lundi 10 août 2009

Opinion: Literary Activists by Brigid Rooney

Jacques Derrida has discussed the status of what he terms "les écrivains-engagés" whom he defines as those intellectuals who participate in public and political debates with an authority committed to fighting for other people’s causes. In Literary Activists (UQP, 2009),Brigid Rooney examines a cluster of high-profile authors who, apart from contributing to the saleability of the book, fall neatly into Derrida’s category. Well-established writers like Helen Garner, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, David Malouf,Les Murray, Patrick White, Tim Winton and Judith Wright are illustrative of Derrida’s « writer-intellectuals ». Therefore, the book’s subtitle (Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life) would aptly reflect its content. For one might ask, what does a literary activist mean exactly ? Are we to understand that acknowledged writers who take a political stance are literary activists if they become the advocate of, say, environmental concerns? Tim Winton, Judith Wright, and many others would fit into this category, I guess.
But what is so "literary" about their causes? Or are literary activists people like Chris Koch (left out), David Williamson (briefly discussed) and Patrick White (central to the book) who champion a specific idea of culture and literature?
It remains unclear whether intellectual engagement should deal with literary issues for authors to deserve to be described as "literary activists".

Beyond the blurry focus of the book which mixes knowledge of literary life with textual criticism and literary reception, Literary Activists is informative and a pleasant read thanks to the high quality of Brigid Rooney’s prose. Here is its purple patch:

"I would pinpoint the early 1980s as the time of my own first sidelong brush with that void, the one that suddenly yawns open, somewhere beneath or deep inside the comfortable matrix of life and the mundane world, and towards which one is suddenly hurtling in time." (p.29)

Like the author of this book, I hope that Literary Activists goes some way towards renewing "readers’ interest in the works of all the Australian writers" discussed, and many more. And we should be grateful to UQP for their ongoing promotion of Australian fiction and literary criticism.

Jean-François Vernay.

Author of Panorama du roman australien (Hermann, 2009).

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