In introducing the worthy Sydney Review of Books, James Ley writes that it has been established on ‘the belief that in-depth analysis and robust critical discussion are crucial to the development of Australia’s literary culture’.
I am not so sure. The sceptic might feel that it is more crucial to building careers in literature, and that ‘in-depth analysis’ is literature’s version of a bowerbird building its nest for dance and colourful display, where the author is mere rival or peripheral player.
Oh yes, I am an author, and now that I have alienated half the readership, I must add that I struggle to see many benefits in the critical dimension. Literature courses probably produce better writers. They are quite important in producing editors, cultural administrators and the like – all good. But criticism? To my mind criticism should ‘build-up’ the language that explains and understands written work – all written work – providing the critical tools for their appreciation. (Notice I did not say ‘literary’ works.)
However, that it is only half the job, and any graduate who leaves their courses with the built-up language has only completed half their course. Because with this built up language they will go on talking to all those others with the same language and the same tools – i.e. construct an elite. They will make a career of it, thereby alienating all those who are not part of that elite – i.e. ninety-five percent of the readership.
What is the other missing half? It is the breaking down of critical language, by which I mean breaking down that elite language so that the broadest number of people benefit from the building-up. That is to say, do they know how to, do they practice, and is there the necessity and priority in communicating to the entire audience of people interested in reading?
To be concrete: start with four and five-year-old children, moving on to teenagers, to the ‘general reader’, the ‘genre’ fans, the airport novel reader, the potboiler and rusted-on occasional reader – all the people who make up a readership who are often bereft of a language that enlightens and leverages their reading. They need the language more than anyone. But not the full blown dancing, prancing or prattle. If a graduate cannot address these audiences (the ones that ‘don’t matter’) in a useful manner that fires people, that provides them with at least some useful tools for understanding, then literature courses have failed.
So there is my challenge. Ask yourselves honestly, does, or did, your course do this? Did it even address this issue in anything more than a cursory manner? Or did you and your course assume the ‘trickle-down’ theory, a theory properly derided in economics and politics? Do you cosily sit in our colourful nest of branches, leaves and blue plastics, believing that these people are peripheral to your tasks?