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.
  1. Read a good quote by A D Hope about judgmental critics: "Too many critics put themselves in the position of Solomon, when they should actually see themselves as Jacob wrestling with the angel for their soul …"

    Paraphase, but … you get the point.

  2. Not bad. It's funny: I don't deny that White achieved something good, but I grew up thinking that achievement was overpraised as the one type of Great Litrachoor. Now it seems time has passed me by and he is now underrated – I can't help think unjustly so, from what I remember.

  3. I pay about as much attention to Nobel prizes as I do to the Academy Awards. Though they might be a little better because Billy Crystal's not involved.

    The big literary event of the year, for me, involves a capital "P". Pynchon's new book comes out in December.

  4. I think the Nobel ceremony is hosted by the Swedish Billy Crystal, so no joy there.
    So, was that early Pynchon blurb on Amazon not a hoax? I'll have to read it, after I've read his last one. And the one before that. And Gravity's Rainbow again so I might understand it this time.

  5. I don't know if it was a hoax, or just a publicity stunt by the publisher. I saw it here in the LA Times. Regardless, I'll read the book no matter what it's about. He's the one author that I go ahead and buy the hardcover editions by, because I don't have the patience to wait around for the paperbacks.

    Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon are great, but if you're looking for something more straightforwardly written (for Pynchon, anyway) check out The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland. Lot 49 is short; you can read it in a day or two.

  6. Yeah, I love Lot 49, and V. is good too. I knew I had to reread Gravity's Rainbow soon after I finished it, when I had a conversation with a friend who said she liked "the kung fu girl" in it. Either that part of the book slipped my attention or she's thinking of another book.

  7. I found The Vivisector unfinishable, but struggled through The Tree of Man and was rewarded handsomely – possibly THE Australian novel

  8. I finish every book I read, even if I don't like it, just so I can denounce it with 100% authority. Right now I want to see if The Vivisector can persuade me to like it. I haven't read The Tree of Man, having been scared off it at the time the opportunity arose to read it by having had too many books about Aussie farms in the Outback foisted upon me at school.