Crit me, please – Maltese authors want honest feedback

An essay published in an international journal suggests that Maltese literature needs more serious criticism, and that even the controversy surrounding Alex Vella Gera’s short story Li Tkisser Sewwi could have been dampened had the right publication avenues been available to the author. 

The essay, written by Prof. Ivan Callus (Head of the English Department at the University of Malta) was published in the Malta-themed September edition of Transcript, an online journal specialising in writing from ‘minor’ countries. Throughout the course of the essay, entitled ‘Incongruity and Scale: The Challenge of Discernment in Maltese Literature’, Callus argues that local writing is severely compromised by the lack of a ‘gate keeping’ publication – such as a monthly literary journal – which could provide an adequate platform for local writers.

According to Callus, as it stands, local writers have to resort to ‘next best’ platforms to showcase their work: ‘daily or Sunday newspapers, for instance, or in the paġna letterarja [the literary page, in the deadening singular] of other periodicals. In other words, they have been published in the wrong places’… a fact that, Callus suggests, is one of the reasons why both Vella Gera and Ir-Realta editor Mark Camilleri ran into trouble with the police.

And because no such publications exist locally as yet, the very act of writing, locally, ‘almost surprises itself by its very existence’, Callus writes, citing how, despite a healthy amount of local books being published annually, the presence of a regular book award and even the availability of Maltese works in translation, the lack of a centralised avenue for criticism leaves a substantial gap in the development of a fully-fledged local literature.

Authors have generally found themselves in agreement with Callus, the impression being that the essay has given voice to concerns and hurdles that they have had to face all throughout their careers.

Agreeing that “the need for a literary journal is obvious,” Vella Gera is however cautious that such a publication could have curbed his ordeal with the courts: “I suspect the story would not have been published in a well-refereed literary journal. It was published in Ir-Realta because the editorial board of that publication saw its quality first and foremost not in literary terms but in social terms… If the story had been published in a literary journal, would the scandal have erupted anyway? Probably yes, but it would not have been so big,” Vella Gera said, while also acknowledging the need for proper critics on the island.

“For better or for worse, they are an essential part of the whole thing, and without them one can sense that the scene just limps along, with books being published and never really given the once over by an almost ‘scientific’ eye. Literature is an art, but I see it almost in scientific terms. When you publish a novel you are proposing something, a theory almost. And if it’s just  thrown in there and not worked upon, through feedback and criticism which reacts to it, than the process is only half baked,” Vella Gera said.

Similarly, author and poet Immanuel Mifsud said “I, for one crave to know where my literature stands,” in agreeing with Callus’s argument. “How would a Marxist react to my work? Or a feminist? Or any other critic from any school of thought? I have no answer to my most basic questions about my own writing, and to be honest it is quite frustrating,” Mifsud said, also commenting on another shortcoming: the lack of “a literature information centre.”

“This too has been an issue which writers of my generation have been very concerned with. Almost all European countries, particularly those who consider themselves to be on the periphery – either geographically or for the mere size of their population – have a professional set up which has the sole aim of promoting their literature outside their cultural contexts,” Mifsud said.

Former independent publisher Mark Vella also welcomed Callus’s essay, not least because it happened to coincide with Vella’s  own Révù – a recently launched Maltese language online publication featuring primarily cultural reviews and political commentary.

“Révù is responding to the dearth of independent review that can be witnessed in most of the mainstream media, where cultural products are simply publicised advertorially, or else surreptitiously reviewed by friendly networks. Whenever reviews are truly independent, many times the analysts are rarely up to the job,” Vella said.

Vella added that Révù is open to contributions from academics, and that Callus’s essay has given him “renewed hope, and I’m optimistic that the nation’s brains will relish the opportunity to contribute to this space.”

Chris Gruppetta, director of publishing at Merlin, also agreed with Callus’s argument, describing the essay as “one of the more perceptive pieces on the state of Maltese literature that I’ve read in a long while.”

However, Gruppetta was less convinced about Callus’s depiction of Maltese literature as being in a ‘precarious’ state.

“Maltese literature is healthier than it's ever been – but precisely because of the lack of serious critique and a certain overly-democratic attitude to literature (“ma nikkritikahx ghax miskin ipprova, hawn post ghal kulhadd), the good is being considered on the same level as the outright bad. Art was never meant to be democratic, and this is extremely unfair to the authors and works concerned, but also to the perception “abroad” (in Dr Callus’s definition of the word) of Maltese literature.”

To this end, Gruppetta pointed out how The Malta Council for Culture and the Arts – of which he is a board member – is currently working on a literary translation project, another thing that Gruppetta finds to be essential.

“We as publishers, acting on behalf of our authors, are repeatedly setting up networks with foreign publishers, agents and editors only to have our efforts frustrated when professional full-length translations into a world language are not available,” Gruppetta said.