Monday musings of Australian literature: The duty of readers and critics

Hmmm, my post title for this week’s Monday Musings sounds rather provocative, but I’m going to keep this post pretty light. It’s been a busy few days so I’m just going to share an interesting little article I read a few weeks ago while I was reading about Australasian Authors Week in 1927. It’s from the Evening News of 24 February 1927, and is by someone using the by-line, Zeno.

It’s a short article, but it caught my eye for its opening paragraph:

When the really brilliant Australian novelist arrives, he will not fail of joyous welcome, and is assured of his reward. Meantime, it is the duty of readers and critics to encourage, as far as possible, those who are in process of development, and to help them in their difficult path to distinction.

Don’t you love that (ignoring the traditional-for-the-times use of “he”)? It denies the fact that some excellent novelists had already arrived, such as Henry Handel Richardson (a “she”) – but I do like its optimism (albeit somewhat naive).

That’s by-the-by, however. My main point here is his* argument that readers and critics have a duty to “encourage” writers on “their difficult path to distinction”. Admittedly, he does qualify this with “as far as possible” which I suppose allows us to use our critical faculty and not encourage thoughtlessly. The interesting thing is that the two authors he then “encourages” are not well-known today – so they, rightly or wrongly, despite his encouragement, didn’t achieve distinction. The two authors and their books are Stephen Westlaw and The white peril, and James Pollard and The bushland man.

Stephen Westlaw received 23 votes in the Argus’ plebiscite. I’ve had trouble finding out much about him. AustLit writes his name as “Steven” (though the plebiscite listing, like Zeno, spells it “Stephen”) and indicates that his birth-name was John Pyke. This doesn’t help much, but I did find a newspaper article stating Steven Westlaw was a nom-de-plume because of a relative writing under his birth-name. The article also indicated that he wrote satirical material under the name R.X. Jackson.

Anyhow, Zeno tells us that Westlaw’s The white peril is “a startling story of an insidious evil which is creeping slowly, but surely, into our cities”. The subject matter is apparently drug traffic, and Zeno says that Westlaw’s “description of the method of distribution tallies with the disclosures made by the New York police and apparently the same conditions obtain to some extent in Australia”. He concludes that “to read The White Peril in the light of this knowledge, will give some idea of the direful consequences which will result if this evil be not nipped in the bud”.

James Pollard received 6 votes in the plebiscite. He was born in Yorkshire in 1900, and so was young, 27, when the plebiscite occurred. He emigrated to Australia in 1913, serving with the Australian Army World War I. He then became a soldier-settler but abandoned this focus on writing. He wrote three adult novels, two children’s novels, and short stories. He also wrote articles for Walkabout magazine, and a natural history column in the West Australian using the by-line, Mopoke. According to AustLit, he lobbied for and established free libraries for children – presumably in Western Australia.

Zeno describes Pollard’s The bushland man as “a romance of the open spaces”. It’s about a forest ranger with “an intense love of the bush”, and describes “crops and herds, bush-tracks and broken roads; country folk with typically Australian speech, acres of wheat, loads of wool; sheep skins and marsupials”. Zeno calls it “a book for all Australians and one which may go forth to the world. It contains neither fulsome flattery nor stupid libel”. So glad there’s no “stupid libel”! As it turns out, the assessment from our times is that his work is popular rather than literary, and that he presents “a somewhat romantic picture of the beauty of the South-West for a growing number of readers becoming interested in their own country – in fact, the discovery of it through the novel and stories” (Veronica Brady and Peter Cowen, ‘The Novel’, The Literature of Western Australia, cited by AustLit). 

I guess Zeno was writing for an evening newspaper, but these “reviews”, if that they be, tell us nothing really about the style or literary quality. Perhaps this is Zeno’s way of being encouraging – focus on the story, and get people to buy and read? Fair enough, but I think the duty of a critic is a little more than this.

* As Zeno is a male Greek name, I’ll use the male pronoun here.

20 thoughts on “Monday musings of Australian literature: The duty of readers and critics

  1. I’d love to know what Westlaw perceived as the evils of the demon white powder or the fiendish weed in 1927. Your quick blurb on Zeno’s interpretation of Westlaw’s artistic imperatives makes me think of Reefer Madness and other such naivetés. I’d like to think that in 2014 we have a better medical and psychological understanding of both the benefits (Bacchanalian as the Greeks had it – an old concept refined by time) and the serious pitfalls of substance use and abuse. Or perhaps I should say that nowadays we have access to better information that may inform a more enlightened and balanced view, should one choose to seek it out.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful and terrible to imagine, and then see (if one could) the attitudes of people in a hundred years time regarding our present day follies and prejudices?

    • It sure would Glen. Reading books and articles from different eras provides such wonderful insights into the values of the day doesn’t it. Westlaw’s books don’t seem to be available at Project Gutenberg, but hopefully national or state libraries might have some.

  2. Yes, yes…I should have said Dionysian for Greek, Bacchanalian for Roman. Forgive me…I didn’t receive a Classical education… 😉

  3. I so enjoyed this post, not least for phrases like: ‘the direful consequences which will result if this evil be not nipped in the bud’. I was really taken by the word order, ‘be not nipped’ — it’s so evocative somehow, but then I realised what a strange thing it is, to think of evil in terms of a flower, or a bud. Just my early morning musings …

  4. I agree with Glen – it’s a pity we can’t go back and ask Westlaw. I guess it’s easy enough for us to smile smugly over our shoulders at a 1920s notion of ‘direful consequences’ and to offer another smile and half regretful shrug at all those authors who have vanished with barely a trace, (our fate, too, almost certainly). But encouragement can be such a gift and I wouldn’t want in any way to deride the importance of it. Glen’s comment put me in mind of something else – I’ve been reading about Minoan culture, art and rituals, and discovering, amongst other things, the (alleged) importance of hallucinogenic mushrooms. The Greeks may well have been taking up some very ancient pastimes…

    • ‘Turn on, tune in…wear a toga’???

      Yes, Dorothy, you’re right – most of us are doomed to a lack of literary posterity. More than once I’ve thought of these people whose names Ms. Whispering throws up, names that are little more than that, and I’ve had to remind myself that these were real people who saw things and thought things and felt things, and who wanted to take all of that and make a difference with it through their artistic endeavours. Just like we do now. We mustn’t forget that their experiences and their ultimate fate is common to us all.

      And yes, the ways and attitudes of our age will no doubt appear archaic and blinkered in another hundred years’ time (Gay marriage? Asylum seekers?) I meant to convey something like that in my last comment.

    • Westlaw wrote crime fiction I gather Dorothy so you might like to check libraries one day.

      As for vanishing without a trace, I suppose the main thing is to feel appreciated, recognised and heard while you’re here. But, it does make one wonder doesn’t it.

  5. ‘be not nipped in the bud’ – is that an example of the subjunctive? Whatever, it is very early 20th century isn’t it?

      • They may be a necessary evil but the large number of literary prizes awarded to fiction undoubtedly does encourage writers and get their work noticed. I suppose literary prizes did exist in 1927 but I would guess that they received much less publicity and of course there was no equivalent of an Oprah book club!

        • Good point Ian. I don’t think there were many literary prizes back then. A magazine, The Bulletin, introduced a fiction prize but, without checking, I believe the first one was made in 1929. I agree that they do help raise awareness,

  6. Congrats to you, a third Australian writer to win the Booker Prize! Richard Flanagan. Have you read his winning book he Narrow Road to the Deep North? I haven’t but read that it’s about the Burma Death Railway. So… there could well be another movie coming. 😉

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