Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Australian Literary Criticism: Future Directions

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Australian Literary Criticism: Future Directions

Article excerpt

`I returned to my job in a liberal faculty of a large city college, teaching subjects that went by various names: literary studies, writing, even literature; then textual studies. I returned ... only to find I was no longer interested in the edifice of literary theory as it was deciphered in that faculty, or in an approach to writing that divorced writing from the fives of those who wrote, and those who read them.'

Drusilla Modjeska(1)

`I was a staunch believer in the world-as-text approach from about the mid-sixties, when I first encountered Bakhtin and the structuralists, until quite recently' [1994].

Robert Dessaix(2)

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. …

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