Interview With A Literary Critic
By: Joanna Hioe
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 7
"Today the need to listen to critics is even more urgent because there are too much noise and distortions that make people no longer know what they should choose to listen...The world may have become one crazy world, but we don’t have to be part of that world, thanks to the tireless work of literary critics."
Critics, are they "parasites" of others' work or artists in their own right? In Part 7 of The BW INSIDER series literary critic Manneke Budiman shows us how crucial the voice of the critic is in chronicling contemporary times and even the journey of a nation.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
My favorite childhood book is The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A tent and a Playboy magazine
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Bald, sweet, friendly
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Pisang goreng (fried banana)
Did you grow up in a literary / artistic household? What effect did your upbringing have on your present occupation as a critic?
My family was not into reading literary works or arts. For them these were just a waste of time and there were far more important things to do in life. But I grew up being fond of reading literature and history, first of all by developing interest in the pictures contained in the children’s versions of those books. I also love drawing, and perhaps that explains why my interest in reading began with a fascination for the pictures which really took my imagination to a wonderful journey into the world of facts and fictions.
When I got older during my primary school years, I began to like watching historical movies as they really sparked my imagination. So, for me, it is always fascinating to look at how people can create something that can make imagination work, finding out what is the secret behind such an artistic ability.
How did you get involved in literary criticism?
I loved literature when I was in high school, and then I decided to study English literature in college. But then I felt that the world I was studying about is so far away from the reality of my everyday life. Indonesian literature is rich, but there were only few literary critics. So, I made use of the knowledge and skills that I acquired from English studies to be involved in literary criticism focusing on the works of Indonesian authors.
English literature is my academic world, but Indonesian literary criticism is my practical world. The problem with doing English literature as literary criticism in Indonesia is that nobody cares. It doesn’t matter how good you are, not many are interested in what you are doing because English literature is so far away from the reality of everyday life in Indonesia. Only when you can make use of the skills in the Indonesian context, on Indonesian literature, will people start paying attention and listening to what you have to say.
What advice would you give to aspiring literary critics?
Knowledge, interest and understanding of what happened in the past and what has happened ever since toward the present is always essential, but they are not enough. Literary critics also need to develop a kind of sensitivity and discernment in order to not merely understand and be able to convey that to others, but also to cultivate passion and love for literature and what they are doing with it.
Critics must learn to see authors as contemporary philosophers who work to produce new thoughts and ideas about the nation such as what past authors did in the 1920s, 1930s, and all the way to the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, critics need to encourage authors to see themselves in that perspective to realize that they have an important role to play in the nation’s journey toward its destiny. This is how respect for authors can be fostered in the critic’s mind.
Thus, the most important task of critics is to help the public discover what particular contribution each author makes through their works and the ideas they have to offer.
Empathy, patience, and eagerness to understand are key ingredients that critics need to put into their criticism. This does not mean that they should only show ideas that they like and support but also those which they find disturbing or problematic, yet they were willing to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. Intense engagement and dialogue with those ideas they deem problematic or challenging is needed, and critics certainly need to have humility and willingness to learn, as well as courage to put aside their prejudices and personal preferences. It is easy to find weaknesses even in the works of the best authors, but to respect the works of authors and consider them as parts of new explorations toward the nation’s future takes a great deal of courage and integrity on the part of the critics.
How comfortable are you with critiquing the work of others - particularly in judging new writers?
I feel quite comfortable; in fact, I find it rewarding.
My concept of criticism tends to lean more toward finding the positive qualities and strong points of a work rather than focus on the negative ones.
New authors always struggle to make themselves be recognized and read. This has nothing to do with being honest or not. It’s a matter of attitude.
For me, a critic can still be honest and write with integrity without having to discourage an author or to create an unfavorable public perception toward a work by an emerging author.
I can still point out problematic parts that I find in a work, but I don’t have to linger on them or reduce my entire criticism to those problematic parts. I have to be sure that I do not destroy one’s opportunity to become a promising author in the future because of my harsh criticism.
Fairness is another important matter, and this can be a delicate issue since the power relation between the critic and the author/work is quite often a relation of domination and subordination. As a critic, I have always had to keep this in mind in order to be able to judge wisely. And if I am not sure what does it mean to be “wise” or how wise should I be, then being generous and supportive is the safe way to take to make sure I don’t cause any unnecessary harm to authors.
"I do think the only way to produce really significant work, either as a writer or a critic, is really to be in love with the form to the exclusion of other forms." (James Wood, in an interview with Electric Literature).
How true is this for you? Which form do you take most pleasure in critiquing and why?
I am fine working with different forms of literature. I have written about drama, poetry, writer’s communities, and fiction.
In the Indonesian context, fiction—in the form of novels and short stories—happens to predominate, and that’s why I write more about fiction. The hardest challenge comes from writing criticism on works of poetry, but that does not reduce the amount of pleasure I receive during the process of interacting with the work and trying to immerse myself into it. Furthermore, literary criticism for me is not just about forms; it is also about literary politics, competition and collaboration among authors and writer’s communities, how different camps use literature for different purposes, and so on.
Being a literary critic in Indonesia, you cannot confine yourself to just criticism of forms but you are also required to deal with other “extrinsic” aspects of literature. I am talking about full engagement with literature, and not just with certain aspects of it. Only then will you be recognized and accepted as a critic by the Indonesian literary community. So focusing entirely on just one genre and excluding the rest is out of the question in the Indonesian context. People will always demand that you know a bit about everything, and that’s how you get their attention.
What is the legacy of literary criticism in Indonesia / Southeast Asia? Who would you say are outstanding critics, and what is their greatest contribution to the scene?
In the Indonesian context, the key figure remains to be H.B. Jassin, known as the “Pope” of Indonesian literature. He laid the solid foundation of what literary criticism means in Indonesia and how it should be conducted in a ‘localized’ manner. Jassin also served as an exemplary model of ‘patron’ of writers when in the early 1970s he was put on trial for protecting the identity of a writer who was charged with blasphemy for describing Allah and the Prophet in his short story published in Jassin’s literary magazine. Braving all the intimidation and pressure, Jassin remained committed to protecting the writer until the end.
Soebagio Sastrowardojo is another exemplary critic that inspired many contemporary literary critics in Indonesia. He could be quite blunt and direct in his criticism yet at the same time maintain fairness, objectivity and his personal integrity. This is especially apparent in his criticism of W.S. Rendra’s poetry Ballads of the Loved Ones, whose originality he questioned by demonstrating many striking similarities with the work of the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. He did that through a pithy and thorough reading of Rendra’s poems, which would have been impossible if the critic had not possessed genuine love for poetry and commitment to quality criticism.
Today, there are many literary critics who are young and brilliant. They write well and in general are quite supportive to new writers. Many of these critics also write works of poetry and fiction. Linda Christanty, Bandung Mawardi, Tia Setiadi, Arif bagus Prasetyo, and Brahmantyo are some of them. These critics write with rigor and passion, giving honest, fair, and high quality assessment to their fellow writers’ works. A spirit of solidarity can certainly be felt among them.
What is your vision or dream for literary critics in Asia?
I really want to see literary critics working in different parts of the region help readers find what is common in the works of various authors who may not know one another and live in different countries in Asia, yet share the same vision and understanding of issues and problems faced by Asia today.
Globalization has deeply penetrated Asia and the psychology of its people to the point that we nearly no longer have diversity, or “locality”, to give a sense of authenticity in the way we experience the world. That is why literature can be expected to reflect it, take issue with it, or explore what lies behind such a homogenizing force, if there is any, that still offers something worthwhile to contemplate.
Literary critics may be in a position to help reveal and problematize the “common culture” brought about by globalization in Asia in the works of various authors from various nationalities, hidden behind the façade of diversity and locality that may actually be no longer there yet preserved by imagination in the form of memories and dreams. If critics can do that, they’ll be able to serve as bridges that connect people, whose individuality tends to be lost in the sea of common culture and are in danger of being reduced to banal collectivism—togetherness with no meaning, a crowd rather than a community.
Critics across the Asian continent, therefore, should be able to interpret the signs and symptoms of such processes and allow the emergence of mutual understanding among people that see the common culture as a threat and, in the process, see others as potential enemies, too. These critics consist not only of academics, but more importantly, also authors who are thinkers, seers, and philosophers of their age.
H.B. Jassin, known as the “Pope” of Indonesian literature
Soebagio Sastrowardojo "...could be quite blunt and direct in his criticism yet at the same time maintain fairness, objectivity and his personal integrity."
What is the social (and historical) role of literary criticism?
The traditional social role of literary criticism is to enlighten—to bridge the two types of social class that share the same space for living yet are separated by a huge gap from each other.
The intellectuals, which include artists and writers, on the one hand and the general reading public who struggle to understand what the other class has to say about the world and about them.
The gap between the two can sometimes create suspicion, distrust and hostility. The intellectuals think that their readers are not good enough to make sense of what their works try to say, while the public quite often feel that the intellectuals are a bunch of snobs who are cut off from their reality. The critics may come from among the intellectuals, but they are able to close the gap and speak to the public because the critics have learned to speak the public’s language. In this sense, critics are bilinguals: they are the native speakers of the peculiar language of arts and science, but they also have good command of the other language that is much more down to earth and sometimes even raw.
Literary criticism helps writers to have more humility and develop self-questioning skills, bringing them back to reality every time they fly too high. For the reading public, literary criticism is part of public education. It sharpens their sensitivity and broadens their awareness of the world. When this happens, the two separate worlds inhabited by two distinct types of social class become closer to each other.
"Today the critic stands in a different zone, between the expanding body of past works made available digitally and an even larger production in the present." How do you, as a contemporary critic, negotiate this new position?
I don’t see critics in that way. While it is true that today there are more works of the past that are brought back to life by digital inventions, good critics are never really separated from the past even if they are not part of the past.
You cannot be a good critic without a good grasp and understanding of the past.
One becomes a critic because he/she is well versed about the past. A good critic is never a historic being. Digital intervention sometimes does not result in better familiarity with the past but confusion and an unnecessary overwhelming sense of being engulfed by the past.
I think what we need to worry more about is what the present is doing: it is flooding us with too many new things in such a massive way that we become numb and can hardly see the reality clearly. We need the past to serve as a solid grounding to stand on so that we will not be swept away by this flood.
Over the years, I have learned, and I am still learning, how to make use of the past to give the present a context, a trajectory, or a frame; otherwise, the present will exist in a vacuum. Digital media opens up more space for critics nowadays to articulate their thoughts but only insofar as the critics know how to build a dam to channel digital media’s potentially destructive force. Contextualizing digital media and the contents they offer in light of a diachronic trajectory from past to present helps critics to keep their common sense and solid standing ground. The sense of time and chronology is there. You see a full picture even though that picture moves fast instead of fragmented picture that breaks into pieces as it is moving.
Who ought to listen to critics today?
Anybody who needs to keep their sanity intact needs critics. Both writers and readers need critics. Literary criticism is not just a conversation between a maker and an observer but also an attempt to engage a wider community in that conversation. Literary criticism should be able to reach out beyond literature. It talks about the world and to the world through a work of literature. This is the most significant contribution literary criticism has to offer, not only today but always ever.
Today the need to listen to critics is even more urgent because there are too much noise and distortions that make people no longer know what they should choose to listen to. Most of this noise is garbage, but when you no longer know what to choose, you could end up with lots of garbage in your brain.
I believe it is valid and safe to say that the function of literary critics today is to cultivate and maintain wisdom when it is no longer thought to be of any use. The world may have become one crazy world, but we don’t have to be part of that world, thanks to the tireless work of literary critics.
What is the reception of Indonesians to literary criticism?
After the end of the New Order, Indonesians are into practically anything. Before, the state chose for them. But after 1998, they choose for themselves. One doesn’t need to wonder then why bookstore’s shelves everywhere are packed with translated works, chicklit, teenlit, comic books, you name it; and all of them are quickly sold out.
The exploration beyond the boundaries that were once set by an authoritarian regime is not only concerned with democracy, openness, and freedom, but also with liberation from the straightjacket of the official language. This explains why translated works are part of the most sought after reading material.
However, in the realm of literary criticism people still prefer criticism written in Bahasa Indonesia than in any other language. I think the reason for this is clear: if criticism is to serve as a bridge connecting differences and a means to enlighten, the function can only be effectively carried out in the language operated by both writers and readers. After all, critics try to communicate and build conversations with those speaking the same language in the first place because they are aware that they exist and remain relevant as long as the two sides of society deem them necessary. This does not mean that critics should not go beyond national language, but the time is not ripe for that, especially when even Indonesian academics are still struggling painfully to publish analytical works on literary criticism in scientific journals as part of their publish-or-perish quests.
And finally, what is the role of literature in shaping Indonesia's social fabric / history?
Literature in Indonesia without doubt has played an important role in critical times when the nation is facing a crossroad in its history.
As early as the 1920s, literature had been instrumental in helping create national awareness of the need to be independent from colonialism. Poets such as Muhammad Yamin promoted the notion of homeland even when the Dutch colonialism in Indonesia was at its height. In the 1930s, authors had been intensely and seriously debating on what kind of future that Indonesia would choose: whether to fully embrace western modernity or shape its own national identity based on traditions. Prominent authors such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Sanusi Pane, Muhammad Yamin and Achdiat Karta Mihardja were involved in what is now known as “cultural polemic” in which the best options for Indonesia’s future as a free nation were given serious consideration and thought.
As the spirit of nationalism heightened and World War II came to Indonesia with the defeat of the Dutch East Indies by Japan, authors took part of the struggle for independence through their revolutionary ideas. Chairil Anwar and Idrus are two of the leading authors who explicitly talked about freedom from colonial power in their works.
The period between the 1950s and the 1960s, when the Cold War tore apart many nations in Asia into various ideological camps, Indonesian authors embarked on an ambitious national agenda through their search for the place of Indonesian culture in the world. A manifesto was declared by a group of authors to proclaim that Indonesia is part of the world culture in 1950. Although authors were divided sharply into ideological blocks, each in their own way contributed to the envisioning of Indonesian culture that should be an inseparable part of the world culture. Experiments in blending local traditions with elements of Islamic, Western, and socialist ideas were carried out across the archipelago through literature, dance, drama, and other forms of arts.
Research and publications by critics and scholars of Indonesian studies have emerged about this particular chapter in Indonesian history, especially lately as interest in looking back in order to understand the past better from fresh perspectives seems to be renewed among critics. Critics such as Tony Day, Jennifer Lindsay, and Maya HT Liem have taken the initiatives to revisit this very important period in modern Indonesian literature in order to show that literature plays an instrumental part in nation-building. Research on how post-Suharto writers perceive the nation and how they see the future has also been conducted by both Indonesian and foreign critics.
In my work as a lecturer at the university, I introduce contemporary works by young authors who began to emerge after 1998 to show that their works contain profound and serious thoughts about rebuilding the nation after it had experienced more than thirty-two years of New Order’s authoritarian rule. New trajectories and visions are offered, and the awareness of the need to be an integrated part of the world is sharpened. The works of these authors are important additions to the literary canon that has existed before because it is no longer adequate to understand the present by solely relying on literature of the past since a significant break occurred with the collapse of the New Order, and the works of contemporary authors show exactly that.BW