If you have ever read a poem or novel or literary essay and loved it, then you, too, value literature: you don’t need to spend every waking hour dedicated to the temple of words in bookish idolatry to say that a work made of words has enriched your life.
Weirdly, I am quoting myself. On Tuesday night, after hearing about the cancellation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards I wanted to write a response. I questioned myself, wondering: “Who am I to respond?” There are many more established voices than mine, and many who have previously won the Queensland award, which I have not. However, I suppose I remembered the words a teacher and friend once said to me: when I expressed doubt over my position in the academic world musicologist Linda Kouvaris told me, “No-one’s going to tell you you’re sitting at the big kids’ table.” I had something I wanted to express, and I wrote it. I am gratified that the Sydney Morning Herald saw fit to run the piece today.
I’ve been following comments written in response to various articles since the news broke on Tuesday, and am not surprised to see how polarized opinion has been. Amidst this, there has been a call for a new defense of literature.
My defense of literature essentially boils down to the words above. I am one of those who has spent my life in “bookish idolatry,” but I have plenty of friends who have chosen other paths, other passions. Nonetheless most of them read, and allow themselves to be transported and transfigured by the words of others. Some express regret that they don’t seem to have the time to read for pleasure anymore—and yet will recall a book they have loved, whether its Dr Seuss or Frank Herbert’s Dune. If it’s as far back as Dr Seuss, I might teasingly urge them forward with something like Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark or Lear’s Collected Nonsense on them, but I appreciate that most readers let book lead to book in their own time. Similarly, someone who may not be a reader of novels could still be thrilled by Norman Mailer’s evocative writing about boxing; locally, it’s a delight to read Robert Adamson on fishing—probably more delightful for those who actually go fishing; hell, in the days that Nabokov was a regular contributor it was really possible to read Playboy “for the articles.”
Among my own recent reading, I’ve been plunging hungrily into the essays Eliot Weinberger. His essay on James Laughlin, the founder of the publishing house New Directions, was a true delight - it can be found in his collection Oranges and Peanuts for Sale. It reminded me of something worth pointing out when people object that the market should really pay for literature: classics grow over time. New Directions has a policy of never letting their works go out of print, and Weinberger points out that this policy derives from the fact that literary works are often sleepers. A decade or two after first appearing, many New Directions books that had seemingly slipped by unnoticed made it onto syllabi and suddenly found their readership. There are plenty of famous-after-the-fact stories in the arts: this doesn’t negate the fact that there are also plenty of here-and-now success stories, but there’s more than one timeline when it comes to art finding its audience. Similarly, just because a writer eschews populism doesn’t mean that writer is an elitist or denigrates a popular readership.
Today the NSW government has announced that the NSW Premier’s Literary Prize, which had been placed under review, will be going ahead on a delayed basis. I can’t help but think the timing of this announcement is a response to the outcry at the outright cancellation of awards by the Queensland government, and I’m glad to read the news. Public opinion does count for something, so make your thoughts known.