Why I don’t read Patrick White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

I have read and enjoyed Patrick White’s Voss and Riders in the Chariot, and sat through Shepherd on the Rocks without undue discomfort. The back cover blurbs of his novels interest me more than most books published these days. And yet I have always balked at reading more White. Why?
The Nobel Prize doesn’t help. There’s something about the average Nobel laureate that makes them seem like the sort of author UN delegates pretend to read. It is the epitome of officially-sanctioned literature, its demand of “idealism” (extraordinary word, just ask Allen Upward) become an officially-approved meliorist sentiment. It deals in certainties, it evades ambiguity the way it avoids awkward details and disturbing complications. It is perfect for Goverment-sponsored reading programs.
How many of your favourite, literary, capital-S Serious authors received a Nobel prize? Just look at the anointed Americans.
My other problem is the same one Kyle Gann at PostClassic encountered recently, when reading a comprehensive handbook of 20th Century composers:
Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have “the wider human condition,” i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man’s relation to society. On the other, “the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day,” which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward… is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all “serious” composers must comment, and to which they all contribute.

For “music” read literature, another artform we still cannot quite believe has no insides. My taste has always instincively been for the art that tells us something else beside the cultural received opinion. No matter how I liked White, I always had the feeling he was limited by the need to Say Something Important, and spent his career, on-page and off, play-acting The Great Author, mummifying his books in thematic boilerplate.
Despite these reservations I cannot bring myself to dislike what I’ve read: there is enough discomfiting unevenness in his writing to keep it lively, as his splenetic visions of righteousness wrestle with his petty meanness. The Readers’ Group is my excuse to finally read White again, and to see whether the good outweighs the bad.