John Docker

Why I’m gripped by this book I don’t know. Well, I do know. When I was in Vietnam late last year, on a gourmet tour, I purchased a pirated copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, my first Greene novel. (Why I hadn’t read Greene before I also don’t know, though I’d loved his wonderfully bizarre script for The Third Man.) In Saigon I took green tea in the Hotel Continental, imagining I was sitting where Greene might have sat in the early 1950s. At last, I thought, I’m doing a bit of cultural geography. When I returned to Canberra, I read it, and immediately decided it was a great novel, extraordinarily prescient of the Vietnam War. What also impressed me was the sensibility of Fowler, the English narrator, resigned to knowing himself undignified, unkempt, duplicitous, lying, opium-enveloped, absurdly deluded in love; an active accomplice in murder, of Pyle the appalling American intelligence agent come to do good in Southeast Asia, and always innocent in his own eyes, whatever he disastrously does.

... (read more)

It’s usually said that Australians are uninterested in the metaphysical. Where in America the lines between the secular and religious are notoriously blurred, not least in their politicians or sporting heroes invoking God on almost every conceivable occasion, Australians by contrast are held to be a godless lot, their mythologies entirely secular in form and meaning. God is rarely publicly invoked, except by ministers of religion whose particular business it is duly to do so.

... (read more)

John Docker

Mark Davis’ Voltairean Gangland is one of those rare books that prise open a space for revaluation of the direction of a culture. Like The Dunciad’s evocation of the Grub Street hacks of its time, Gangland exposes tentacular networks of chummy patronage, mutual puffery, and cultural power. Gangland is especially enjoyable on the clown-like behaviour of the ex-Scripsi diaspora – in a curious sexual division of labour, a B-team of male critics, captained by the felicitously named P. Craven, has successfully promoted a coterie of writers like Jolley, Garner, and Modjeska. Compared to those I analyse in Australian Cultural Elites (1974) and In A Critical Condition (1984), this new élite is the most intellectually thin in Australian cultural history. Assisted by a passive, grovelling middle-class readership, it both creates such writers as canonical and then tries desperately to shield their texts from critique and challenge.

... (read more)

They fall through your letter box thick as autumnal leaves that straw the brooks in Vallombrosa, as fast and furious as knickers fall in ‘Melrose Place’ or reputations in ‘Models Inc.’ This is the new generation of academic booklists, from Routledge, from Allen & Unwin, from Polity Press, from Open University Press, from Blackwell, from Harvester Wheatsheaf, from OUP, from Cambridge UP. All proselytise on behalf of the New Orthodoxies Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

... (read more)

John Docker has written an entertaining if uneven book on the history and politics of literary criticism in Australia. The subtitle of the book, ‘Struggles for control of Australian literature-then and now!’ along with the Pop Art cover, gives an indication of his combative and slightly melodramatic approach. The book is, however, extremely important and something of a landmark. It presents a broad overview of the institution of literary criticism and its teaching in Australia, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. It discusses the political implications of various critical methods, and draws attention to some of the wider social and political ramifications of what occurs in the English departments of tertiary institutions. There is also discussion of the work of individual writers such as Katharine Susannah Prichard and James McAuley. As Humphrey McQueen writes in the foreword to the book, ‘His work also deserves the attention of people whose first area of interest is not literary criticism, for example, anthropologists, historians and political scientists.’

... (read more)