A Lively Solution to a Tired Debate: Literary vs Cultural Criticism

Most humanities’ graduates who paid attention during lectures, will roll their eyes over the constant public debate between literary and cultural criticism when discussing and accessing the merits of literature. To define great literature, while seeking fair and equal representation across cultural expressions in literature in an increasingly pluralistic world is not a simple open and shut book case…

I was recently reminded by this debate when listening to a very articulate and thought-provoking presentation by academic and Director of SWEATSHOP, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, on the politics of race and class in Western Sydney – particularly around exploring perceptions of identity and inclusion in literature produced by Australians from ‘non-white’ backgrounds.

For those who don’t know, SWEATSHOP describes itself as ‘a literacy movement devoted to empowering marginalised communities in Western Sydney and broader Australia through creative and critical writing initiatives’.

At the moment, there is a lot of public discussion around increasing Australian content on our bookshelves, and, of course, this gives rise to the problematics of who then gets to define what ‘Australian content’ looks like.

It would take a thesis to explore this question, and for the purpose of today’s ditty – I’m just not going there. What I am interested in though, is how often times, in our pursuit for inclusion – which is important – the merits of the actual work being debated, is overlooked.

Tension between public perception, authorial intention and cultural criticism often casts too long a shadow over genuine literary criticism. Surely, when assessing a work for publication, the most important consideration must be in the actual assessment of the writer’s technical and artistic achievement within the work itself.

When Key Decision Makers in publishing circles, appropriate a kind of ‘affirmative action’ to meet arbitrary cultural, racial or gender quotas when deciding on what content to publish, it seems to me that the whole pursuit of literary excellence is in a way, ironically, pushed aside.

Dividing and choosing works based on periphery criteria, rather than making the selection criteria first and foremost about actual literary merit, may potentially mean that very good works are put aside because of current political and/or dominant cultural agendas.

One way to strike a balance between this tension is to ensure that there is equal cultural, racial and gender representation on actual selection panel committees – so all great literary works, from every group, have a chance to be heard – and mostly importantly – weighted by merit alone.

Books that become a part of our cultural Canon do so because they transcend cultural and political climates.  The reader doesn’t need to understand the period or historical context, authorial intention or ethnicity to appreciate the work. Certainly, we may be fascinated by all these things, but ultimately the hallmark of great literature will always affect and move us in ways that translates across time and space – no matter who we are.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmithJo

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