Who criticises the critics?, Lauris Edmond

Whole Men 
Kai Jensen
Auckland University Press 1996 $34.95
ISBN 186940145x

A R D Fairburn Selected Poems 
Mac Jackson (ed)
Victoria University Press, $24.95
ISBN 086473 2937

Denis Glover Selected Poems 
Bill Manhire (ed)
Victoria University Press, $24.95
ISBN 086473 2929

Do we actually need reviews, critical articles and comments, introductions to books and plays, the whole learned opinion industry? What is literary criticism for anyway? A settled member of a university English department might say it’s just there, as necessary as the weather. It’s what you do. A sixth-former, staring glumly at a poem or story while the teacher drones on about theme, content, structure, etc, would be likely to mumble that it’s the stuff you need to pass exams. An older, extramural student, coming to literary study after years of random reading, might find it life- and thought-enhancing. A post-structuralist could say (or believe) it’s to kill off the author.

Writers have a love/hate relationship with their critics. Some feel themselves interpreted, clarified, even dignified by critics, much as a rugby player scoring a try only gets his full due when the sports announcer says how brilliant it was. Others never read the stuff (or so they claim). It’s sometimes said that reviews, the staple item of criticism, can in the long run neither make nor destroy a book, but they can temporarily direct, or misdirect, your attention to it.

As for the critics themselves, or those who, as I do here, criticise the critics — well, I don’t think they ask the question of themselves often enough. And they could reflect on another literary truism, that about a perfect book (or any other work of art) there is nothing to say.

I seem to be stating the obvious, yet criticism does after all have great power to influence a literature, at least in the short term —  and perhaps for far longer, by creating orthodoxies that are then repeatedly re-examined and thus in some way affirmed by generations of critics and commentators to follow. Kai Jensen’s Whole Men challenges what was easily the most powerful of these orthodoxies for half a century, right through the middle years of this century: the dominance of male writers and writing. He calls it “masculinism”.

In the past 25 years women writers have, of course, mounted a major attack on the male tradition and indeed caused, or at least hastened, its decline. However, this is the first time to my knowledge that the question has been put under the spotlight by a scholarly and dispassionate male writer.

It is a fascinating study. He begins with disarming frankness to explain his own dilemma as a convinced, even ardent feminist, yet a man little at ease with the modes and masks of New Zealand masculinity his community appears to demand he assume. Men’s groups of the kind he joined become “pigeon-holed by male journalists as either pathetic wimps under the feminist thumb, or gay”. He also draws attention to the “guerrilla warfare between men and women in the community of ‘high culture’” and notes that “intellectual women habitually grumble about the residual or covert sexism of men they work with”.

The university has produced a particular focus on the question. Jensen begins his discussion by harking back to the Mervyn Thompson case and remarks that in women’s theoretical framework there has been “a power differential between lecturer and student that amounted to coercion”. (It remains as lively debate here and in Australia, as Helen Garner’s The First Stone amply testifies.) However, Jensen found himself discontented with the sketchy nature of what you might call gender mapping. So he set out to explore the whole question of “masculinism” in New Zealand writing and the extent to which it reflected the society of its time. Gradually this led him to the conclusion that both men and women have been trapped in attitudes that have done them a great disservice.

For several decades — perhaps half a century — it’s certainly true that women’s writing was restricted and ignored and the women who dared to do it were subjected to a sort of jeering (for instance in letters between two prominent “masculinists”, Fairburn and Glover) which is painful now to contemplate. Many women would say now, as Jensen implies, that this prejudice has gone out of the headlines, but not actually disappeared. However, as he develops the thesis that men, too, were limited by having to assume an aggressive maleness that did not necessarily suit them, he widens the discussion in a way that possibly only a male critic could do.

Incidentally, one aspect of the matter which he does not, but could have, touched on is the unspoken but widely accepted assumption of the period that women would, to transpose Villiers de l’Isle’s famous jibe (“As for living, our servants will do that for us”), have — that is, experience — men’s feelings for them. In the end of course this had far more damaging effects on men than on women. It is surely part of our social maturing that a more detached view should now be put by a male critic. Jensen’s book is part of a growing volume of books about men by men. The feminist movement (which was always as much about male as female stereotyping) can only be enriched by such enlargement of the discussion.

I found that reading Whole Men took me through a journey rather similar to the author’s own. Because he characterises this phase of our history as a movement, with causes and effects, a beginning and an end, I as a woman writer am encouraged to cool some of the subdued indignation I am aware is always with me. (It’s still common, to take a minor instance, for men to be silent or disparaging about women’s work, while expecting both praise and reassurance for their own.)

Jensen’s case is precisely argued, carefully documented, especially from fictional models such as Sargeson. It pays a proper attention to the damaging effects on women writers of this sustained and jealously guarded male culture. But in examining the experience of a male ethos for those living within it, it takes the discussion much further. It is perhaps Jensen’s most original contribution to a vigorously debated issue that he uses his research to question not merely the literary manifestations of entrenched ideas. He goes further and considers the extent to which male portrayals, explicit in fiction, assumed in poetry, reflect attitudes in the real world.

This is a tricky process, since the authorities he must use are themselves a part of recorded experience. No more than any other historian can he be present in the past to know what people once said but did not write down. However, I found his analysis of male outlook and habits convincing, which is to say it was for me full of moments of recognition. He postulates a contradiction — two facets of an admired image which hardly fit together. First, the aggressive macho man, good with his hands, at home with the man of the land or factory, the unlettered salt-of-the-earth chap who is not too far removed from his pioneering past. Second, the uptight business man, emotionally constipated, using a kind of stiff shorthand to get him through any moment which appears to call for an expression of feeling.

A third group Jensen works hard to find references to — the large and diverse class of men who didn’t fit either of these models and didn’t particularly want to. They are an important part of his argument, since one of his starting points had been dissatisfaction with the narrow and rigid modes of male culture he found already extant.

It is not a perfect case. I found less than convincing the chapter in which he reinvents Baxter as a Jungian and pleads that his brutal and hostile images of women are merely manifestations of his own “shadow”. And I thought there was not quite enough evidence to support the discussion of Maurice Gee and Owen Marshall as somewhat equivocal latter-day apostles of the masculinist creed. Perhaps with contemporary writers this was inevitable and I had no quarrel with Jensen’s approach, except that it seemed a little thin.

Perhaps this is merely a reminder of the fact (another literary truism) that in the growth of a young literature criticism lags a good way behind the original work it discusses. Jensen, or anyone else, would have had to wait for a stretch of time — half a century, say — to show clearly the outlines of a major literary trend. It is all the more possible in that it is now 25 years since the women’s movement began to enlarge women’s opportunities, with the inevitable consequences for the masculinist regime.

Whole Men breaks new ground, reappraising familiar material by turning on it a perspective that is realistic, close to experience and spare in the theorising which can make criticism detached and self-regarding. Jensen’s inquiries rest on the assumption that literature, to be fully understood, must be seen as embedded in its own culture (however it may transcend it).

I suspect that many professional critics may think he has closed too much of the invisible gap between writing (the attempt to make something new without rules to follow) and criticism (the attempt to know, to make the rules). Am I arguing for a kind of literary criticism that pays as much attention to the world the book inhabits as to the book itself? Yes, I am. And in these terms Jensen’s book is to be welcomed as important, innovative, even courageous.

The two essays that introduce new Fairburn and Glover poetry selections are, of course, on a different scale. Both are careful, informed (if somewhat incurious) surveys of the work they’ve chosen to present. Manhire is more lively and speculative, Jackson more precise and detailed. Both are helpful in their way, displaying editorial good manners — if according to current professional fashion it is good behaviour to offer the reader a general preparation for what’s to follow, without getting too much in the way.

This is to suggest that the difference between these two short essays and Jensen’s much longer study is not merely one of size. He has chosen to investigate a whole piece of history and a conflict within it that is both social and literary, to discover the link between the two and the shape and significance of both.

Manhire’s and Jackson’s approach is individual and specific. Indeed, when Manhire is, as it were, offered the chance to touch on the broader question he elects not to do so. Glover’s satirical poem “The Arraignment of Paris” explicitly ridicules women writers (“Alas, New Zealand literature distils / an atmosphere of petticoats and frills / (or shall we say, to shock the dear old vicars, / an atmosphere of brassieres and knickers?)”). Manhire’s note, however, gives Glover’s target as merely “an unhealthy and outdated literary establishment”. There’s caution for you.

But these two new selections are also to be welcomed. For the most part judiciously made, they give us in a manageable form the work of poets it is important to keep alive and visible in the present. Both editors write with poise and balance. Their stance is, as I understand professional critical fashions, “correct”. But perhaps for correct one might read conservative. Jensen’s position is more radical. Presumably influenced by (though he does not follow) the feminist criticism which has conspicuously linked writing with the social attitudes of its time, he has moved into a wider critical territory. I hope others will follow.

Lauris Edmond is a Wellington poet and autobiographer. 

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