Future of literature

THIS paper is concerned with the future of literature and literary criticism in the university, and in particular with the criticism of Australian literature.(3) It was conceived as a contribution to the occasional series on this topic begun by Leigh Dale in the October 1999 issue of Australian Literary Studies. I argue that there are three urgent issues currently facing Australian literary criticism: finding a place for the teaching of literature (and specifically Australian literature) in the academy; finding the appropriate audience for that teaching; and finding a voice in which to articulate a critical scrutiny of that literature.

It is increasingly clear that the academic climate is no longer supportive of these endeavours. In recent years literary critics as distinguished as Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode have reflected pessimistically on what they see as the looming demise of the study of literature as a significant academic discipline. The `culture wars' of the last three decades have seen the nature and function of literature, as traditionally defined,(4) radically questioned in the academy. It has been variously traduced as imperialist, racist, sexist and elitist: as the increasingly irrelevant, if not positively pernicious, construction of `dead white European males'. The resulting dislodgment of literature from its former place in the academy has been eloquently charted in Harold Bloom's powerfully elegiac The Western Canon, in John Ellis's passionately combative Literature Lost; and in Malcolm Bradbury's very funny Mensonge, to mention just three.(5) More recently Edward Said spent his year as President of the MLA (1999) lamenting: `not just the obscure vocabulary of academic writing, but that English Departments are so wrapped up in theory that they no longer teach students literature.'(6)

The declining role of literature in universities has recently made it to the bestseller lists in J.M. Coetzee's 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace.(7) Coetzee's protagonist is a former professor of modern Languages whose department has been closed in a `rationalisation', and whose university has had the word `Technical' inserted into its title. Reduced to an adjunct professor teaching communication, he is: `allowed to offer one special-field course a year [his is on the Romantic poets], irrespective of enrolment, because that is good for morale' (3). David Lurie's morale is, however, not good, and it deteriorates. His state of mind, I have to say, was chillingly familiar. To cite just one example, the teaching of literature was recently terminated at the University of the Northern Territory. A number of our colleagues, seeing the barbarians not only at the gates, but already inside them, are opting for early retirement, demoralised by brutal funding cuts from without and ideological attacks from within.

It is, of course, a matter of personal judgment whether one welcomes, accepts, or laments the recent internal challenges to the discipline. I refer specifically to the colonisation of literature departments, and the hybridisation of literary studies, first by Literary Theory, then by Gender and Cultural Studies, and most recently by Communication and Media Studies. There are those who see the changes as desirable, as revitalising a tired and ailing discipline. There are others who see them as unwelcome but irreversible, and therefore not worth contesting. There are those who hanker for an unproblematic past, when literature occupied a central position in humanities in the university. And there are those who want to fight back to reclaim the territory lost.

My own position is that I remain very strongly committed to the study of literature. I am interested in surrounding disciplines, new or traditional, only insofar as they enrich that study -- which of course they can and do. As I see it, the task for literary criticism is to incorporate the genuine insights of other disciplines into readings which nonetheless remain firmly focussed on the literary texts they address. I do not dispute the value of the newer disciplines, or their fight to a place in the university alongside traditionally adjacent disciplines like history and philosophy (which are also in decline and under threat). On the other hand, I regret that in many cases they have sought to promote their cause by denigrating and marginalising the host discipline of literature. In the process, some of the more fundamentalist of their devotees have shown little regard for the intellectual scepticism, and the tolerance of diversity that I particularly value in the humanist tradition: a tradition which made room for them in the first place, but which they are nonetheless determined to discredit and dislodge. There has not been much humanity shown in the attacks of the `new' humanities on the `old' humanities.

Whatever the outcome of these territorial contests within the universities, it seems entirely likely that a substantial body of literature will continue to endure outside them. Literature did after all survive and even prosper for a couple of thousand years before English became a university discipline - reluctantly and uneasily - towards the end of the nineteenth century. It should be added though, that a good deal seems to have been lost along the way, and much that survived from the classical period did so only in medieval monasteries, those antecedents of modern universities.

Literature may have lost much of the cultural mana it once enjoyed, and become just another commodity in the marketplace - some cultural theorists argue that is all it ever was - but sales of the traditional `classics', and their film and television offshoots, remain healthy, seemingly unaffected by disputes about their value in universities. The position of Australian literature in the marketplace and the extent to which it will endure there are less certain. Australian books appear briefly, disappear rapidly, and stay out of print interminably: a situation which may be improved to a limited extent by electronic storage and retrieval.

Whatever its fate in the broader culture, Australian literature's future as a university discipline is clearly threatened. This is of particular concern because, more so than longer established literatures with larger audiences, it has been reliant on universities for its definition, the critical mass of its readership, and the critical scrutiny it has received. The international displacement of literature from a central position in university curricula was badly timed for Australian literature. After a prolonged and difficult battle, it was just starting to be taught extensively in Australian universities in the 1970s and 1980s -- unfortunately at the very time that their English Departments started prescribing theoretical texts at the expense of literary texts, including those few Australian literary texts which had found their way on to booklists.

My own experience has, I suspect, been fairly typical. As an undergraduate in the early 1960s, I studied no Australian literature. As a tutor and postgraduate at Monash in the middle sixties, I encountered Dennis Douglas teaching a pioneering subject in Australian literature. In the 1970s I started teaching Australian literature and publishing critical work on it. As the Head of an English Department in the 1980s I found myself juggling the conflicting claims of literary texts and literary theory. This involved keeping my own eye and, insofar as I was able to influence them, those of my colleagues, determinedly focussed on literature, including Australian literature, while accommodating literary theory - then very fashionable and expansive - as an enabling discipline. My experience was less typical when, in the middle 1990s, I was responsible for persuading James Cook University to establish a permanent Chair of Australian Literature, the second in the country, which Peter Pierce now holds. Given the beleaguered state of Australian literature in the universities, it seemed a particularly timely, if regrettably isolated, initiative.

In the 1960s, when all this began, there was no significant body of secondary literature - and in particular of literary criticism - devoted to Australian literature. The development of that body of work, which is now substantial but still far from comprehensive, has taken place in a period when both the nature and the value of literature in general, and of discrete national literatures in particular, were under sustained interrogation. The emergence of this body of secondary literature has been further constrained by the changing economics of academic publishing. University presses have found literary criticism increasingly unprofitable, and a number have removed it from their programs. A striking recent example was the decision of Oxford University Press in 1996 to end their Australian Writers Series, leaving the University of Queensland Press as the only university press in Australia with a continuing commitment to publishing Australian literary criticism, and a substantial back list.

Like publishers, booksellers have been increasingly reluctant to promote literary criticism. I always scour bookshops when I travel, and in recent years it has been a dispiriting experience. With a few distinguished exceptions, including I must say my own university, campus bookshops have ever fewer works of literature - including Australian - on their shelves, and literary criticism fares even worse. I almost never see titles in the Studies in Australian Literature Series (UQP) that I edit, or other literary criticism, Australian or international, in the bookshops. Gleebooks in Sydney, to take one example, always has a shelf or two of literary and cultural theory, but very little, if any, literary criticism. I have never seen a SAL title there. Some years ago I found one volume in the Oxford Australian Writers Series down the back on a shelf marked `Cribs'. Closer to home, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature has not awarded the Walter McRae Russell Award to a book of literary criticism, as opposed to literary study, for something like a decade, since Julian Croft's SAL volume The Life and Opinions of Tom Collins published in 1991 -- a regrettable but revealing sign of the times.

I have spent so long on what I see as the bad news, because it is there and has to be faced. But is there any good news? Is there a way forward for those of us for whom literature, and particularly Australian literature, is a passion, and for whom literary criticism is the academic discipline that we wish to pursue? Is there an institutional place, an audience, and a voice for Australian literary criticism?

First, the issue of a place. I would like to see literature disentangle itself from the disciplines which have grown up parasitically around it. Literature is different, and I believe it needs to be separate. For one thing, its subject matter is inherently and abidingly interesting, and that interest, and the knowledge and expertise that accompany it, extend beyond academic specialists and professionals. In some important senses, literature is not an academic discipline at all, which is both its strength and a (perceived) weakness. The strength lies in its reach outside the academy. The weakness, as some in universities see it, is that it is more an art than a science, and they are uncomfortable with arts. This has also troubled those literary academics who, from philologists to formalists to structuralists to contemporary theorists, have earnestly tried to make the study of literature respectably scientific, complete with its own recondite mysteries encrypted in a language designed to exclude outsiders.

I believe that literature's difference should be recognised by (re-)constituting it as a distinct and separate discipline. It is time for the offspring to leave home and to make their own, independent ways in the academic world. Those who want to offer cultural or media or gender or theory studies should do so under their own banners, and leave those students who come to university to study literature - and that is what most of them still come for - free to pursue those studies within their own disciplinary structure. It is surely time to declare a truce, or even peace, in the culture wars, and for each of the parties to recognise the right of the others to an independent existence. Those who would rather watch The Bill than Shakespeare, or who attribute Patrick White's stature to Australia's need for a literary icon, or Peter Carey's popularity to his advertising executive's skill in self-promotion, might stop targeting literature, and turn their attention to other areas of cultural studies.

Secondly, there is the issue of all audience. I am convinced that literature has been oversold in the past, and that this has done it a major disservice. The evangelical promotion of literature as an ersatz religion (one thinks of Matthew Arnold), or as morally uplifting (one thinks of F.R. Leavis and the Scrutiny School), plus the forcible attaching of literature to compulsory English language studies in schools and elsewhere, has in the past subjected far too many unable and unwilling students to literary texts they neither understood nor appreciated. This in turn drew into the university discipline too many colleagues who lacked any real passion for literature, and who, when something novel and fashionable came along, embraced it with enthusiasm and relief. I am not persuaded that literature does any good at all to unwilling or unappreciative readers. And I'm not even sure about those who are appreciative. As Henry Fielding observes in the Dedication to Tom Jones: `it is much easier to make good men wise than to make bad men good.'(8)

One positive outcome of the loss of the inflated status conferred upon literature for much of the twentieth century has been that those students - and I include students of all ages and academic standing - who do not genuinely value it are now less likely to pursue it. Student numbers for literature courses may be reduced, but they will reflect more accurately that percentage of the community that genuinely values reading and studying literary texts. And those students will encounter teachers who share their literary, enthusiasms, which is unfortunately not always the case at present. I for one would welcome a smaller, fitter audience; though I also harbour fears that such a minority interest may be rationalised out of existence by university managers, and that would be a tragedy.

Thirdly, there is the task of finding a voice for literary discussion and criticism. This is the hardest task of all -- to achieve a voice that does the highest kind of justice to the literary text, and at the same time reaches outside the academy to include the world of writers, readers and reviewers. The search for such a voice led me to select the two epigraphs I chose for this paper, which come from Drusilla Modjeska's Poppy and Robert Dessaix's A Mother's Disgrace, books I teach to my honours students. Both writers are ex-academics and former exponents of literary theory. Both have now discarded that discourse, as the epigraphs indicate, in favour of a writing voice that engages with the world of `those who wrote, and those who read'. Both books make their search for a voice other than the `father tongue' of the academy a central concern. Each describes a psychodrama which initiated the discovery of an inclusive personal voice, one in which it was possible to write their own life stories, to create their own literature. I find particularly poignant the tone in which Lalage in Poppy says that she returned to teach `even literature' (my emphasis), where the adverb `even' reveals how literature has become the last and least regarded of subjects, almost an afterthought, a hangover from a less enlightened past. I'm not surprised that Modjeska and Dessaix left, as so many of our colleagues have left, many of them to write literature of their own, and to write about literature, outside the pressures to conform to a coercive academic culture which marginalises or dismisses those `under-theorised' discourses to which they remain committed.

Those of us who remain would, I venture to suggest, do well to imitate Modjeska and Dessaix by breaking free of the constraints of the currently dominant discourses in the university, by disentangling literature from the embrace of those proximate disciplines which have all but strangled it, and by finding a voice - within and outside the academy - in which to communicate with those writers, readers and students who share our passion.

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