I am not an admirer of yours because I consider you a literary snob. For years I had been hearing about a classic called ‘Such Is Life’; and prowling through the village library I unearthed a first edition of your great work. The librarian was only too glad to part with it for half-a-crown. He had, he said, been cleaning out a lot of old junk like that. ‘Burnt a coupla hundred of them old books a month ago.’ Incensed at the thought of an early Australian classic so narrowly escaping, I carried home ‘Such Is Life’ and settled down to digest it.
It was indigestble. Enormous sentences unrolled themselves like strips of fly-paper on which the mind dangled bumbling and bewildered. Those sentences were written by a word-intoxicated man, wallowing, positively wallowing, in print. All that magnificent material, all that humour and kindliness and observation, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of an elaborate prose style.
And the reason why your works are lost to the vulgar (meaning me)? You had to be literary, you had to show you could write like the big bugs! You wanted to let the reader know you had read Shakespeare, that you thought of setting up as a Shakespearian critic. One of Lawson’s worst short articles (but how much better) showed he had the same low taste. Of course it adds in a way to your lovableness, but it is like meeting a man who has bellowed about the rights of the workers and tossed his last sixpence (‘Tucker or tobacco: hooray it’s tobacco’) and camped with you and argued with you—meeting such a man, I say, all dressed-up and shiny, slicked up for a vice-regal party. Someone should have restrained you. Some friend should have led you aside and said: ‘Look here. You don’t need to dress your stuff up like that. The chaps who want to read it will never be able to wade through the long words.’
The curse of book writing in this country is largely pretentiousness. If stuff gets into print it automatically becomes Australian Literature in capital letters. The idea seems to be that if reviewers don’t speak nicely to young Australian Literature it may go off in a huff and choke. So the critics encourage and encourage, they laud a good medium-quality book as an epic, and a classic, a mighty saga; and the faithful public (a few, anyway) buys the book and is naturally disappointed.
There is some reason for sympathy with the low-brow who ‘doesn’t like Australian books.’ He has grown tired of having cat’s-meat passed off on him as sirloin. A really cold ferocious critic is badly needed to prick the swelling conceit of self-styled ‘Australian Literature.’ A hopeful beginning has been made by ‘Southerly,’ whose critic goes about searching for small cracks in which he may insert his proboscis, a veritable hornet.
The trouble with most literary folk is that they huddle into warm little circles of mutual esteem. There is no bitter blast from a ‘Quarterly’ or ‘Edinburgh Review’ to break the heart of a Keats or set a Byron roaring. Not that the reviewers ever really did break Keats’s heart or anyone else’s for that matter. The vitality of a book, the actual percentage of life the author manages to spin out of himself like some shining ectoplasm, is what carries a book down the years. Your ‘Such Is Life,’ I admit it grudgingly, will probably float along on that vitality of yours, but its sails will be sighted far out to sea by a few, whereas its rich cargo might have fed multitudes if you had kept closer to the shores of common speech.
To revert to our discussion on critics and criticism. I think you would have agreed that until a writer learns to take punishment he hasn’t much stamina. I am urgent in the cause of higher critics and higher criticism; men like Hazlitt who could say when he was dying: ‘I have written no commonplace, not a line that licks the dust.’ Nor any kindly lies, guaranteed to encourage second-rate writing, in the idea that it has only to persevere.
This piece from the Meanjin archives was first published in 1942. In the early issues of Meanjin, it became common for readers to send in literary criticism under the guise of letters to Tom Collins, author of the divisive Australian literary classic, Such Is Life.
Kylie Tennant (1912 – 1988) was an Australian novelist, playwright, short-story writer, critic, biographer, and historian.