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Sep 14, 2009

Black Canons: Peter Craven writes back

Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham took Peter Craven to task for his review of the latest Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. Here Peter Craven replies.

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I suppose it’s not surprising that I should provoke outrage for suggesting that the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature includes a lot of Aboriginal material that has no place in a collection of its kind and has the appearance of a shocking lapse of judgement.

Nor should I be surprised that my friend, Sophie Cunningham, is up in arms about my objections: as I recall she did research on Aboriginal culture and she has every reason to be on guard against blimpish objections to black writing not conforming to Western standards of literary decorum or whatever. (Objections that might mask every kind of condescension or racism.)

I’m a bit surprised, however, that she should leap into the fray in the way she has, assuming that there is nothing but a benighted rationale for my objection, without looking at the material, except for the odd quotation she has seen in reviews.

An example of the latter provides the basis for what she has to say about Bennelong’s Letter. Well, she might be surprised to hear that I agree with her that you can make a case for including Bennelong’s Letter and the way it happens to dramatise the encounter of Aboriginal and settler just as you can for Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, which is also included.

You might have thought that Sophie might recollect my own habits as an editor of the old Best Of anthologies for Morry Schwartz. Although I believed that every story or poem I published has to be of high literary quality, I was famously open in my approach to what constituted a “best” essay: John Clarke’s apology to the Aborigines on The Games, the news coverage of 9/11 …

So Cunningham does not have a monopoly on latitude and she is leading with her chin a little to think I lack it. What she fails to realise — in the first instance because she hasn’t bothered to inform herself — is that something crazy has happened to the quality control with the Aboriginal sections of the PEN anthology.

She simply doesn’t realise that the anthology is full of things such as this, from Maggie Morbourne:

“Petition to D.N. McLeod Vice-Chairman of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines.
Mission Station
Lake Condah

Februrary 27th, 1900

D.N. McLeod Esqre. M.L.A. and Vice Chairman


Having returned in September last to the Mission Station with the object of endeavouring to live in peace and in accordance with the rules of the Station I am sorry to inform you that Mr Stahle seems to take every opportunity to find fault with us …

And this is not an isolated example of where the Aboriginal writing is in the football sense of the word “ordinary”: the PEN anthology is riddled with this sort of thing and it defies comprehension that anyone, proceeding according to any flexible literary criteria, would include them.

I suspect that Sophie imagines I am being very high and mighty (and narrowly canonical) about the relative merits of the natural Aboriginal representation.

I am not. She asks if I would have excluded Facey’s A Fortunate Life from a volume such as this. Well,  I might have — because I happen not to think it’s helpful to be slack about “literature” in this of all contexts — but if I included him I would certainly not have objected to Sally Morgan’s My Place: they each have the advantage of being vivid, moving bits of writing even if you don’t think they’re ‘literature’.

But it doesn’t seem helpful to have letters from Doug Nicholls or Charlie Perkins or every other possible variety of “mere” writing and pretend that it constitutes that part of the heritage of the Aboriginal people of this country that we want to say is integral to the literature of Australia. To do this is to degrade the Aboriginal heritage and to offer them a fig leaf of affirmative literary action, which is actually the merest pretext for condescension. Imagine if someone were to fill out the Australian section of an anthology of literature in English with material of which, let’s say, Paul Keating’s and Robert Menzies’ speeches, the Fitzgerald Report in Queensland and the journalism of David Marr and Miranda Devine respectively were representative examples.

It might have some documentary interest as writing but any literary value would be incidental. And spare me Kerryn Goldsworthy’s strictures about how ignorant I am about how canons get constructed in the first place.

Nothing has in fact changed about the way books are valued and reputations are established — Jack Hibberd, Peter Temple, Larissa Berendt, Nam Lee, Julia Leigh, Joanna Murray-Smith, James Bradley, the Craig Sherbourne of the memoirs, Shane Maloney: all of these writers (none of whom happened to be included in the PEN anthology) owe their reputations to time-honoured processes just as Don DeLillo and Antonia Byatt, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith owe theirs. The difference is that the Australian academic world is much less quick on its feet about keeping up with this.

The exclusion of at least some of these writers in the context of so much non-literary Aboriginal writing is, I think, scandalous.

It’s easy to be confused about these questions as Sophie Cunningham is when she takes me to task for talking about some of the Aboriginal writings being “devoid even [of] literary ambition”. Yes, she is quite right, that I don’t subscribe to notions of intentionalism. A book may show manifest literary ambition yet not realise those ambitions but most works we place a high value on do have these ambitions. And the exceptions, like the Book of Isaiah or the Aboriginal Song Cycles, are works that have higher ambitions (religious or metaphysical truth) not discernibly inferior means of expression.

Obviously it doesn’t help that the word “literature” means two things. When the PEN anthology is dealing with Christina Stead and Kate Grenville, the implicit meaning is that writing that constitutes the best that’s thought and said, the permanent legacy of writing that shows the impression of the imagination at its highest level. The other meaning is “mere writing”, as when we talk about “the literature on the subject”.

The Aboriginal writing of the PEN anthology is often in the latter category. And it is a perilous form of naivety to imagine that you can turn the one into the other with a touch of the anthologist’s wand. That remains as true for the intelligent relativist as it is for someone who likes flexibility about genres and categories while adhering to traditional notions of values.

Sophie is simply confused about these things. When Northrop Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism performed his great critique of evaluation he was displacing value from a narrowly conceived canon (say of the Leavisite variety) onto the wide range of works that maintained the interest of humankind. He wasn’t saying that literary value inhered in laundry lists or letters to bureaucrats.

Sophie Cunningham puts her money on inclusiveness rather than “a canon to be built on exclusion”. But every anthology is by definition built on a principle of exclusion, like every canon and every football team that takes the field.

It’s our Australian tendency to be wooly-headed about this that gets us into trouble. The doggerel and mere letters we get, over and over in the Aboriginal sections of this volume, have cost us Hal Porter’s stories, Jack Hibberd’s drama, and have — let’s not mince words about this — radically devalued the inclusion of the authentic Aboriginal writers of talent who are included.

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20 thoughts on “Black Canons: Peter Craven writes back

  1. Chris Larcombe

    Clever foot-work Kerryn, but in the present context, as Meski points out, that is a specious distinction.

    In any case, how can there be a real disagreement when one interlocutor is labouring under a fundamental confusion? Or – if you reject that charge – when one interlocutor, rather than responding to a properly articulated objection, prefers to evade it by redescribing the terms of the debate or disclaiming the existence of any such terms? Either the PEN Anthology is of literature, in the first of Peter’s appropriately flexible senses of the concept, or it is not; if it is, then it is incumbent on the editor to justify the inclusion of material which is prima facie documentary rather than literary; if it is not, then the editor must, in the interests of candour (and self-respect), avoid creating in her putativive readership an expectation that it will find, in that part of the anthology devoted to Aboriginal subject-matter, the kind of imaginative richness which it is the distinct ontological function of literature to provide.

    The confusion which Peter identifies is perpetuated, I think, by the tenacious attraction of an unexamined premise: that if a work (“text”) cannot be described as “literature” it is of no value at all. But this premise is patently false; the priority of literature over other domains of human culture cannot be demononstrated by strictly literary argument; it requires a higher, or more abstract and capacious, order of reasoning. And – whatever be the results of such reasoning – it is at this higher level that the mutliplicity of values is most perspicuously revealed. At this level, both a bus ticket and the Bacchae can be seen, in their own ways, as inherently valuable.

    But the PEN anthology is not operating at this level; it does not purport to be a contribution to philosophical anthropology but to literary culture. And, in light of this, it is entirely legitimate, and laudable, for Peter to have questioned whether the anthology’s contents, and the principles on which they were selected, are fully reflective of and consistent with its self-avowed purpose.

  2. Aphra

    God this debate is such a bloody bore, and a repetitive one, at that.

    The editors were the editors, the final arbitrators, and that’s that. I’ve never, once in my life, read an anthology or a review of an anthology, which didn’t evoke passions, intellectual posterings and egotistical rebuttals and denunciations. Yawn.

    Australia’s cultural life will neither rise nor fall because of this Anthology. In the meantime, hopefully, the travelling will be enhanced and the arrival enlightened by Macquarie’s admirable efforts to make more Australian writing easily accessible to those of us who don’t ponce around the elevated heights of cultural/literary critic or university academic.

    My copy hasn’t yet arrived so it’s hard to comment further except to say that I generally (but not always) enjoy Craven’s reviews, but I think the same of Kerryn Goldworthy’s. In my personal library I have a copy of Goldworthy’s selection of Australian Short Stories, a wonderful book, which proves to me that she knows her Australian ‘stuff’, not to mention her clever and beautifully written collection of shorts, ‘North of the Moonlight Sonata’.

    Perhaps this is a failing of my own judgment and intelligence but I’m prepared to back a writer/critic, sight unseen, as it were, because she already has discernible runs on the board.

    But then, I’m an ordinary plebeian, who’s simply interested to read in and about her own country and it’s literary present and past and who couldn’t give a fig about pretension.

    And dare I add that it’s the ordinary plebs amongst us who will contribute to this book’s sale or fail.

  3. Chris Larcombe

    Thank you for that hint. I will need to see whether it is amplified further in the anthology, for, in isolation, I do not interpret it as meaning that any “work” which can be characterised as revealing a “mode of performativity” is necessarily a literary work; simply that performativity is central to literary writing. The question as to what works are literary is still left unaswered.

    In any case, performativity is, though obviously more highly developed and refined in literary discourse, not only central to it. Indeed, ever since Austin’s illuminating examination of the variety of acts which can be performed by the use of language, literature may be seen as a higher-order instance of a performative function which is basic to language itself.

    Recognising, however, that a feature of literary discourse is related to or dependent on or an instance of a proto-feature of langugage itself, and then proceeding to draw from this recognition an inference that any performative speech-act can count as “literature”, is clearly unwarranted. For one thing, it summons up the spectre of an indiscriminate, perhaps infinite, variety and scope of examples which can be adduced as instances of “literature”: bus tickets, utility bills, recepits, Janet Albrechtsen’s diatribes in The Australian; anything reduced to written form, really. And, even if we were to embrace this playful and unruly new world of infinite literary variety, we would still be needing to address such questions as: “What is the relative value of the ‘Bacchae’ when compared to a bus ticket?”; or, “Can the performativity instantiated by my Telstra bill illuminate for me the meaning of ‘A Tale of a Tub’?”

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