Quotation, Context, Connotation

Around ten years ago, as a startlingly unknowing undergraduate, I took a class boldly titled “Literary Classics.” The thing I remember most clearly about this class was feedback I received on my first essay: do not, I was told, quote an author’s summing up of his opposing argument as if the author was supporting your own argument. When Harold Bloom gathers his not inconsiderable pith to sum up what he is writing against, don’t then quote that section of Harold Bloom out of context as though he agrees with what he opposes.

Last week I quoted myself. This week I got quoted by Andrew Bolt. If there’s one thing weirder than quoting one’s self, it’s ending up in a Bolt column. And perhaps more sobering than appearing in Bolt’s column was the verb with which he introduced my words: Kate Middleton confessed.

In truth, when I wrote my piece for the Sydney Morning Herald last week about the cancellation of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, I knew perfectly well that one sentence could raise some eyebrows. “When so many writers lean towards one side of politics, a perception grows that the arts are not for everyone, but for one party only.” With more space I could have course expanded on this—I still think it’s a point worth raising, but at the same time it’s important to acknowledge both that in different eras that “one side” of politics flips (though we remember Ezra Pound’s long one man pro-Fascist rally, we less frequently do the roll-call of all the other modernists who were enamored with the extreme right before they saw the results and backed off their position) and also that what was implicit in my statement was that the perception is not necessarily the reality. Yes, at times the creators often cluster around particular ideologies, art is malleable, and art is for anyone who wants to take it in. It’s not always easy, and it’s not going to be a checklist of things you agree with. Art is challenging—just like playing a team sport can be challenging—and that’s why we bring it into our lives. One of the quotes that would lead off my own commonplace book comes from my childhood reading. In The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis writes, “If you do a good deed your reward is usually to be set to do another and harder and better one.” The desire to strive for more is not elitism; it is a combination of grit and the longing for transformation.

I’ve been dwelling on that word “confessed.” Of course this implies some sort of shame on my part. When I wrote my essay last week I was certainly impassioned in my belief of literature’s importance, but I also felt calm in laying out my thinking. I wasn’t “confessing” anything, I was making an observation. I don’t need absolution for articulating my concern about the perception of art—I wasn’t betraying anyone’s guilty secret; nor did I let slip something inadvertently. I was using my words. I was, in fact, pre-empting the arguments of Bolt himself.

When I write, when I converse, I want to learn. I want the nuances of two minds discussing the same thing out of different sets of experiences to be able to lead to a changed mind; the change may not be in my overall opinion, but instead in my understanding of an opposing view. However, I have been very happy to have my mind changed throughout my life. We don’t change our views easily: the first version of the facts we encounter is often the one we take to be the right version of the facts. But to inherit ideas without questioning them, no matter what your ideological bent, is to stand on dangerous ground. We need opposing voices: they force us to re-evaluate where we are, what we believe. And having evaluated the situation once again I still come back to the same thing: I believe recognising excellence and the importance of literature is worth it.