The Spike or Victoria College Review 1942
From Many excellent critics I have learnt much about the Spirit of the Age as reflected in literature. At various times I have been tempted to talk and write about it myself; but if the articles and sketches I have been reading have any bearing on the subject I shall be forced to change my views.
Don't imagine that I wish to be insulting. What I feel is that either I am far too young and irresponsible to act as judge, or else I must belong to a dying generation which once thought itself modern. If I am so incredibly old I must be totally unfit to criticise the prose of those who are engaged in debunking the debunkers.
On second thoughts I think I must be too young and irresponsible. It must be so, because in the majority of the contributions I could find little trace of conscious debunking. They reminded me occasionally of the nineties of the last century, of sentimental stories in forgotten magazines and of fireside lectures delivered by great-grandfathers with side-whiskers.
What I had sadly expected was to hear echoes of the writers of the Twenties, to read sketches of the disillusioned and the blasphemies of the rebellious, to listen to dissertations on the futility of life and to feel frustration soaking into my bones.
I was not sorry to be disappointed, but I did not anticipate that the contributors would find earlier and cruder models. For I had hoped to read some vigorous passages on the New Zealand scene, to discover that the writers were at least conscious of the necessity of thinking in terms of real experience and the lives and thoughts and aspirations of ordinary people, that they wanted to say something and say it boldly. I had hoped that they would be writers of the Forties or at least of the Thirties.
Most of the sketches and articles were quite different from anything I had expected or desired. The writers were more concerned with expression than with content. Instead of feeling the urge to say something, they worried about how they would say it if they had anything to say, and, quite frankly, they had nothing to say. Some were pretentious and pedantic, some were painfully smart or heavily obscure, some were ponderous and some were sentimental and romantic. Most of them felt that they were entering for a "literary competition.
But the chief trouble was that they attempted to write about subjects which can be successfully handled only by the most skilful of writers. Let me refer vaguely to the rejected manuscripts. The scented prose of the Nineties is not easy to imitate and hardly worth the time which it takes. No one can learn to write well merely by making patterns of words. It is dangerous to talk about God or dialectics, about beauty or grace unless one is prepared to discipline one's thoughts. Why do so many writers prefer to neglect the things about which they know something in order to write noble nonsense about abstractions? There is a difference between wit and wise-cracks. Fantasy leads to wordy platitudes and obscurity more easily than it leads to sudden illumination. Nor is it sufficient to have the hint of a dramatic situation or a vague sentimental thought in order to produce a short story or sketch. The writer must show that he himself is interested in people and things, the ideas and emotions before he can expect a reader to be interested in his writing.
If there was the germ of an idea in the Anti-aesthetic Paradox it was spoilt by the form and the expression. Marche Hongroise was not sufficiently worked out to become completely intelligible or moving. Operational Flight was written easily and without affectation, but was little more than a slightly dramatised newspaper report. Made in New Zealand was an honest piece of work in which the author discovered for himself that there was little to be said. Our Heritage was a brave attempt at indirect satire which failed because of its form. If it had been longer it would have been boring, short as it was and without particularisation, it lost its value.
With some hesitation I place Aunt Marxengels and Walt Whitman Against Fascism first. I say with some hesitation because in both are crudities of style which sometimes offend. But both are page 21 unpretentious and successful in what they set out to do. The writers show that they are interested in the world around them and not merely in patterns of words or faint thoughts and feeble emotions. They sound as if they want to say something and say it vigorously not because a literary competition demands it, but because they have something to say.
H. Winston Rhodes.