Brigid Rooney, Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life.Brigid Rooney, Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, 2009. pp. ix + 260. $34.95 paper.
How can a book titled Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life, with chapters on Helen Garner, Les Murray, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Judith Wright, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, or Kath Walker, not include Frank Hardy, Dorothy Hewett, and only passing mentions of Realist Writer's Groups, and the Communist Party of Australia? The answer is probably a matter of definition. Unfortunately, however, the definitions of 'activist', or 'intellectual' aren't clearly outlined in the book. Brigid Rooney's premise appears to be that the books that writers write, be they fiction or non-fiction, and whether or not they directly address political issues, can and should be interpreted as works of activism. By extension, writers who don't engage in any kind of formal or sustained attempt to change society outside of what they write should be considered activists. These definitions aren't contingent upon the professionalism or amateurism of the writer, or on the relative power differentials of the parties involved.
For example, Helen Garner is described as an 'amateur writer-intellectual' whose intervention in writing The First Stone was 'an assault on institutional power' (p. 141). This is despite having received impressive institutional acclaim and support prior to writing The First Stone, and siding with the Master of a University College against undergraduate women, both in print and in 'real life'. It is unclear how, if the claims in The First Stone were found to be convincing by many in the public or in positions of influence, they would have the broad social or material impact that an 'activist' desires.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy in Literary Activists. Rooney elucidates and crystallises the relationships between writers with style. Her examination of the engagement between Judith Wright and Kath Walker is fascinating, as is the study of their poetic discourse. Fascinating also is the examination of the relationship between Judith Wright and Les Murray. This is what Literary Activists does best: to enliven the relationships and debates between writers. Their discourses and conflicts over national political issues are brought to life. Rooney is also sensitive to writer's agenda and contradictions. She subtly examines relationships and decisions within the contexts of lives, careers, rivalries, financial hardships, human needs and desires, and the mess of interpersonal relations. In doing so she often reaches productively for unusual and unpublished sources. Rooney's other primary strength is her feeling for and descriptions of fiction and poetry in her close textual analysis.
Some of the broader cultural assumptions were a little jarring, however, for a young(er) person with an emotional and professional interest in Australian literature and political inquiry, particularly when I feel part of a community of people of a similar age with similar interests. For example, I was challenged by statements such as: 'Further, for politically engaged youth--and there are some--of what relevance is a literary book culture dear to older generations?' (pp. xi-xii) I also found comments about the 'urgent necessity of sustaining the relevance, value and public authority of an Australian literary culture' (p. xi) a little difficult, even in the Howard era to which Rooney is referring, while in partial agreement. This sentiment about the value and authority of Australia literary culture is very widely held. The assumptions at work are that the arts and the literary are the most humanising forces available to us, and that artists have a civilising mission. This view was shared by many in the Whitlam Government. In their view, public appreciation for the arts is a goal to be striven for. However, what the Frank Hardy's of the world were willing and able to respond to in this line of argument, as were the community cultural development practitioners who first gained funding as 'community artists' under Whitlam, is that there is 'good' to be found within working class art and culture itself. One of the roles of the radical artist or community cultural development worker is to elucidate and crystallise this good, and to encourage self-presentation and assertion in a media landscape that is often inaccessible and unhelpful for working people. Art also provides a range of possibilities and potentialities, some of them explicitly political, others ranging from art therapy to community development, and so on.
Some of Hardy's views on social and socialist realism, and his lively and articulate engagement with other writers, would also have deepened analysis and made the lively and entertaining debates even livelier. It also seems an imperative to incorporate Hardy in this way given that the introduction to the book states that one of its many concerns is to examine 'the cultural turn from an older Left versus Right politics to the postcolonial national agendas that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and entered the political mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s' (p. xxx) How can this be done without examining the presence, and later absence, of communists and communism in Australia?