With news that the Man Booker Prize long list includes a graphic novel for the first time, the spotlight is on comics as a literary form. That’s a welcome development; the comic is one of the oldest kinds of storytelling we have and a powerful artform.
Right now, the Australian comics community is producing some of the best original work in the world. Australian comics punch above their weight globally. Many have been picked up by international publishers and nominated for international and national literary awards – yet remain little known at home. Some are directed at an adult audience; some are for all ages. They tackle issues ranging from true crime to environmental ruin to life in detention.
As someone who has researched comics for years – and been a fan since childhood – I want to share with you some highlights from the contemporary Australian comic scene. Here are 10 Australian comics of note, in no particular order.
Sue Neill-Fraser’s conviction for the murder of her de-facto partner Bob Chappell in 2009 polarised the Tasmanian city of Hobart. To this day, Sue has maintained her innocence. This piece of long-form comics journalism by cartoonist Eleri Mai Harris takes readers deep into the personal impact this case has had on the families of those involved.
According to one study, mean friends can be good for you. The opposite may be true in this psychological drama, a tale of jealousy, friendship and narcissism. Bottled is a tense piece of suburban noir set in the suburbs of Melbourne, rendered stark and disjointed by Chris Gooch’s striking artwork.
Who is my birth mother? In this autobiographical story, Meg O’Shea travels to Seoul to find an answer to that question, armed with her sense of humour and imagination. This whimsical story of sliding door moments explores the emotional impact of not having solutions and the fatality of not knowing.
Villawood is a Walkley award-winning piece of comics journalism about the experiences of being held captive in a Sydney asylum seeker detention centre. In sharing the stories and experiences of the detainees, it lays bare the harsh realities of indefinite detention. These stories are made even more real through the inclusion of artwork created by the detainees. Their images sit alongside Safdar’s tense line work, which illustrates the realities of this brutal system.
Changes are on the horizon for a group of Year Six school friends who are looking at their last summer together. But their suburban world is transformed after a freak accident transports them to an alternative universe. The friends find themselves in an inverse world filled with creepy gumnut babies, cups of tea and a deceptively familiar Australian landscape. With Home Time, Campbell Whyte has created an intoxicating and visually stunning Australian Narnia.
Sarah Catherine Firth’s visual essay explores how we understand the complex systems that exist in the world around us. Through autobiographical anecdotes and humour, it covers the history of scientific thought, unpacks complex ideas and helps provide answers to complicated questions.
You can read Making Sense of Complexity online here.
The blurb says The Lie is about how “after a chance encounter, two formerly close friends try to salvage whatever is left of their decaying relationship”. But it’s much more that. Visually, Tommi Parissh’s disproportioned characters dominate the spaces and the panels they inhabit, their uneven bodies reflecting their unease with themselves and their shared history. The Lie is a beautifully poignant tale of confused identities, self-centeredness and regret.
“Everyone sees the world in their own unique way.” That’s how Mirranda Burton introduces Steve, one of the intellectually impaired adults she teaches art to. But Hidden isn’t about how her subjects see the world. It’s about how Mirranda sees them – with care, respect and humour. Mirranda’s fictionalised stories reveal how engaging meaningfully with people can shift your perspectives in beautiful and unexpected ways.
The Grot, by Pat Grant with colours by Fionn McCabe
If everyone you know is trying to get rich at everyone else’s expense, then who can you trust? In The Grot, the world is in the wake of an unnamed environmental catastrophe, technology and society have been reduced to simple mechanics, and everyone is rushing to Felter City to make their fortunes. With The Grot, Pat Grant and Fionn McCabe have created a stained and wondrously dilapidated alternative universe of Australian hustlers and grifters fighting to survive in a new Australian gold rush.
Sam Wallman’s comic essay So Below explores ideas of land ownership and its social and political ramifications. Sam’s poetic artwork guides the reader through complicated questions to reveal the communities impacted by the social construct of land ownership.
Harry Potter is the literary phenomenon of the past century, and while our society has had no difficulty celebrating J.K. Rowling’s work, the literary community has been somewhat slower in figuring out exactly what the series has to say.
We tend to think of Harry Potter as an escapist delight, but Rowling’s work also expertly constructs a poignant extended theme that has more in common with King Lear than most English professors might care to admit. This theme at the core of Rowling’s wizarding world speaks directly to a universal human reality: The struggle to come to terms with our mortality.
Death is obviously big in Harry Potter. Death initiates the core conflict of the series; death escalates in each text; death creates the tool by which Harry can defeat Voldemort; and death resolves the conflict in the end, since Voldemort’s death is the end of the war itself. Death recurs throughout the series, but recurrence is not enough to constitute a theme.
Literary theorist Roger Fowler notes that: “A theme is always a subject, but a subject is not always a theme: a theme is not usually thought of as the occasion of a work of art, but rather a branch of the subject which is indirectly expressed through the recurrence of certain events, images or symbols. We apprehend the theme by inference – it is the rationale of the images and symbols, not their quantity.”
Thus, a theme is a comprehensible viewpoint that emerges from a pattern of recurrence — a statement, if you will, that we perceive through progressive repetition and associated symbolism. Without that statement, a pattern is just a motif. If the author is using that pattern to say something, however, the pattern becomes a theme.
So what role does all this death play in the Harry Potter franchise?
Death in Potter
In his first adventure, Harry is tempted by the life-prolonging “philosopher’s stone” of legend.
At the end of that story, Harry is only able to obtain the stone from the Mirror of Erised because he does not want to use it. In this, he immediately establishes his contrast to Voldemort, who desperately seeks the stone in order to extend what the centaur Firenze calls “but a half life, a cursed life.”
Upon hearing this, Harry wonders “If you’re going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn’t it?” thus showing us Harry’s internal perspective on Voldemort’s choice.
Dumbledore himself confirms Harry’s viewpoint at the end of the novel by telling Harry that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” If we put these pieces together, the death theme Rowling uses is all laid out within the very first book.
As the series progresses, it is death that defines Harry’s character development. Cedric’s death leaves Harry traumatized. Sirius’s death shows Harry the high cost of Harry’s mistakes and the extent to which death can alter his future. Dumbledore’s death, of course, leaves Harry rudderless and vulnerable, forcing him to mature to a new level of personal responsibility.
By Book Seven, Harry’s own death represents the ultimate boon that bestows upon him the power to at last defeat Voldemort, whose vulnerability is created by horcruxes, dark magic used to protect him at the expense of his living soul.
As Harry marches to his death, “Every second he breathed, the smell of the grass, the cool air on his face, was so precious.” In this moment, as Harry accepts death, life itself becomes sweet, even beautiful — a sharp contrast to the cursed life that Voldemort cannot escape from.
This contrast is again the pivot-point of the mortality theme that Rowling develops. Voldemort looks like death, he brings death wherever he goes, his army are the “Death-Eaters,” and several aspects of his iconography associate him with the Grim Reaper of legend.
It would be easy to conclude that Harry is simply fighting death in the series, but that role is actually reserved for Voldemort himself, whose name can be translated from the French to mean “flight from death,” not death itself.
The entire series is then the story of an antagonist struggling to deny death, matched against a protagonist who is maturing toward accepting it. If this sounds cynical, Severus Snap agrees with you when he laments that Dumbledore has “been raising him like a pig for slaughter.”
In spite of this objection, Snape is willing to die for the cause of righteousness, just as James and Lilly were, just as Sirius was, just as Dumbledore was, and just as all the casualties of the Battle of Hogwarts were. Even Harry’s poor owl, Hedwig, chooses to die to protect something she loves.
When perceived as a pattern, heroism in Harry Potter means accepting death. In contrast, fighting against death is analogous to raging against the storm for Shakespeare’s King Lear, who, like Voldemort, is reduced to a cursed existence in consequence.
The notion of death in fantasy literature might seem counter-intuitive for a genre that’s commonly associated with escapism. The reality, however, runs contrary, and Rowling’s theme is well within the norms of the genre.
J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, once wrote an essay called “On Faerie Stories,” in which he describes the prominent role of death within the fantasy genre. Tolkien writes that:
“Few lessons are taught more clearly in [fantasy] than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the ‘fugitive’ would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today.”
For Tolkien, fantasy is a genre that frequently engages with themes of mortality and provides us with “consolation” for our universal fear of death. He refers to his own example, the elves of Middle Earth, to show how he portrays immortality as undesirable.
Tolkien’s elves don’t ever have to die — and their lives are miserable as a result. Though less evil than Voldemort, the nature of their immortal existence is actually quite similar to that of Rowling’s villain — again, a cursed existence.
The Tale of the Three Brothers
The strongest encapsulation of the mortality theme in Harry Potter is the story within the story, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” which is told in the final Harry Potter book. Three brothers face death and respond in three different ways. Only the one who ultimately accepts death is spared a brutal and humiliating end. “And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.”
That “the boy who lived” is also the boy who died is not a paradox. Indeed, Rowling’s argument is that only by accepting our inevitable passing can we truly live a life of meaning and purpose.
To fly from death is to relinquish all the things that make life worth living. This is more than just a clever little message buried in a whimsical boy wizard story —indeed the resonance of this theme within all human beings may in fact be a huge part of the novel’s ubiquitous appeal. Harry Potter, you see, has something to say.
“In the four quarters of the globe,” asked the British writer and cleric Sydney Smith in 1820: “Who reads an American book?” Smith was a career eccentric, known for odd sayings and doings, such as wearing a self-designed tin helmet as a defence against rheumatism. However, his scorn about the impoverished state of literature in the upstart nation across the Atlantic was no mere individual fancy, but a judgement backed by his nation’s sense of cultural superiority.
But pose the same question now, almost exactly 200 years later, and such complacency is hardly the response you’re likely to get. The most esteemed British literary prize, after all, has now been awarded to an American author two years running.
American writer George Saunders’ victory in the The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, follows on from US novelist Paul Beatty’s 2016 win for The Sellout. Fears of the Americanisation of this piece of British literary heritage are likely to be renewed. Saunders and Beatty face being seen as the high-cultural wing of an ongoing transatlantic takeover of national life that recently took more bone-crushing form in the series of NFL fixtures in London.
Changing the rules
Worries about precisely such literary colonisation by the United States were voiced, in fact, when the organisers of the Booker changed its eligibility rules in 2013. Formerly a prize only for novelists of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Commonwealth, with winners including such non-UK citizens as Nadine Gordimer and John Banville, the parameters were altered so as to make the language of composition itself the key criterion. The new rules invited submissions of “any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK.”
A S Byatt, a former judge as well as winner, said at the time she feared such an expansion of the field would result in “good work” going unrecognised. Her qualms were based not on nationalistic unease but in the spectre of unmanageable piles of novels to be sifted. But for literary scholar John Mullan, the risk of the rule change was indeed that the Booker would decline into a series of spectacular US/UK faceoffs. He imagined the new Booker as:
A Ryder Cup of Literature … Toni Morrison versus Hilary Mantel, or Jonathan Franzen against Ian McEwan.
Nevertheless, it is not as if the Booker’s previous criteria for eligibility were beyond criticism. How convincing a defence can be assembled for a prize whose original geographical coverage mapped exactly onto that of Britain’s recent colonial and imperial dominance? These embarrassing parallels were pointedly addressed in 1972 by John Berger, also a Booker winner. On being awarded the prize for G., he remarked that the sponsor, Booker McConnell, had derived much of its wealth from “exploitation” during “extensive trading … in the Caribbean for over 130 years”.
Novels without borders
If writers in English from Durban had always been eligible for the Booker, then why not those from Denver? If Delhi, why not Detroit? While the organisers’ announcement in 2013 triggered expressions of anxiety in the UK that the novelists of Hampstead would be ill-equipped to compete with those from Harlem, others welcomed the prize’s reimagining so as to include writers in English from beyond Britain’s recently relinquished imperial citadels. As the Scottish author A L Kennedy said: fiction is “deeply international, deeply humane. It has no borders. It’s lovely that the Booker is reaching out”.
There are striking affinities, in fact, between Kennedy’s rhetoric and that of George Saunders in his acceptance speech after winning for Lincoln in the Bardo. His novel’s subject could not be more closely affiliated with the national narratives and icons of the US: its key figure, of course, is the grieving President Lincoln. Nevertheless, Saunders’ model of literary composition and reception remains resolutely non-jingoistic:
Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture.
Two responses, perhaps, are possible in the face of nationalistic concern that the Americans are taking over British literary prizes.
The first is to recall more of Berger’s wise words in what was as much a speech of refusal as acceptance in 1972. Even at a time when coverage of the prize was modest, with the only media “platform” provided by a few broadsheet papers, Berger complained about “the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers”. The task now, perhaps, is to extricate Saunders, and Beatty before him, from conversations about their passports and instead to give their thematically challenging and formally inventive fictions the serious attention they deserve.
But a second possible response to Saunders’ victory may offer a better cure for the prize envy of the smaller-minded British reader, currently sore at US literary success. Yes, Saunders may have won the Booker. But in Kazuo Ishiguro, Britain currently has the holder of the biggest literary trophy of all.
It’s 20 years on June 26 since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the seven-book series. The Philosopher’s Stone has sold more than 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages; the series has inspired a movie franchise, a dedicated fan website, and spinoff stories.
I recall the long periods of frustration and excited anticipation as my son and I waited for each new instalment of the series. This experience of waiting is one we share with other fans who read it progressively across the ten years between the publication of the first and last Potter novel. It is not an experience contemporary readers can recreate.
The Harry Potter series has been celebrated for encouraging children to read, condemned as a commercial rather than a literary success and had its status as literature challenged. Rowling’s writing was described as “basic”, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “flat”. A Guardian article in 2007, just prior to the release of the final book in the series, was particularly scathing, calling her style “toxic”.
My own focus is on the pleasure of reading. I’m more interested in the enjoyment children experience reading Harry Potter, including the appeal of the stories. What was it about the story that engaged so many?
Before the books were a commercial success and highly marketed, children learnt about them from their peers. A community of Harry Potter readers and fans developed and grew as it became a commercial success. Like other fans, children gained cultural capital from the depth of their knowledge of the series.
My own son, on the autism spectrum, adored Harry Potter. He had me read each book in the series in order again (and again) while we waited for the next book to be released. And once we finished the new book, we would start the series again from the beginning. I knew those early books really well.
Assessing the series’ literary merit is not straightforward. In the context of concern about falling literacy rates, the Harry Potter series was initially widely celebrated for encouraging children – especially boys – to read. The books, particularly the early ones, won numerous awards and honours, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize three years in a row, and were shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1998.
Criticism of the literary merit of the books, both scholarly and popular, appeared to coincide with the growing commercial and popular success of the series. Rowling was criticised for overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks, her use of speech or dialogue tags (which identify who is speaking) and her use of adverbs to provide specific information (for example, “said the boy miserably”).
The criticism was particularly prolific around the UK’s first conference on Harry Potter held at the prestigious University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2012. The focus of commentary seemed to be on the conference’s positioning of Harry Potter as a work of “literature” worthy of scholarly attention. As one article said of J.K. Rowling, she “may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare”.
Even the most scathing of reviews of Rowling’s writing generally compliment her storytelling ability. This is often used to account for the popularity of the series, particularly with children. However, this has then been presented as further proof of Rowling’s failings as an author. It is as though the capacity to tell a compelling story can be completely divorced from the way a story is told.
Writing for kids
The assessment of the literary merits of a text is highly subjective. Children’s literature in particular may fare badly when assessed using adult measures of quality and according to adult tastes. Many children’s books, including picture books, pop-up books, flap books and multimedia texts are not amenable to conventional forms of literary analysis.
Books for younger children may seem simple and conventional when judged against adult standards. The use of speech tags in younger children’s books, for example, is frequently used to clarify who is talking for less experienced readers. The literary value of a children’s book is often closely tied to adults’ perception of a book’s educational value rather than the pleasure children may gain from reading or engaging with the book. For example, Rowling’s writing was criticised for not “stretching children” or teaching children “anything new about words”.
Many of the criticisms of Rowling’s writing are similar to those levelled at another popular children’s author, Enid Blyton. Like Rowling, Blyton’s writing has described by one commentator as “poison” for its “limited vocabulary”, “colourless” and “undemanding language”. Although children are overwhelmingly encouraged to read, it would appear that many adults view with suspicion books that are too popular with children.
There have been many defences of the literary merits of Harry Potter which extend beyond mere analysis of Rowling’s prose. The sheer volume of scholarly work that has been produced on the series and continues to be produced, even ten years after publication of the final book, attests to the richness and depth of the series.
A focus on children’s reading pleasure rather than on literary merit shifts the focus of research to a different set of questions. I will not pretend to know why Harry Potter appealed so strongly to my son but I suspect its familiarity, predictability and repetition were factors. These qualities are unlikely to score high by adult standards of literary merit but are a feature of children’s series fiction.
In 1967, French theorist Roland Barthes famously declared the metaphorical “death of the author” in his essay of the same name. Barthes rejected the Romantic idea of the author as a unique figure of genius. Still, despite his best efforts, this romantic notion of the heroic, solitary wordsmith lives on today.
In Medieval times, authors were seen as nothing more than craftsmen. But the Romantic poets – Byron, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley – singled out the writer as a figure of “spontaneous creativity”. As academic Clara Tuite has noted,
the Romantic period saw the birth of the literary celebrity, a figure distinguishable from the merely famous author by his or her status as a cultural commodity.
This Romantic writer was seen as either a solitary hero, a tragic artist, a melancholy genius – or all three. In the centuries since, famous authors have been both celebrated and panned, adored and ridiculed.
Since Romantic times, we have often expected writers to be detached from the trappings of celebrity culture, aligning their integrity with an anti-commercial attitude. There is, argues author Joe Moran, a “nostalgia for some kind of transcendent, anti-economic, creative element in a secular, debased, commercialised culture” that we commonly attach to writers.
Indeed theorist Lorraine York has asked if we can even use words like “fame” and “celebrity” to describe writers, “those notorious privacy-seeking, solitary scribblers”.
One of the first to question the idea of literary celebrity was the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who found his own fame something of a burden.
More recently, authors such as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Dave Eggers have struggled with the desire for popularity and credibility. In today’s internet culture, reaction to a famous writer’s actions or utterances is quick and merciless. Next week, a new author will be thrust into the media spotlight, with the announcement of the Booker Prize winner.
Yet interestingly, discussions about the difficulties of being a famous writer rarely include women. The notion of the solitary genius is usually attached to men. A notable exception is the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante – who is famous, ironically, precisely because of her reluctance to engage with literary celebrity. Ferrante writes under a pseudonym, in her words, to “liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety”.
The extent to which her true identity has been picked over shows how our society craves constant closure, often at the expense of creativity and imagination. As Michel Foucault once noted, literary anonymity is “of interest only as a puzzle to be solved”.
Such is the nature of contemporary celebrity culture that many cannot tolerate the idea of writers who prefer anonymity over fame. So those such as Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger and Ferrante, who have evaded the limelight, have been scrutinised as much for their personal lives as their actual works.
A short history of famous (male) writers
The 19th century writers Charles Dickens (hero of the working class) and Mark Twain (America’s most beloved humourist), were plagued with aspects of their fame. While Dickens was often criticised for appealing to the lower classes, Twain likened celebrities to clowns. Celebrity, he said, “is what a boy or a youth longs for more than for any other thing. He would be a clown in a circus […] he would sell himself to Satan, in order to attract attention and be talked about and envied”.
Yet Dickens and Twain also enjoyed their fame. Dickens was renowned for engaging his audiences at public lectures; Twain also went on speaking tours.
If we fast forward half a century or so, we come to Ernest Hemingway – another author who felt imprisoned by his fame. As theorist Leo Braudy puts it, Hemingway was caught between “his genius and its publicity”. In an undated writing fragment, Hemingway wrote:
We have reached the point where we are ruled by photographers and agents of publishers and writing is no longer of any importance.
He also called fellow writer F. Scott Fitzgerald a “hack” for writing Hollywood screenplays.
Yet Hemingway nevertheless helped promote the “Hemingway myth”, built around ideals of masculinity and genius. He was frequently photographed outdoors, fishing and hunting, or attending bullfights.
Then there was Norman Mailer, the pugnacious, Jewish author of The Naked and the Dead and Advertisements for Myself. In 1960, Mailer stabbed and seriously wounded his then-wife, Adele Morales with a pen-knife at a drunken party. (After pleading guilty to a charge of third-degree assault, he received a suspended sentence.)
Mailer cultivated a public persona that certainly boosted his fame, but did little for his literary reputation. Many critics accused him of wasting his talents by shamelessly promoting himself; he did frequent TV interviews, including a particularly notorious appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, where he and Gore Vidal famously butted heads over Mailer’s public profile and ego.
a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality and status.
Theorist John Cawelti suggests that unlike Hemingway, who lived out to the end an ambiguous conflict between celebrity and art, Mailer “tried to make his public performances themselves into a kind of artistic exploration”. Mailer frequently wrote about himself in the third-person, in an effort to “perform” himself as a character.
In 2001, Oprah Winfrey put Jonathan Franzen’s sprawling family saga The Corrections on her book club list, encouraging her audience to read it. Franzen was invited onto Oprah’s show. He declined, saying he didn’t want his novel placed alongside “schmaltzy, one-dimensional [books]”.
Franzen was widely panned for being a snob. Andre Dubus III, for instance, criticised Franzen’s assumption that “high art is not for the masses, that they won’t understand it and don’t deserve it”.
Media scholar Ian Collinson sees Franzen’s reaction as a symbolic attempt to separate the television celebrity from the novel, an act of “cultural decontamination”. Franzen, he writes, feared his position within the high-art tradition “would be compromised if his novel were subject to such blatant commercialism”.
Yet nine years later, Franzen apologised to Oprah. He was again invited onto her show, this time to promote his 2010 book Freedom. He did not refuse a second time. Ironically, many criticised Franzen for succumbing to the allure of popularity. The old assumptions regarding the incompatibility of literature and celebrity resurfaced, with one critic, Macy Halford, suggesting that “Oprah and Franzen are not terribly compatible personalities”.
This whole saga attests to what Tessa Roynon has called the “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” mentality of literary celebrity. Authors are often seen as having to choose between respectability amongst fewer critics, or widespread popularity at the expense of their reputations. (One article about a speech Franzen gave to students in 2011 was memorably titled, “Touching the hem of Mr Franzen’s garment.”)
Like Mailer, Franzen’s career has been marred by the troubled union between mass media presence and desire for literary acceptance.
Celebrity and Sincerity: Wallace and Eggers
One of Franzen’s peers, the late David Foster Wallace, was an author in the Romantic mould; he is associated with the “New Sincerity” literary movement, and his 1996 novel Infinite Jest has been judged by many as a work of genius.
In 2008, Wallace took his own life. Before his death, Wallace was known to have suffered from depression, and he projected an image of the melancholy genius. His opinion of celebrity was less than favourable. His widow Karen Green once noted in an interview that all of the media attention given to Wallace “turns him into a celebrity writer dude, which I think would have made him wince”.
In a 1996 New York Times piece, Wallace claimed that the “hoopla” of celebrity made him want to become a recluse. The cult of celebrity was something he consistently mocked in his work, calling celebrities “symbols of themselves” rather than real people. As with Rousseau and Salinger, the logic went that Wallace “deserved his celebrity”, journalist Megan Garber writes, specifically because he had not sought it.
Early in his career, Eggers often spoke of wanting to retreat into anonymity. Instead, he seized the reins of literary celebrity. Some then accused him of hypocrisy – in criticising fame while also inviting it. He has also been criticised for “excessive sincerity”, while journalist David Kirkpatrick called Eggers “agonizingly ambivalent”.
treats his celebrity like a gold lamé suit: It’s amusing, absurd and, in his mind, not quite appropriate.
Meanwhile, in her reading of Eggers’ 2003 book You Shall Know Our Velocity, Caroline Hamilton suggests that the central characters “resemble the credibility-obsessed younger Eggers torn between longing for celebrity and legitimacy”.
In a 2000 email interview, Eggers referred to himself as a sellout for having sold many books and appeared in various magazines. As Hamilton writes, the term sellout has less to do with wealth, and more to do with “the popularity that comes with it”.
Celebrity, then, remains a problem for those authors wishing to appear genuine and serious.
Where are all the women?
It is striking that female authors are, for the most part, excluded from all these agonised discussions about inner turmoil and perceived loss of prestige. This suggests that women are not often thought of as having substantial reputations in the first place.
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, for instance, has frequently appeared on Oprah’s program to discuss her complex, poetically written, novels. In contrast to Franzen, however, Morrison’s credibility was never seen to be compromised in doing so.
Despite the number of talented women writing today for large audiences – Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison just to name a few – critics do not often think of female authors as having the kinds of monumental reputations that their male peers possess. The Byronic hero, the Hemingway legend, and the Foster Wallace genius are larger-than-life men.
Women are seldom discussed in such a way – with the possible exception of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. Yet this may actually be a blessing for them. Avoiding the expectations that go along with literary celebrity can be an advantage. Female authors may be better able to breach certain boundaries – of genre, style, content – in ways that certain male authors cannot.
Ferrante, for instance, said she explicitly needed anonymity to write honestly. While some may see it as a bizarre sort of compliment to her that she is so intriguing that an Italian journalist spent weeks combing financial and property records to unmask her, she surely deserved the right to her privacy to focus on her own work.
Some of the most interesting genre-defying authors writing today are women such as Morrison, Atwood, and Emily St. John Mandel. Perhaps, then, female authors can more seamlessly defy stringent boundaries that continue to define the literary world when they are not hailed as heroic geniuses.
That is, it started with the publication of F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition – the book that, more than any other, is synonymous with a narrow and elitist English canon – and ended in economic crisis.
For Amis, this was a giddy utopian time in which everybody who was anybody agreed that literature mattered. For the Leavisites, literature was a depository of shared human values – of “felt life”. For the intellectuals of the New Left, it was a potent source of social-cultural arguments.
Either way, Literature – not writing, or English, or textual studies, but big “L” literature – was the central cultural formation around which everything turned.
Until, that is, the Age of Criticism ended abruptly in the global stagflation of the early 1970s. And all the hippyish young men – and let’s make it clear, they were invariably men – discovered that literature was “one of the many leisure-class fripperies”, as Amis puts it, that the world could do without.
By the end of the 70s, literary criticism crawled back into the academy to contemplate its own death – or worse, its own irrelevance. In the public imagination, literature gave way to film, television and music, and, subsequently, the rise of the Internet, as central repositories of cultural meaning.
By the end of the millennium, English – no longer English Literature – became a weird sort of sub-cultural pursuit, which academic Simon During once evocatively likened to “trainspotting” (in the sense of lonely dysfunctional men clad in anoraks standing in the rain at train stations). Literature, said During, was less and less a canonical cultural formation and more and more a pile of mouldering old books.
But even for the self-confessed “trainspotters” safe inside the universities, literature through the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be losing relevance. The words on the page were suddenly insufficient. The study of writing gave way to the study of Ideology and the study of Theory.
There is absolutely no doubt that literature has a long history of being employed as an ideological extension of the State. It was co-opted into the “Civilising Mission” of colonial bureaucrats and became part of the jingoistic imperatives of the “Nation-Building Project” of pre and post war Australia.
As intellectual ventures, then, deconstruction and reconstruction were long overdue. The canon is, after all, a fiercely contested body of work that scholars – for one fiercely contested reason or another – have decided was influential in shaping the history of western culture. If one way to define the canon is “what gets taught”, then it became clear that “what gets taught” had to change.
In the 1980s, the Feminist Canon was consolidated, posing a formidable challenge to the Masculinist Canon. And then, in the bitterly contested Culture Wars of the 1990s, the Great Tradition itself was finally unmasked – not only were all the Great Men Dead but all the Feminists Were White.
But as the Death of the Human followed the Death of the Author, literature – whether Australian, Comparative or Post-Colonial – began to look less like a living corpus and more like a corpse.
One aspect of the problem – perhaps – was that in their haste to unmask the hidden cultural allegiances of the canon, academics appeared to lose interest in the practice of writing.
The dilemma is aptly satirized in David Lodge’s novel Changing Places (1979), in which it propels the maniacal ambitions of Professor Morris Zapp (often read as a thinly disguised caricature of the literary critic Stanley Fish).
Zapp’s project – first cast in the 1970s, but developed through Lodge’s trilogy of campus novels through to the 1980s – was to start with Jane Austen then work his way through the canon in a manner calculated to be “utterly exhaustive”.
The object of the exercise, Zapp said, was “not to enhance others enjoyment and understanding” of writing, still less to “honour the novelist herself”. Rather, it was to put a “definitive stop” to anybody’s capacity to say or enjoy anything. The object was not to make the words live, but to extinguish them.
And yet, if literature has been, as Lodge mischievously argued, thoroughly “Zapped” – that is, consigned to the dust heap – then why is it that three decades later there are still few things better calculated to end in tears and acrimony than an essay on the English canon?
“Dead white women” replaced by living men
Of course, literature is not just a pile of musty old books. It is also a dense network of cultural allegiances and class beliefs. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the processes of list-making that have been fuelled by curriculum building and accountability projects.
In an era of TEQSA and the AQF, with its CLOs and TLOs, its ERAs and QILTs (forget about the meaning of these acronyms – for Marxists, read “alienation”; for Romantics, read “soulnessness”) academics everywhere are being asked to make lists (and more lists), of what their students ought to read and ought to master.
They are then asked to benchmark those lists and set them (like murdered corpses) in concrete.
Designed to enhance accountability, these list-making exercises have not always been accountable. They take what are often fiercely contested ideas – like the literary canon – and turn them into numbers. I am not alone in having seen unit outlines conspicuously devoid of women and indigenous writers.
At school level, the problem gets worse. Recently, the wife of the Victorian Premier Catherine Andrews called for increased gender equality in the selection of texts for inclusion in the VCE. In 2014, 68.5 percent of the books on the list were written by men. (Last year, it dropped to 61 percent.)
A swift study of high school literature curriculums undertaken in the same year revealed that many other Australian states and territories had published high school English curriculums featuring up to 70 percent of texts by male authors.
This is not the intellectual legacy of the historical fact of patriarchy. Rather, in reading through the density of curriculum documents, an uneasy sense emerges that as the old Feminist Canon – comprising Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, for example – comes off the curriculum, the so-called “dead white women” are not being replaced by contemporary female – let alone Indigenous or poly-ethnic – authors but by contemporary male ones.
In NSW, the gender count of HSC English texts has actually gone backwards. While male writers made up 67 percent men in an earlier curriculum they comprised almost 70 percent in the one most recently published.
This reflects the material reality of a literary sphere in which – as successive Stella counts have shown – books written by men get disproportionately more reviews than books written by women.
It is useful to note, if only for purpose of comparison, that in the heyday of the elitist Leavisites, exactly half of the four “great writers” he catalogued in The Great Tradition were women. As Leavis wrote,
The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad.
The blunt instrument of the Stella text count may shed some light on the problem of gender relations, but there are more difficult issues at stake when it comes to questions of ethnicity and race. Anita Heiss, for example, has written about the Indigenous writers who ought to be studied in the school curriculum but currently are not.
In NSW, the Board of Studies responded to criticisms about gender bias in the curriculum by stating that the books had been chosen on the basis of “quality”.
Which merely leaves one wondering how on earth the great women writers – from Toni Morrison to Alice Munro – failed to make the cut. It also leaves one wondering whether the curriculum builders – a committee apparently composed largely of women – were oblivious to the ideological content of the thing they benignly call “quality”.
And what of the universities that were responsible for their education? When students are taught that literature is an ideological space in which redemption through male genius masquerades as rigour and analysis, for example – or that literature enacts a benign silencing that naturalises the ascendancy of white European culture – are they also being taught the skills required to detect such silencing and masquerading in themselves?
It is not just a question of what to read, but also how to read – of teaching students to read critically and carefully.
Paying close attention
Of course the canon should be taught. It is not the function of a university to foster ignorance in the name of politics. Like it or not, the canon is part of our cultural heritage. It is a powerful, and culturally influential body of work. In choosing not to teach it – or, rather, in refusing to critically engage with it – you are actually disempowering students.
The question is not whether or not it should be taught, but how.
I do not teach the canon. But this is not because I do not want my students to read those books – indeed, I actually do.
I do not teach the canon because I am not a teacher of English, let alone English Literature, but a teacher of writing. Struggling through four or five “great books” over the course of a semester is simply not as valuable for my students as working through 50 or 100 different writers, writing in 50 or 100 different styles, for 50 or 100 different reasons – not all of them for Literature.
Where another lecturer may see a canon in need of fortification or demolition, I content myself with a single passage. I want my students to understand it deeply and critically, at the level of the sentence. Why and how is a certain word used, and to what effect?
I also teach Adaptation, focusing attention on writers adapting work from out of the canon, or ‘writing back’ to it. This might include adaptions of Jane Austen, from Rajshree Ojha’s Aisha to Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004).
It might include novelistic adaptions such as the Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys’ haunting portrait of Bertha Rochester, better known as the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) (who resurfaces yet again as the eponymous character in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)).
In this way canonical works are brought into dialogue with the works of a dozen different writers, taught flexibly and openly, with a weather eye to change and re-evaluation. Teaching minor and popular works can actually be more challenging and therefore revealing for students. It also shows the students just how alive and influential these stories are.
But once the books are torn apart, I also want my students to tidy up and put the books back on the bookshelves – by which I mean understand the diversity of traditions and cultural perspectives from whence they came. I want them to make critically independent judgments.
Leavis wasn’t shy about making judgments. Indeed, he ought to be as famous for the canon that he trashed, as for the canon that he sanctified. He trashed Milton. He trashed Shelley and Keats. He called Dickens a mere “entertainer”. He said there was no English poetry worth reading since John Donne – with the exception, that is, of Gerard Manley Hopkins and (of all people) Thomas Carew.
What was valuable in the work of Leavis was clearly not any value-ridden “judgments”. Still less his almost evangelical mission to uncover the “human life” expressed in the writing. Rather, what Leavis and the New Critics in the United States did was replace the then predominant encyclopedic and bibliographic approach to writing with an attention to the meaning and texture of words on a page. Though Leavis roundly declared that he had absolutely no time for the teaching of writing, he read technically and fluidly, anxiously and probingly, as a writer reads.
This was the substantial intellectual legacy of Leavis. It was not in his moral seriousness, or his earnest and occasionally joyless pronunciations on the canon, but in his deployment of “Practical Criticism” or close and detailed reading as the means to critique it.
Skimming, or reading quickly to grasp ideologies or theories will not teach a student about the use of language, not when the real revelations are located between the words, in the structure of the sentences, and in the relationship between sentences and the world.
“Practical Criticism” means reading with closer critical attention to the way words mean and deceive, disturb the mind, power the emotions, tell truths or merely masquerade as them.
Here is yet another reason to teach the canon. The canon is quite simply the largest repository of exhilarating and disturbing words we have.
To recognize that words have a weight and a materiality and an affective power is not to believe that they are somehow free of ideology or politics – that they are torn loose from culture or history – but quite the reverse. It is to understand in a more nuanced and substantial way how writing works.
In a world that still conducts much of its life and its business in words, this is – as the curriculum builders say – the “transferrable skill”.
2013 is going out with a bang of literary snobbishness. The latest round comes via John Gallagher at The New Republic, railing against “Hollywood DFW” and the “terrible, terrible idea” of Jason Segel portraying the late David Foster Wallace in a film adaptation of David Lipsky’s Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. He just can’t imagine such a thing as Saint Wallace being portrayed on screen, especially by an actor mostly known for his comedic roles. How dare they get an funnyman to commit this act of literary sacrilege! Exposing people to Wallace’s work who might have otherwise never known about it? Seriously, just who do they think they are?