Monday musings on Australian literature: The challenge of literacy
Today’s topic may be a bit serious for Christmas week, but I’ve decided to go with it anyhow. I was inspired to write it by an article in the online journal, The Conversation. The article, by Deakin University academic Lyn McCredden, was itself inspired by the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards at which one of the winners, Richard Flanagan, donated his $40,000 prize to the Indigenous Literacy Fund. A good thing, nest-ce pas? McCredden goes on to mention the creation by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that night of the Australian Book Council, and quotes publisher Louise Adler as stating that this Council “declares that Australian writing matters and that building future generations of writers and readers is vital to a civilised and free society”. So far so good, but …
Then she quotes American literary critic Michael Bérubé who wrote in 1996 that:
… it has been some decades now since George Steiner and Thomas Pynchon reflected, in their different ways, on the phenomenon of Nazi officers with a fine appreciation of aesthetic excellence. (Bérubé)
In other words, the importance of literacy is a given but
what is so often occluded or skimmed over in many of the prize-giving activities of the book industry is that literacy on its own [my emphasis] is not necessarily a good. (McCredden)
Are you getting the picture? Sure, she says, not being able to read is a bad thing – it usually implies or leads to powerlessness and lack of privilege – but being able to read per se is not automatically good in itself, as Bérubé implies. (Though, of course, what is “good” is a judgement isn’t it?). Anyhow, McCredden goes on to refer to Flanagan’s winning novel, The narrow road to the deep north, and the fact that “the figure of the vicious and violent prison guard is also notable for the way he quotes the exquisite poetry of Basho, even as he inflicts maniacal harm on prisoners”. If I understand her correctly, she suggests that for reasons like this, she doesn’t find Flanagan’s book (see my review), “satisfying or cohesive”. However, my reading is that Flanagan addresses the ambiguity contained in the Japanese officers’ love of poetry when he says:
They recited to each other more of their favourite haiku, and they were deeply moved not so much by the poetry as by their sensitivity to poetry; not so much by the genius of the poem as by their wisdom in understanding the poem; not in knowing the poem but in knowing the poem demonstrated the higher side of themselves and of the Japanese spirit … (Flanagan, The narrow road to the deep north)
This, to me, clearly expresses Flanagan’s awareness of the questionable or complicated nature of our relationship to literature. McCredden and I could argue this specific point, but it’s not the essence of her article, so let’s continue.
Books, she argues, do not always “unite” us. In fact, the controversies they sometimes generate show that culture is “always contested, and always ideological”. The best kinds of books she therefore suggests might be those that challenge our assumptions about ourselves – like Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (see my review) – rather than those that “please us with myths about ourselves”. She argues that:
if we are, like Dorrigo, privileged enough to be able to read, we are opening ourselves to a world of pain, as much as entertainment. (McCredden)
Literacy, in other words, carries responsibilities as well as rights. As citizens we have a right to be able to read and to therefore conduct the business of our lives, but, there’s more to it than that, and therefore
Learning how to read – that is, how to think, analyse and challenge prevailing ideas (including those appearing in many works of literature, many histories) needs to be considered more coherently alongside the mechanics of book distribution, book marketing, learning the alphabet. (McCredden)
A very good point – and much needed methinks in our rush-to-judgement world. Do you agree? And if so, how do we teach this sort of reading without turning people off?