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.