Thomas Keneally | Critical Essay by Peter Pierce

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 2,829 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Peter Pierce

SOURCE: "'The Critics Made Me': The Receptions of Thomas Keneally and Australian Literary Culture," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 17, No. l, May, 1995, pp. 99-103.

In the essay below, Pierce examines the motives of Keneally's detractors.

While Thomas Keneally himself generously acknowledges that 'the critics made me', few Australian authors—in the course of long, productive and internationally acclaimed careers—have suffered such critical opprobrium in their own country. His perception of causes soon to be fashionable (such as the treatment of Australian Aborigines), his insistence on how the Australian present can be traced to its European social and intellectual origins, his espousal of an Australian republic, have held up a mirror to a generation of Australian readers. Nevertheless he has been subject to censure by some academic critics without losing a loyal general readership, in Australia and overseas.

It is received wisdom in some quarters that Keneally's work has steadily fallen off in quality since the early 1970s; that his treatment of female characters has been misogynist; that his novels show an inordinate interest in, and relish for, violence; that—in the case of Season in Purgatory (1976)–Keneally was a plagiarist; that his Irish origins and republican affiliations (properly separate matters, between which Keneally at least is capable of distinguishing) somehow discredit, or diminish, his literary achievements; finally that his art has suffered from success and excess, from the prolific and profitable professional career which Keneally has established. If these charges cohered, let alone if all of them could be sustained, they would amount to a weightier indictment than any ever previously brought against an Australian author. Investigating why this is so, why Keneally has apparently caused such grievous and abiding offence to some critics, will illuminate murky aspects of the literary culture of this country.

In the last year, the most vicious assault on Keneally's reputation came in the course of a 5AN radio discussion, broadcast on 26 July 1994. Christopher Pearson, a pro-monarchist and editor of the Adelaide Review offered this gambit:

I remember learning about a St. Patrick's Day speech where Tom Keneally described the Queen as 'a colostomy bag on the Australian body politic'. It's a memorable phrase and it seems to me to suggest the quality of the passion that drives him.

Keneally denied that his simile had been so colorful. Instead he recalled a tamer offering: 'like a briefcase carried at arm's length or … the constitutional equivalent of a colostomy bag'. And he pleaded 'a few Guinesses too many'. That convivial admission further incited his adversary, who moved savagely sideways from a consideration of Keneally's support for an Australian republic to damn him as a novelist. Belittling Keneally's literary credentials was presumably intended to deride, by association, the political cause of republicanism.

This commentator continued:

the best that the Republic Movement can do is to trot out a novelist who's burnt out basically, who's done his best work early and who's never overcome the plagiarism charges of Season in Purgatory and is now writing warm, fuzzy holocaust novels and who's obviously in a sense looking for rehabilitation, to rediscover a role for himself as a man of public affairs.

These intemperate and inaccurate charges indicate the depth of rancor which exists in some recesses of Australian cultural life, when Keneally is at issue. While Pearson's invective scarcely deserves rebuttal, one can remark that, in the last decade, this burnt-out case has written his finest and funniest anatomies of Australian contemporary life—A Family Madness (1985) and Woman of the Inner Sea (1992)–besides brilliantly revisiting his first critical success, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), in the altogether more benign tale of our European origins, The Playmaker (1987). The 'plagiarism charges' are now forgotten, and the matter of Keneally's guilt was at best ambiguous. Nor is Keneally now 'writing warm, fuzzy holocaust novels'. He has never written one. And Schindler's Ark (if that is the book meant) was published thirteen years ago.

No honour was satisfied by this exchange, nor could any conclusions be reached from it, except as concerns the pathology of some Australian monarchists. But larger questions were raised: why has criticism of Keneally's work (as novelist and public figure) been so vexed and bitter? What have the effects of this been on his career? What cultural problems in Australia do the attacks on him, and his responses to them, expose?

An answer to these linked questions suggests that Pearson's spleen was extreme, but not exceptional. Keneally has suffered from the high expectations that critics foisted on him in the late 1960s. As long afterwards as March 1991, the anonymous author of the 'Shelf Life' column in the Sunday Age sadly intoned that:

There was a time when he looked the natural successor to Patrick White. Over the years, however, Thomas Keneally has done his best to turn himself into our one popular international writer.

Forget Carey, West, McCullough for the moment, Keneally is being slighted here not only for not succeeding White, but for securing acclaim overseas. A writer's pardonable ambitions (to be distinctive, and successful) are disdained. The source of resentment of Keneally is obscure, but the caricature offered of the author is a potent one. Keneally has been described as 'the most notable Australian example of a not unfamiliar type: the potentially major talent which dissipates itself in commercialism' (Craven). Such a comment leaves no escape for the author, whose financial rewards are disparaged as the waste of a talent with which evidently they have no connection.

Recognizing the currency of this parody of himself, Keneally was finally goaded into responding to his Australian critics. On 13 November 1993 he had a letter published in the Weekend Australian where he expressed 'a genuine anguish and bemusement'. He had been especially upset by reviews of two of his books that year: the novel Jacko (by Michael Sharkey) and Our Republic (by Imré Salusinszky). Keneally's response was to recount the literary awards which he had won, at home and abroad; the critical and commercial success he had had overseas; the honors bestowed upon him, for instance a Distinguished Professorship for Life in the University of California system. Accordingly Keneally wondered what he had to prove to certain Australian critics, as distinct from his reading public? How was he to square parochial pundits' views of his falling away with 'the experience of having every novel published during the period of my supposed decline praised by literary figures in the New York Times Review of Books and elsewhere'. Why was it, Keneally continued, that no foreign review was ever 'as bitter and intimately rancorous as the ones I frequently received in Australia?'

Critical opprobrium towards Keneally began in earnest in the 1970s, after the publication of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Keneally concedes that he courted trouble. Reminiscing two decades later, he admitted: 'part of it is my folly. I attacked academics. I was a real smart-arse when I was young'. Some of these academics did not forget. Historian Henry Reynolds characterised the novel reductively as 'very much a book of its time'. Reynolds contended that 'at worst', it

shared faults with some contemporary Government policies which, though superficially well-meaning, were paternalistic in execution and burdened with an unconscious legacy of ancestral racism.

How Keneally, with his deeply imbued memories of the history of the Irish at home and in Australia, responded to this presumptuous charge is not recorded. Not for the last time he was suffering from the confusion of the political agenda of others with an evaluation of his fiction; suffering, too, because he is a cultural barometer, who draws for his art on the most contentious issues just before their season of wider publicity.

In 1974 Keneally found himself the subject of an astonishing commentary. Under attack was his alleged relish for violence. Purportedly reviewing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a critic ventured ad hominem speculations of an unpleasant, unwarranted kind:

One gets the impression … that Keneally turns to the past not out of historical interest but for the opportunity that a more brutal past affords him to express his taste for blood.

Off-handed psychoanalysis of Keneally's vampirism consorted with the hand-me-down terms of Leavisite critical reproof as the reviewer concluded:

The chief obstacle in the way of his development now is the violence within himself which he must renounce before he can enter the vast world of productive human relationships … An angry writer can achieve power and intensity; but he rarely grows.

This anticipated other occasions when Keneally's character would be insulted in the guise of literary judgment, and critics arrogate the right to dictate the course his career should take.

As that career progressed, Keneally was subject to one of the more insidious tactics of marginalization practiced in Australian literary circles. This is a pseudo-argument that affects to demonstrate how local writers of once splendid talents often suffer a lamentable decline in their powers. Envy appears in the guise of invidious comparisons, made in sorrowing tones. Writers such as Williamson, Murray and Carey, besides Keneally, have had later works disparaged by comparison with all that their earlier ones supposedly promised. Williamson commented on this phenomenon with a rueful wit:

You were discovered, given premature canonization, the artistic hopes of Australia were placed on your shoulders, then if you happened to have a critical reverse you were subjected to savage retribution and you spent the rest of your life wandering from bar to bar wondering why you weren't Dostoevsky.

Keneally has had plenty of experience of this treatment. One commentator opined that 'the early stuff was remarkable, the later stuff less demanding'. No specific instances were given. Another claimed that

his artistic career is paradigmatic of the path of so much creative talent and so many people in this country: from potential excellence to ineluctable mediocrity; from daring and excitement to chafing comfort; from passion to anomie.

O'Hearn begged questions. Why should there be an 'ineluctable' path to mediocrity for Australian writers? Does this indicate an ingrained pessimism among certain critics as to the worth of the Australian product? Or is it that they cannot forgive their early enthusiasms for authors whose subsequent development has failed to please them? And if a writer seeks 'comfort', and this is conceived in terms of material rewards, why should it chafe?

As David Marr's recent edition of Patrick White Letters (1994) shows, the novelist he was once deemed likely to succeed attacked Keneally viciously in private. On 18 March 1968 he wrote to James Stern, an American critic, that he would:

like to write about Larks and Heroes, but I am prejudiced by all the publicity from this rather revolting little bog-Irish almost priest married to a renegade nun.

Snobbery apart, we will never know (but would not previously have been inclined to suspect) whether jealousy of a potential rival was one motive for White's response to the novel which he had just read. More acrid is his undisguised sectarianism. Keneally would find that sentiment resurfacing in an attempt to discredit his espousal of republicanism.

With evident reluctance, Keneally has developed ways of responding to critical assaults upon him. The letter to the Weekend Australian was a blunt, exasperated reaction. His strategies have usually been subtler. One has been his willingness to give interviews, cannily crafted to set the terms for an appraisal of his writing. For many years Keneally has responded generously to requests from around the world for accounts of his work practices, recently to Zhang Wei-hong, who wrote a PhD thesis on "Thomas Keneally's Work as a Continuum" for the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Peter Quartermaine, in his monograph Thomas Keneally (1991), represented the author as "a man of the people," who yet "remains a very private person in his concerns, and wary of the effects of publicity". Less "wary" than cunning perhaps: several of the epigraphs in Quartermaine's book are drawn directly from interviews with or essays by Keneally.

Another of Keneally's responses to attack has been the pose of indifference to criticism, and the assertion that he is determined to write on regardless. Keneally is sensible of what the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, styled "the Paris option"—exile abroad, as a gesture of contempt for ungrateful local critics. That exile is literal, in that Keneally spends lengthy periods each year absent from Australia, making himself less frequently "a motley to the view" and resigning from the Chair of the Australian Republican Movement. It is also a metaphorical (if intermittent) withdrawal from Australia, into the solace of an overseas reception of his work that continues to be warm, in contrast with his Australian reception.

Publicity kits, such as Heinemann produced for Jacko, included encomia of his previous work by Bernard Levin and Graham Greene. But there is a risk in advertising, or depending on, praise from abroad. The comparison of his favourable reception overseas with what he now perceives as an entrenched hostility among some Australian critics becomes sterile, as Keneally surely knows. Moreover, his appeal to international arbitration can be attacked on the very grounds of national independence which—when concerned with Australian sovereignty—he would strongly espouse. Keneally has provided his adversaries with weapons to use against him. For instance, writing as much as he does guarantees that some of his novels will be more highly wrought than others.

By making his public profile more than that of an author, Keneally has also invited attacks on his politics which, once made, have been used to tarnish his credentials as a writer. Keneally has never claimed that his stature as a novelist underwrites his opinions on an Australian republic. Nor has he heeded those (with whose interests at heart?) who have called on him to write less, and spend more time instead on revision. Or perhaps he has listened. After three books in 1993, none appeared in 1994, not even under the pseudonym, 'William Coyle', which Keneally adopted for two novels of the Second World War.

Keneally's critical reputation has been so fiercely disputed for so long that any diagnostician of Australian culture must speculate why this is so. Both the genius of the national literature and—less fortunately—the sovereign temper of literary history and criticism in Australia are melodramatic. The manifestations of such a temper are many, and usually pernicious. In a melodramatic action and setting, the villainous prey on the virtuous. A heightened, hysterical and adversarial language characterises, at the same time as it disables discourse. The argumentative habit of dichotomy, so often truculent and embattled, prevails. As it happens, Keneally is one of the most acute analysts of the national melodrama. To the extent that he is a victim, however, he has had to endure persecution without sufficient warrant; has seen his career divided into lopsided parts, with the consequent critical neglect of his fine work during the last decade. With a growing and pardonable testiness, Keneally has endured attempts to dispossess him, to remove him from an academically if not generally approved canon of Australian literature.

The melodramatic vision is paranoid. The hero-victim feels persecuted beyond any reasonable measure of offence. It is a tribute to Keneally's moral resilience, to the equability and generosity of his temperament, to an apprehension that he can appeal over the head of critics to the people, and—of course—to his continuing dedication to his craft that he has survived what may look increasingly to him like systematic persecution from some Australian critics. The critical reception of Thomas Keneally is by now a complicated and contradictory business that is three decades old. He has had loyal, long-term advocates (for all that they have occasionally been disappointed): David English, Brian Kiernan, Leonie Kramer and Adrian Mitchell among them. That his reception nevertheless seems to be narrower and more prejudiced these days is an indication of cultural malaise rather than the exhaustion of the author. One wonders whether critics have made of Keneally the scapegoat for their own distaste for, or lack of confidence in, Australian culture, so that attacks on his art, subjects, politics signify a cultural death-wish?

But that is too negative a note, Keneally's relationship with the critics who once 'made' him has always been dynamic. Reckoning with their strictures, he has made amends, however wryly, for his earlier portrayals of women, for which he was taken to task in the 1980s by Shirley Walker and Frances McInhemy. More importantly, Keneally has engineered a seismic shift in his career between "alienation" and "affirmation," as he told Zhang Wei-hong (173). Criticism of Keneally's fiction may in the end have been more creative than destructive, in that it released the rejoicing side of his imagination; led him from Bring Larks and Heroes to The Playmaker, from his first novel, The Place at Whitton, which features a literal witch, to Woman of the Inner Sea, where the unhistrionic bravery of a woman is explored. Criticism did not discourage Keneally's desire to write a comédie humaine in the antipodes, although he has never thought of Australia as anything but part of one world, where we are all in the same boat, or ark, and where we all hang together.

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Buy the Critical Essay by Peter Pierce
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