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Literary Criticism

Twenty years after the publication of their ‘inclusive Australian literary history’, The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970–1988, Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman have returned with a ‘sequel’, After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007. One leaden title succeeds another, although the tone of the second book is angrier. More of that later. As the authors note in their preface, The New Diversity was published by McPhee Gribble, an independent outfit that would largely be subsumed by Penguin in 1989, the year in which that book appeared. This observation prepares for the consistently impressive aspect of After the Celebration: its detailed, incisive, intelligently informed account of the changes in the circumstances of publishing, and especially fiction publishing, in Australia during the last two decades. One might take counsels of hope or despair from their analysis (particularly if one were a novelist), but still be grateful for it.

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On this week’s ABR podcast, critic and essayist James Ley reflects on J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, forty years after its publication. Coetzee’s fourth and Booker Prize-winning novel was his landmark work, explains Ley. This was despite it receiving criticism for supposedly eliding the political realities of Apartheid South Africa by being set in ‘the realm of allegory’. Listen to James Ley with ‘An obscure prodigy: J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K at forty’, published in the August issue of ABR.

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There have been important publications in each of the fields of literary criticism, memoirs and biography, and history in New Zealand during the last few years. In a brief survey it is hardly possible to cover the field entirely; what I can do is to indicate what I take to be the important titles in each of these areas.

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SOUTHERLY: VOL. 73, NO. 2 edited by David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon

by
April 2014, no. 360

Each note of the nightingale’s song is sung in only one tenth of a second. For humans to be able to appreciate the nuances of those elaborate performances, the songs have to be recorded and slowed down for replay.’ So writes Teja B. Pribac, guest editor of the latest Southerly, subtitled Lyre/Liar. Pribac goes on to explain that her volume examines ‘emerging ethical implications of writing, with particular emphasis on representations of nonhuman animals’.

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Unlike Hawthorne: A Life (2003), Brenda Wineapple’s penetrating and engaging biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne’s Habitations, is a work of literary criticism informed by a narrow but fascinating range of biographical details and sources. These details support Robert Milder’s construction of an author ‘divided’ by contradictory drives that remained unresolved in Hawthorne’s fiction and life.\

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Prepare to be affronted, or perhaps just a bit miffed. Although it does not confine itself to works by British writers, you will look in vain for Australian authors in the new Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Among many titles from the United States, Little Women gets its due, as does Little House on the Prairie. Canada’s Anne of Green Gables is there, and so is Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Scan the index and you will find works of European origin, such as The Swiss Family Robinson and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. The latter two, of course, could be given honorary citizenship because of their immense popularity in English translation.

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Philip mead’s Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry is an extraordinary piece of scholarly writing: large, ambitious, meticulously researched, brilliantly written and quite original. It is laudable not only for these inherent virtues but also, it has to be said, because of its very existence. Australian Scholarly Publishing is to be commended for publishing such a work. If poetry is marginal to Australian public culture (as we are routinely told), then works about Australian poetry are all but invisible. It is all the more notable, then, that Mead’s work should join another recently published, large-scale work on modern Australian poetry: Ann Vickery’s Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry, published by Salt in 2007. Both Mead’s and Vickery’s books use Australian poetry as a way of intervening in, or instigating, debates in modern politico-cultural history. (And to these studies we may also add another ambitious piece of poetry criticism, John Kinsella’s more globally focused Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism, Manchester University Press, 2007.)

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C.K. Stead’s new collection of non-fictional prose confirms his reputation as New Zealand’s grand old man of letters, still swimming, aged seventy-six, against the tide. The author of fourteen books of poetry, as many novels, and several critical works which followed from his highly influential The New Poetic in 1964, Stead continues to be under-read and under-appreciated outside his own country, despite his outward-looking vision, the cross-national themes of his writing and the translation of his work into several European languages. The parochialism of ‘mainstream’ literary critical culture is nicely illustrated by an approving British review of his novel My Name Was Judas (2006), which Stead quotes in one of the journal entries included in this anthology. The reviewer ‘praises’ Stead as ‘an elderly and obscure New Zealand author who ... must surely be a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize’. Well might the Nobel bridesmaid remark, ‘How’s that for even-handed!’.

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It is tempting to become impatient, and to reach for a gun to resolve a problem, or a knife to cut a Gordian knot. As I write, the Burmese generals have been dithering and obfuscating rather than letting aid workers into their storm-ravaged country. The paranoid preservation of their honour and control bids fair to cause the death of tens of thousands of people. If the Burmese people cannot rise up to change this (and as poor, pacifist Buddhists, they are peculiarly ill equipped to overwhelm a shameless and violent régime), then we should surely invade, distribute the emergency aid, and replace the generals with responsible government. Some people only respond to violence, and surely justice demands this intervention.

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Reading literary criticism can be like viewing a portrait: you are essentially subjected to another person’s vision of the subject. One can feel that the perspective is unduly harsh at some points, lavishly lenient at others. It is easy to project one’s own bias onto the work, and to take issue with the representation too quickly. This is particularly true of a critical monograph on a subject such as Christopher Koch, who has been both prominent and controversial throughout his career. It is difficult for any commentator on Koch not to be drawn into the ‘Australian Melodrama’ that Peter Pierce identified in Australian literary culture in 1995.

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