it lacking for some of the usual reasons, though both also make other, better and more important arguments.’ Once again, my objection is that my critique of some contemporary reviewing practices does not constitute a belief that there has been a decline in reviewing. I have read too much about the historical reception of texts to believe that there was a golden era of reviewing. One only needs to consider historical examples like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, whose reviews were so careless that they inspired a book-length response called Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green, or even T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which inspired a shock and outrage in some reviewers that seems unimaginable today. Indeed, I think bad reviewing is a perennial (and likely intractable) problem, and I would actually argue that the persistence of more genuine ‘decline’ polemics testifies to this fact. Again, what I see actually suggests a historical continuity rather than a decline. My main argument in ‘In the Same Boat’ was actually about precisely such a historical continuity: I claim that the cultural cringe still exists, albeit in a new permutation (a point I will return to in a minute)
Admittedly, however, both of these articles—as Etherington notes—sounded a polemical note. Perhaps it was too opaque, but my heightened rhetoric here had a very specific target: those prominent advocates of Australian literary nationalism who have claimed that that Australian literature is being ignored by both universities and the public, and needs to be ‘saved’ from obscurity. I am not entirely unsympathetic to the quite sincere passions that have motivated these nationalist diatribes, but I am (rightly, I think) nervous about the conservative, unnuanced and ultimately ahistorical approach to literature that such positions typically foster. Attempting to create (and institutionally implement) an Australian literary canon is also, from my perspective, not only undesirable but also unlikely to bring about the ends that these nationalists desire. To use a completely anecdotal example, I was educated entirely in the U.S., and yet I never took a single course that included works by Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Hemingway, or Thomas Wolfe, but I don’t think U.S. literature is suffering because of this fact.
I will also note that this new literary nationalism happens to coincide (in what certainly is not a coincidence) with several major publishers’ reprinting lists of Australian ‘classics’. Those who know anything about the publishing industry know that selling reprints of classic works is highly profitable, since such reprints don’t incur editing and typesetting costs, are typically printed with stock artwork across a list (i.e. less expensive cover designs), and are often printed on inferior (and therefore cheaper) paper. Works in the public domain are even more profitable, since no royalties need to be paid to the author, meaning that the publisher absorbs the author’s margin (which is usually around 10% of the recommend retail price). For these reasons, it is difficult to discern where the new nationalism stops and the economic rationalism begins.  
             While I remain sceptical of this new nationalism, which I do not think ultimately addresses the unique historical factors that are indirectly affecting publishing, criticism, and literary production more generally, I also wanted to avoid the trap of much academic criticism—often written in abstracted, officious tone—that pretends to have risen above all worldly interests to arrive at the only logical conclusion possible. I was trying to argue for a concept of criticism that is impassioned and opinionated, but still analytical and reflexive. 
         Given the positions articulated both here and in the article itself, the most head-scratching response to ‘In the Same Boat’ comes from Ali Alizadeh, who, in a post for Southerly, seems to think that I support the nationalist position (I explicitly state my disagreement with the literary nationalists twice in the article). He also seems to think the fact that Cate Kennedy published several books in Australia before being published in The New Yorker refutes my point. But this actually supports my argument: despite a strong local track record of publishing, she only received broader notoriety after international success in The New Yorker. Despite these oddities, I agree with many of Alizadeh’s other arguments, including that literature serves an ideological function; indeed, one of the key points of my article was to argue that certain ‘progressive’, liberal notions of multiculturalism and globalism in Australia paradoxically foster a nationalist ideology (a point that has been made, if in very different terms and contexts, by Ghassan Hage), and that Australian literary production reflects this fact. 
          The problem with Alizadeh’s argument—and the reason, I think, why he misinterprets my arguments—is that he has completely failed to understand the cultural cringe. Alizadeh seems to think that the cultural cringe cannot exist because he finds ‘the proposal that contemporary Australians may be lacking in national pride rather absurd’. I agree that Australians have national pride (again, I make this point explicitly in my article), but having national pride does not mean that the cringe has been overcome; in point of fact, such nationalism is actually part of the cringe, a point that A.A. Phillips himself makes by terming excessive displays of national pride the ‘cringe inverted’. The cringe is a phenomenon that actually represents the anxiety that Australians feel about their own cultural products in relation to foreign culture. This anxiety can manifest in strange and paradoxical ways, which is precisely what I tried to argue in ‘In the Same Boat’—that the new internationalism in Australian literary production still responds to the same anxieties that motivated the original cringe, even if it manifests in a very different form. Indeed, the fact that so many conversations about the place of Australian literature in relation to global literatures have taken place, regardless of the positions taken by the various interlocutors, seems to me to suggest that the anxieties which have underpinned the various forms of the cringe are very much alive and well.