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Monday musings on Australian literature: The challenge of literacy

December 22, 2014
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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?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2014 11:50 pm

    Tricky, curious question. I like the implications of wider reader responsibility – that the reader must know ‘thyself’ in order to set out on this journey.

    Wonderful quote from Flanagan’s novel which makes me think about the smugness sometimes coupled with literary appreciation. Must read!

    Thanks for an interesting and instructive year WG,
    Greetings Cat

    • December 23, 2014 12:13 am

      Thanks Catherine … Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks back to you for engaging so often. Responses like yours have made Monday Musings a joy this year.

  2. Glen Hunting permalink
    December 23, 2014 12:05 am

    Hello Sue,

    You and Ms McCredden raise a number of excellent points. I think literacy allows opportunities – both for practical and commercial enterprise, as well as a deepening personal, cultural, even spiritual awareness. But the definition of ‘opportunity’ allows no guarantee of any such benefits, if the individual is incapable of taking advantage of them for any particular reason. And yes, awareness can be fraught with anguish and confusion. Being fully alive is often uncomfortable, and sometimes very much worse than uncomfortable.

    I haven’t read Deep Road yet, but I’ve read enough material relating to it for it to be almost necessary that I do so and get the story firsthand. After reading the passage about the captors and their Basho, I was tempted to reiterate the Ancient Greek idea that Eros is a dual character, both creative and destructive, and that passion becomes either insipid or senselessly violent without both possibilities. But I suspect Flanagan’s characters have simply appropriated some of their (very worthy) national artistry to bolster up their deep cultural hubris.

    Do have a Merry Christmas, and keep your posts coming in 2015… 🙂

    • December 23, 2014 12:16 am

      Thanks Glen, it’s been great having you join in on discussions this year. Nice point re Eros, but I think you are right re these particular characters and the use to which they put literature, both during and after the war.

  3. December 23, 2014 12:19 am

    I’m not sure how to answer your question. I know it was a big thing for Flanagan to donate his prize as unless he has won lotto since winning his award, he is no millionaire. I heard him speak at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and I’ve recently read The Sound of One Hand Clapping and The narrow road to the deep north. IN both these books, Flanagan graphically portrays how good and evil coexist in most of us. That people who have committed acts of pure evil are also capable of being equally good and those people who we might perceive as good might be hiding a hell of a lot.
    When I was at school and studying English and analysing texts, it was all about getting those precious HSC marks…not taking the time to question what we were reading too much. I might be wrong but I think we were pretty much spoon fed. We remembered what the book was about and perhaps explored it a little for ourselves and certainly not to challenge the thing in such a way and we wouldn’t get the best marks.
    I have helped with the class reading at my kids school and it is a bit of a struggling school and there are kids with serious literacy problems not to mention kids not wanting to read. The school readers that are in the schools are the last thing to encourage anyone to read!!
    By the way, I don’t find your topic too heavy before Christmas. I’ve been writing about the events of last week and seriously wondering how or whether it was even appropriate to have a happy Christmas this year. At the same time, none of us knows when our family Christmas could be changed forever and so I decided to forge on but still keeping their memories alive.

    • December 23, 2014 8:17 am

      Roweeee, thanks so much for your considered reply. I agree re Flanagan. He said he’s done well this year but as you say, he’s a long way off being wealthy. It was a wonderful gesture, and reminded me of Carrie Tiffany’s generosity when she won the Stella Prize last year.

      I loved hearing your experience of studying literature, which was a bit like mine, though I did have a couple of teachers – one history, one library – who encouraged more questioning, more reading too outside the box. Your point about the quality of material available to read is a good one. For beginning readers in particular you do need to attract them with appropriate and appealing books don’t you.

      And finally, thanks for agreeing re the subject matter. You’ve put it well.

      • December 23, 2014 10:37 pm

        Thanks very much. I enjoyed your post. I studied Australian literature and did honours in Australian history and it’s great to get back into it again. I go to the Sydney Writer’s Festival every year but can’t get enough. Wishing you a peaceful and loving Christmas xx Rowena

  4. Meg permalink
    December 23, 2014 8:31 am

    Hi Sue, I think the quote of Flanagan’s, in reference to the Japanese sensitivity to the Haiku, is the same as other readers obtain from what they read. I dislike the idea of directing people on what to read, but helping them to understand what they read is valid. However, you have to be careful not to take away their pleasure of reading. Reading can take you to another place and is a form of escapism for me.
    Merry Christmas, and I look forward to reading more of your excellent ‘musings’ next year.

    • December 23, 2014 8:49 am

      Thanks Meg … I think we can be taken to another place but then learn how to think about that place analytically ie we don’t go to that place and decide I don’t like it because I don’t like those characters or I don’t like what they are doing, but we actively think about who those characters are, what makes them tick, why are they doing what they are doing, and what does that mean, do I agree? I think you do read more like this latter style don’t you think? I guess it’s partly what we mean by escapism? Is it to escape into another world and another way of thinking? Or to escape thinking altogether? For me it’s the former, which means thinking and escapism are not mutually exclusive, but it does affect what I choose to escape into I suppose?

      Great comment – as always – you’ve helped me think and clarify more!

      Have a good XMAS and “see” you in the new year.

  5. Meg permalink
    December 23, 2014 9:10 am

    That is true Sue, you can’t stop thinking even if you are in ‘escapism’. I love to read, but I admit I don’t always understand what I read. Though the more I read, the more I want to know. Google is one of my best friends!

    • December 23, 2014 9:24 am

      LOL Meg … Google is great when reading isn’t it (and it suggests you are a thinking reader when you escape!!)

  6. December 23, 2014 4:54 pm

    Thanks for the post… And responses. I agree that reading great literature is no guarantee that we will become better people..or even what we take from the book. I also agree that we are complex mixtures of good and bad, thoughtful and biased. It occurs to me that in conversations about what we read, we can really build on and deepen our understanding, and open ourselves to other perspectives. So online conversations like yours online, or in person are really important to me.
    Merry Christmas, and thanks for your Monday Musings Sue…a great conversation starter!

    • December 23, 2014 5:05 pm

      Thanks Kate … and thanks for making that point about the value and role of conversations about what we read. You are right – they are a way (an engaging way at that) of doing exactly what McCredden suggests – thinking, analysing, challenging, and having our own views challenged. And, they are important to me too (as you well know).

      • ian darling permalink
        December 24, 2014 12:35 am

        As well as opportunity it seems to me that literacy is about a kind of freedom and that freedom cannot always be chanelled into socially responsible attitudes and behaviours. I read PG Wodehouse because I enjoy reading him – period. There is everything to be said for reading that challenges readers in all sorts of ways but voluntary reading should be just that.

        • December 24, 2014 8:00 am

          Fair point Ian about freedom … In its various guises, political, mental, social, eh?

          As for voluntary reading, yes … McCredden probably wouldn’t disagree, though I don’t know her. I think she just wants us to think more about what we mean by literacy? I remember when the term “information literacy” started being used – to suggest that literacy is not just about being able to read but to discern what you are reading … What is its source, how authentic is it, what agenda might be behind it etc. McCredden is adding re interpretation of literacy, don’t you think?

  7. December 25, 2014 1:44 am

    Hitler was a writer too, and don’t forget Mao’s little red book that painted the whole country red, uniting the ignorant and punishing the intellectual. What a thought-provoking point, literacy is a tool, which can be used in a beneficial way, or as a destructive and deadly weapon. I have no easy answer to your last question, but good enough for now to dwell upon before I spill out ignorant words. Anyway, it’s good time, Christmas, hiatus for reading and pondering. Have a joyous season, WG, a Merry Christmas to you and yours, and a wonderful New Year!

    • December 25, 2014 6:00 pm

      Thanks Arti … I don’t think there is an easy answer, but glad you think it’s worth dwelling on.

      And I hope you also have a very Merry Christmas and a great 2015.

  8. December 27, 2014 2:51 am

    Such interesting questions! Literacy is a right, what we each do with it is something else entirely. I don’t think it is the responsibility of book marketing/publishing to try to direct what actions result from literacy. I think all that can really be done is to provide a good education to everyone and after that, it is up to each individual. Andrew Carnegie donated millions to build free public libraries across the United States in order to promote literacy and lifelong learning. I am certain there are plenty of people who have grown up in libraries or with expensive elite educations that I do not agree with in thought or action. But then they probably don’t agree with me either! But in a free and literate society we can all be part of a greater conversation in whatever way we are able and in whichever way we choose.

    • December 27, 2014 8:20 am

      Yes, I agree that that’s the point Stefanie … That we think about what we read and are able to discuss it. It’s the discussion that gives our opinions and ideas firmer ground I think? (Even perhaps if the discussion is with ourselves!) Good point re free public libraries … Something that was government fostered here in Australia. A significant contribution to citizen education.

      • December 28, 2014 2:35 am

        Yes, you are right. discussion is very important whether it is a novel or a newspaper article. Our thoughts and ideas need to bump up against those of others. It helps us think better and asks us to see points of view we had not considered before.

        • December 28, 2014 8:49 am

          Exactly, and this, for most people needs to be taught doesn’t it? People need to be taught that they shouldn’t uncritically believe everything they read. Not the publishers job, as you said, but a literate society’s job.

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