Review of Australian Literary Criticism since 1901, by Peng Qinglong

Abstract

Writing a history of literary criticism is undoubtedly challenging in that it requires the writer’s expertise in two aspects: how to unify both theoretical and practical criticism; and how to objectively, accurately and comprehensively give a succinct account of key information in the face of a vast amount of literature. Peng addresses these issues by pursuing a narrative pattern which includes a macro-level portrayal of social and cultural contexts, a meso-level analysis of literary events and cultural debates, and a micro-level interpretation of four individual critics’ ideas about Australian literature in every phase of the development.

Australian Criticism since 1901, by Peng Qinglong. Peking University Press, 2019

Writing a history of literary criticism is undoubtedly challenging in that it requires the writer’s expertise in two aspects: how to unify both theoretical and practical criticism; and how to objectively, accurately and comprehensively give a succinct account of key information in the face of a vast amount of literature. Peng addresses these issues by pursuing a narrative pattern which includes a macro-level portrayal of social and cultural contexts, a meso-level analysis of literary events and cultural debates, and a micro-level interpretation of four individual critics’ ideas about Australian literature in every phase of the development.

The initial four units are organised into the initial phase (1901–1940s), the phase of professionalisation (1950s–1960s), the phase of internationalisation (1970s–1980s), and the phase of diversification (1990s–). The treatment of cultural debates and literary events elucidates Australian literary and cultural trends. Peng argues that these events and debates demonstrate that Australia has always been looking for a balance between cultural independence and dependence.

This study is of special academic value for its comparative, intercultural perspective. Australian literary criticism invests significantly in Anglo-Saxon and American critical traditions. For example, the book elaborates upon how Leavisism was brought into Australia and influenced Australian literary studies, and how New Criticism was introduced to change teaching methods in universities. Peng is particularly interested in the emergence of Aboriginal literature and immigrant literatures inclusive of Asian writing. He argues that Australian literary criticism illustrates a shift in Australian cultural identity from trying to establish a ‘3A cultural empire’ (Anglo-America-Australia) which excludes minorities, to developing a ‘5A cultural community’ (Aboriginal-Anglo-America-Asia-Australia), which promotes cultural diversity.

The book begins with the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 and the increasing independence of Australian writers from British culture and literature. Peng pays tribute to Peter Pierce’s The Cambridge History of Australian Literature by employing the same title ‘Australia’s Australia’ to emphasise that consciousness of nationalism was embodied not only in literature itself, but also in literary criticism of the first half century (Pierce 137). The Jindyworobak movement suggests an eagerness to promote an original ‘Australian-ness’, and the Ern Malley hoax indicates the hostility existing in Australian society against the international literary trend of modernism. A. G. Stephens, the literary couple Vance and Nettie Palmer, and A. A. Phillips’s pioneering efforts to evaluate their national literature are canvassed in detail in Chapter 3, followed by brief introductions to less influential critics like Norman Lindsay, T. G. Tucker, Frederick McCartney and Henry Green in Chapter 4. In this phase, Australian literary criticism set out to promote Australian culture, indicating both the nationalist sentiment and cultural inferiority that Phillips famously discerned.

The professionalisation of Australian literary criticism is a product of the postwar years which saw Australia adjust its political, diplomatic, economic and military strategies to forge a closer relationship with the United States. The economic boom, technological developments in communication and transportation, and the influx of immigrants these changes facilitated, moved Australian literature and its criticism in new directions. The cultural debates on ‘standards in Australian literature’ during this time are interpreted as a struggle between British classicism and Australian nationalism. The coming of Leavisism and the New Criticism challenged the assumptions of nationalist criticism and introduced new perspectives and methods. Concerns about cultural colonialism were balanced by the introduction of courses on Australian literature in colleges and universities. The proliferation of cultural journals like Overland, Meanjin, Southerly and Quadrant provided new opportunities for professional criticism. Critics such as A. D. Hope, James McAuley, Vincent Buckley and Judith Wright broadened the range and number of Australian writers discussed, and developed a new version of the Australian literary canon.

Unit three explains how Australian literary critics caught up with their international counterparts by importing new literary theories during the 1970s and 1980s. Post-structuralism, new historicism, post-colonialism, cultural criticism, feminism and semiotics were imported from Europe and the United States. The Whitlam government’s final dismantling of the White Australia Policy and their turn to multiculturalism created opportunities for the voices of Aboriginal people, women, and immigrants from non-Anglo-Celtic cultures. These changes helped to deconstruct the ‘grand narrative’ which was offset with the ‘small narratives’ which now became worthy subjects of professional scholarship. Bill Ashcroft, inheriting post-colonial ideas from Edward Said, and absorbing knowledge from cultural studies and post-structuralism, proposed post-colonial transformation in the new context of globalisation, wherein he mapped out four strategies of acceptance, rejection, interjection and interpolation to resist imperial discourse. Germaine Greer became a key figure in the second wave of feminism with her influential monograph The Female Eunuch. Mudrooroo Narogin, then recognised as an Aboriginal critic, approached the problems faced by Aboriginal culture. All these contributions helped to draw social attention to those once-ignored groups as part of a broader effort to reconstruct Australian cultural identity.

The phase of diversification, unit four, examines the shift towards theoretical and interdisciplinary research from the 1990s. Australian scholars like Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin, Graeme Turner and Sneja Gunew established international reputations in the fields of post-colonialism, feminism and cultural criticism by applying international developments in theory to the Australian social context. The ideological and cultural issues such as Australian nationality and the status of Aboriginal people articulated through literary works are emphasised and studied from the interdisciplinary perspectives of politics, history, media and communication. In the twenty-first century, we can see Australian literary criticism not merely following international trends, but also making a notable original contribution to world literary criticism with its own theoretical insights and research methods. Turner investigates a ‘demotic turn’ in media studies, and Wenche Ommundsen aims to progress towards a ‘multilingual national literature’ that also contributes to non-English language literature studies.

The final section, which is likely to be of especial interest to Australian scholars, is about the development of Chinese scholarship in Australian literary studies within Chinese academia. In general, the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in the 1970s led to more systematic attention to Australian literary studies, and Chinese scholarship in Australian studies has developed rapidly since the implementation of Chinese economic reform policy and the opening up of China to the outside world. The first stage from 1949 to 1978 is considered a thaw in relations between the two countries in politics, economics and culture. Australian literary works with political preferences began to be translated for Chinese readers. Frank Hardy, for example, is one of the favoured names, because his realistic works reflect the life of the working class and expose the disgraceful marriage of capital and politics in Australian society, which embraced the dominant ideology in China at the time. Hardy’s novels Journey into the Future and Power Without Glory, as well as a collection of short stories, The Tracks We Travel, were quickly translated and published in the 1950s after their publication in Australia. The second stage from 1979 to 1988 witnesses the establishment and development of Australian Studies Centres in Chinese universities. With China opening its gate to the world, a group of nine Chinese scholars were sponsored by the Chinese government to study at the University of Sydney. This is the prelude to formal Australian literary studies in China. This period featured case studies of literary works by the canonical writers such as Patrick White and Henry Lawson. Further promotion of the reform and opening up policy in China assisted the expansion and diversification of Australian literary studies. Monographs and dozens of articles on Australian literary history, different literary genres, and schools or movements, gave Chinese readers an overview of Australian literature and culture. The process accelerated in the new millennium due to more frequent cultural exchanges and the development of scholars’ research abilities. Funded research programs, doctoral dissertations, scholarly monographs, and hundreds of articles about Aboriginal literature, immigrant literature, feminist literature, literary criticism and Australian culture demonstrate an increasing range of consideration and depth of understanding. According to Peng, there are two main research trends in Australian literary studies in China: one employs critical theories to interpret themes and assess the aesthetic values and interests of Australian literature in the postcolonial context; the other explores Australian critical theories from the perspective of Australian culture and its historical traditions.

This new monograph by an important Chinese scholar makes a contribution to world literature and post-colonial criticism through its systematic and historical approach to Australian literary criticism. As a case study of the development of Australian literary criticism it provides a model for studies of the history of literature and its criticism. Over the past one hundred years, Australian literary criticism has demonstrated a preference for practical criticism, and consistently advocated for diversification. Australia rationally treats international cultural trends based on its own situation and increasingly celebrates its cultural diversity. The cultural values motivating these trends are worthy of Chinese attention. Australian Literary Criticism since 1901 is a pioneering effort of scholarship in the field of Australian literary criticism studies in China.

Published 29 October 2020 in Volume 35 No. 2. Subjects: Australian literary criticism, Cultural & national identity, Literary canon, Chinese scholarship, Diversity, Peng Quinglong.

Cite as: Siqi, Zhao. ‘Review of Australian Literary Criticism since 1901, by Peng Qinglong.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.94f673a7ed.