Critics have always been the bad boys of the literary family. ‘You know who the critics are?’ asked the novelist Disraeli. ‘The men who have failed in literature and art.’ Byron and Dr. Johnson were equally scathing about critics, accusing them of ignorance and idleness. It is, I suppose, inevitable that men who express candid opinions about other people’s writings should have to face tart and stinging retorts made in self-defence. But even when we turn to modern thinkers who have studied the value of literary criticism with detachment—that is, having no axe to grind—we find there is still a case to be made out against it. For instance, some declare that criticism is either polemic or advertisement. I think it is true that, as personalities, critics have seldom meant much to the general public. They are indeed a misunderstood and unpopular race. After all this, it is amusing and encouraging to find Oscar Wilde going to the opposite extreme, for in his characteristically outrageous essay, ‘The Critic as Artist,’ he defends the critic with the most vigorous and subtle of rapiers. The highest criticism, Wilde roundly declares, is more creative than creation.
We are getting down to less clever but more sound sense when we look at Matthew Arnold’s views on criticism. Arnold believed. in the critic as a Jiving force, but he demanded high qualifications. The business of criticism, he said, was simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world. and by making this known to create a current of true and fresh ideas—leaving alone all questions of practical consequence and applications. Let criticism be disinterested. Let it be sincere. simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge, and it might have in no contemptible measure a joyful sense of creative activity.
I feel convinced that the critic has a very important part indeed to play, particularly in our young Australian culture. Let us put aside all childish ideas of the critic as a sour cantankerous trouble-maker. The true critic feels himself to be of, as well as in, the lettered. worlds whose works he valuates. Only thus can he owe literature a full responsibility. But, allowing this, he has a creative function. I would say that an imaginative enthusiasm for his chosen subject is the first attribute of the successful critic, just as it is the first attribute of the originating artist himself.
But the critic must also have, within the scope of this enthusiasm, powers of knowledge and discrimination and the courage of utter honesty. Think of the true critic as a person who, out of fullest reading, out of balanced judgment. out of a vivid mind and style, tells us what books are worth reading, goes on to analyse and explain those books, and finally attempts an assessment of the books in relation to literature as a whole and in relation to our particular community life. By setting up and keeping faith with his own impeccable standards he helps to give a standard of literary values to the public. By denouncing tosh and approving the genuine, he upholds clear thought as against sentimentality. But he also shows qualities of initiative. He is the first to perceive and firmly champion genius. If all this is not a real and creative service to literature, what is?
Criticism is not the job of a man out of a job. It is an activity in its own right. The jibe that critics are merely men who have failed in literature and art can easily be offset by the opposite dictum, equally exaggerated, that the best critics are always drawn from the ranks of novelists and poets themselves. Not every writer, not even every good writer, is given the particular balance of mind, the grasp of general truths, the delicate analytical perception and the courage and directness that make a good critic. Amiel, the Swiss author, remarked in his famous journal that criticism is above all a gift, an intuition, a matter of tact and flair. It cannot be taught or demonstrated, he said; it is an art.
Well, let us apply all this to the Australian scene. What critics have we, or have we had? The answer is: Lamentably few. And it is my opinion that the fewness of good critics in our life is one of the causes of the backwardness and hotchpotch character of our culture.
One cause of the fewness of good literary critics has been the fewness of forums where they could criticise. As early as 1866 G. B. Barton compiled a book, Literature in New South Wales, designed to show that the ‘rough ground-work of a national literature has been laid.’ It was mainly a list of journals, but Barton had to admit that the cleverest and most promising publications, those with a special recognition of literature, had invariably failed. Well, the position is the same today. Every one of us can remember within his own lifetime the failure of a few attempts to found independent literary-critical magazines—The Bookfellow, The Triad, Vision, The Australian Mercury, and so on. The newspapers have done some good by developing magazine sections, but here either space is tight or criticism’s freedom is pinioned by the demand for a ‘family’ or topical outlook. In Australia today there are only two or three periodical publications in which literary contributions of more than ‘news’ interest and length would be welcome. It takes only a few thousand regular readers to ensure the life of a small but significant magazine, but those few thousand are hard to find. I sincerely hope they will always be discoverable for Meanjin. And there are practically no moneyed patrons of literature or literary journals in Australia. The publication of books of literary criticism has always been a difficult if not insuperable problem.
It is usual to look back upon Alfred George Stephens as the most important literary critic Australia has produced. And it is worth reviewing Stephens’ work as an example of how a critic may influence and even sow the seed of literary achievement. At the age of 29, in the ‘nineties, he joined the Sydney Bulletin, then an up-and-coming weekly, expressing a downright eager Australian nationalism. Soon Stephens had founded the Red Page. For years he wrote articles about Australian writers and books. He did far more of course for Australian literature than this. As a literary editor he accepted and shaped contributions from a whole camp of fresh writers, most of them alive with the new spirit of that time. And he arranged for the book publication of important works such as Tom Collins’ Such Is Life. But we are here concerned with Stephens the critic. Stephens the critic contributed to the founding of an Australian literature first by taking Australian writers seriously and causing them to take themselves seriously, secondly by setting up a standard of assessment based on what these authors were worthily trying to do, and thirdly by himself writing Of them in the most readable and invigorating style. In 1899, he started a tiny literary magazine, The Bookfellow, mostly put together by himself. It failed, though later in life he revived it. In an early number we find an outsider contributing some amusing and lightly mocking verses about the Red Page editor:
I make or mar. My daring hand
Explores the entrails of the land.
And finds, beneath a greasy hat
An Austral Homer at Cow Flat.
I probe with keen persistent pen
Each literary wart and wen
For lurking low in each I see
The seed of soulful poesy.
This doggerel gives a fair idea of Stephens’ sympathy with this job of assessing new literature, though nothing would be further from truth than to say that Stephens was an undiscerning or easily satisfied critic. He could, as Hugh McCrae said, rend without regard of person or of time. He was not a literary theorist. Throughout his life, his pen danced in a quick succession of images and ideas and references and quotes-brief, energetic, alive. He could say of Brennan’s scholarship: ‘His mind was like a museum, art gallery and public library rolled into one.’ Or could rattle off this judgment: ‘Lawson’s strength is in his marvellous insight into the life and character of the bush and its inhabitants; it is not so much, imagination but clear mental vision.’ Or Could remark of Adam Lindsay Gordon that on the high path Gordon’s poetry was not poetical but it was a man’s heart beating. Nor was Stephens merely an enthusiast for Australian wares unrelated to the progress of literature at large. Matthew Arnold said that every critic should try to possess one great literature at least, beside his own. Stephens could pass this test. He could write with insight and confidence of Verlaine and the French symbolists and of other European writers.
Stephens stayed eight or nine years on The Bulletin. For the rest of his life he wrote and edited books, but never seemed to recapture the glory of those years when he had such a vital forum to spout from. He died in 1933. A little later Miles Franklin was to write: ‘A. G. Stephens is admittedly our most notable critic. He was independent, percipient, original, witty.’ A few years ago Vance Palmer was commissioned by the Commonwealth Literary Fund to prepare a book of extracts from Stephens’ journalistic work. The extracts were preceded by a compact and thoughtful essay in appreciation. In his own lifetime Stephens had of course published his book of literary essays entitled The Red Pagan.
One talks in this way about A. G. Stephens not merely because of his personal importance but because he stands as a type-ideal of the literary critic in Australia. There have been a few others filled with the same lest for visionary criticism and who have done enough of it to be entitled to mention. I am not concerned at the moment with several important Shakespearian critics such as Mungo McCallum—the Sydney University school. One thinks with appreciation of the Palmers, Nettie and Vance, man and wife, who work quite separately and yet form a team. Early in her career Nettie Palmer published a prize-winning essay on modern Australian literature, full of fresh, spontaneous, warm evaluations. She has written much else, including some valuable literary comment in her book of essays Talking It Over. Vance Palmer, after preoccupation with fiction-writing, has more lately turned to critical reviewing, to the publication of a monograph on Frank Wilmot and of the Stephens book. The Palmers’ quiet but sure championship of any new spark of literary talent in Australia is a national service, As with Stephens, their interests range widely to other literatures.
Several writers have contributed valuable literary articles to The Australian Quarterly, Meanjin Papers, Southerly, The Bulletin, and other periodicals. There have been books of literary criticism by Turner and Sutherland, Randolph Hughes on Brennan, H. M. Green on Australian literature in general, A. J. Coombes, J. K. Ewers and others. M. Barnard Eldershaw has dealt with our modern novelists in an extremely readable if somewhat disproportionate book, and more recently an important and detailed study of our main poets was T. Inglis. Moore’s Six Australian Poets. These all help towards that vitally important matter of getting our poets and novelists our dramatists and storytellers admitted into the critical consciousness of at least the book.reading community, as well as helping to explain their works to students.
And here I come back finally to Matthew Arnold. ‘The rule of criticism’ said Arnold, ‘is disinterestedness: Now there is a sense in which our best Australian critics have been altogether disinterested. They have felt the need of nursing our young literature.’ Oscar Wilde said provocatively that a good critic was never fair-meaning impartial; the salt of criticism was in preferences. Our most creative critics have seen themselves as part of a movement, reconciling learning and clear evaluation with a warm loyal leaning towards the struggling literature of their own land because they saw that we in Australia were up against a problem not met with in Arnold’s England. Arnold himself admitted that sooner or later the critic was faced with the question what subject-matter literary critics should most seek. Because English thought was streaming in on English readers from all sides, he thought that the English critic should dwell much on foreign thought. In Australia the need has perhaps been the opposite: the Australian author and tentative Australian thought have been neglected.
Most readers, until quite recently, took their tastes and standards from what was fashionable in London or New York. By their conscious bias of attention towards the emerging literary values of their own land, a few critics in Australia have attempted to correct that tendency of living one’s mental lire overseas, as weIl as to correct the distortion of true values, caused by high pressure advertising. To these critics we should be grateful.
Leslie Rees (1905 – 2000) was an Australian author and writer for children who was born and raised in Perth, Western Australia.