Academic journal article Hecate

Sugar Heaven and the Reception of Working Class Texts

Academic journal article Hecate

Sugar Heaven and the Reception of Working Class Texts

Article excerpt

Jean Devanny's novel Sugar Heaven (written 1935-6, and published in 1936) opens up a range of interesting problems regarding the contexts of production and reception of working class texts. In 1942, Devanny commented that she considered she had produced "the first really proletarian novel in Australia."(1) As someone from a working class background, and as an agitator and organiser for the Communist Party in the 1930s, Devanny was writing from within the lives and struggles of the working class. Her political life was closely meshed with her writing: one reader told her of Sugar Heaven: "It's written like you speak."(2) As this comment suggests, the novel is not centrally preoccupied with traditional `literariness', and to approach it with these kinds of expectations is to produce a severely limited account of its `value.' (3) Literary theory has had a tendency to hand over such texts to the historian, the sociologist, the political theorist, or the sphere of `cultural studies', and they rarely feature in reading lists in educational institutions. In fact, working class texts have in general a different mode of circulation, and this means that

Modes of novel-reading native to the working class-word of mouth recommendation, reading groups, shared copies of novels, workplace study circles, trade-union libraries -- constitute more than an alternative channel of distribution: they involve new manners of apprehension.(4)

If literary theory is dragged kicking and screaming to some engagement with these "new manners of apprehension", this might enable us to displace the currently hegemonic implied reader, perpetually reincarnated as an F.R. Leavisite white middle class gentleman, preferably from England. Such a "one" rarely finds texts such as Sugar Heaven worthy of contemplation.(5)

Much recent radical literary theory urges us to envisage "the death of the author." While this removes the compulsion in traditional readings of canonical texts to reproduce the imagined ideology in the text as a reflection of your own wisdom and culture, does the elimination of the author work equally effectively for a reading that aims to increase the power of the working class? Further, can we produce an adequate account of Sugar Heaven if we do not wish to discuss how aspects of Devanny's life -- as a woman, a person from a working class background, and a Communist Party activist -- had a decisive impact upon the kind of novel Sugar Heaven is? Kay Schaffer correctly cautions us about how many critics want to construct the author for themselves in reading their texts, in order to produce, as their central concern "an image of the author through their various interpretations of her life and works."(6) Any serious evaluation of the context of production of Sugar Heaven would have to take into account Devanny's own personal and political situation. A further aspect of the relevance of her membership of the Communist Party is that she had to consider how far she wished to be influenced by the precepts of Stalinist socialist realist literary theory.(7) As Holub points out in discussing some problems in reception theory:

There is no reason to believe, however, that the consumer of literature is any more stable than the volatile text. Even if we do not accept Barthes' textualisation of the reader, why should we be able to read the reading subject or the subject's reading more easily and accurately than what the subject was reading?...and why shouldn't we be asked to find another, larger controlling agency (eg. society or history) that oversees the conventions and is thus a more appropriate object for study?(8)

It seems to me unhelpful, perhaps particularly when we are reading working class texts, to eliminate consideration of the speaking position of the author-though we may choose to label much of what we would say about this as discussion of its `context of production.' The kinds of areas we might consider in discussing the production and reception of Sugar Heaven could include:

the choices Devanny made from ways of writing available to her: the extent to which she was influenced by socialist realist conventions, and the extent to which she also drew on other types of novel, for example, the romance

her particular interest in the situation of women and migrants in relation to the hegemonic structures, to the Communist Party and to the class struggle; how this informed her writing of the novel

her (1942) statement that she was trying to write "the first really proletarian novel in Australia": how did this influence her method and her consciousness of the likely audience? …

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