Category Archives: Reviewing

Like, don’t like, and the quality of literary reviewing

How would you rate the quality of literary reviewing and criticism in Australia today? If you count all the brief opinion pieces by bloggers and contributors to sites such as Goodreads, there’s certainly a huge amount of it around us. But does it do what it should?

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Last week The West Australian printed a stimulating article on this topic by William Yeoman, the newspaper’s book editor. Its main point of reference is James Ley’s recent book The Critic in the Modern World, which discusses half a dozen influential literary critics from Samuel Johnson to James Wood with an emphasis on their public role.

Ley, editor of the excellent online periodical Sydney Review of Books and recipient of this year’s Pascall Prize for Criticism, remarks that in contrast to the work of those exemplary figures ‘the present glut of literary commentary is unworthy of the name criticism’ because ‘it takes the form of assertion rather than analysis. It shrinks the expansive notion of judgment to mere personal evaluation.’

Ley tells Yeoman that ‘a lot of what passes for reviewing’ shows no intellectual engagement with the work in question. It’s little more than a statement about what someone likes or doesn’t like.

Why does this matter? In my view, a big problem with the like/don’t like focus of so many reviews (powerfully reinforced by countless Facebook thumbings) is simply this: it encourages readers, and therefore some publishers, to give priority to the kinds of writing that are gratifying to consume and therefore commercially attractive. I’m reminded of a remark in the opening essay of Jonathan Franzen’s book Farther Away:

The striking thing about all consumer products is that they’re designed to be immensely likeable…in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it.

The latter, he says, is exemplified by ‘serious art and literature.’

The Australian literary scene certainly isn’t devoid of intelligent, well-informed writing about newly published work. Admirable reviews by critics such as Richard King, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Delia Falconer, Susan Sheridan, Nicholas Jose and Peter Pierce come immediately to mind. (They all write for Sydney Review of Books.) But critics of that calibre are not numerous, and so a serious writer must anticipate the all too possible mischance of seeing one’s book reviewed by someone incompetent whose lens for reading is hardly more than like/don’t like. Yeoman quotes Sonya Hartnett’s recent comment on this problem:

You don’t spend two years of your life on something to have it reviewed by someone who is not particularly professional – a professional shouldn’t be reviewed by a non-professional.

When I pause to consider what truly ‘professional’ reviewing should mean, I can see that in general (acknowledging honourable exceptions such as those mentioned above) there’s a real deficiency in most Australian critical practice. Even our major bookish periodicals seldom show much awareness of a shared context of traditional literary culture that could reliably guide interpretation and evaluation of new works. For the most part the frame of reference for a book review tends to be narrowly contemporary. It seems that many critics are just not familiar enough with a wide range of notable past writings to be able to recognise the often subtle ways in which a new text engages with prior texts as part of an ongoing conversation. Many years ago in his classic essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, T.S. Eliot remarked that innovative writing involves a fusion of past and present. Too few reviewers nowadays seem equipped to apply that principle to their task.

Meanwhile the spread of ‘citizen reviewing’ through social media may seem a healthy corrective to what some perceive as elite coterie criticism. But on the other hand informal amateur reviews are often tendentious, producing a welter of indiscriminately enthusiastic fan-based friend-linked boosterism which almost drowns out any serious sustained attempts at independent critical judgment. So we should be especially grateful for those few who swim against the populist tide, not least James Ley and the best contributors to his Sydney Review of Books.

At the end of his review essay in last week’s West Australian, William Yeoman invited responses to the topic with the intention of printing some of them on his book page in next Tuesday’s edition (26 August). I’ll be watching that space.

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 2

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This is the second and final instalment of a retrospect on books I read last year that continue to impress me months afterwards. The previous post discussed several works of non-fiction, but most of my reading in 2013 was fiction – mainly Australian. A few novels from other parts of the world still stir my imagination, most notably Herman Koch’s The Dinner with its unforgettably creepy narrator; Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with its strong narrative momentum and troubling theme that comes much closer to home than the exotic setting led me to expect; Susan Abulhawa’s heartbreaking evocation of Palestinian suffering, Mornings in Jenin; Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a powerful psychological study of World War 1 experiences; and Julian Barnes’s witty and cunning The Sense of an Ending. Nevertheless it was Australian fiction that attracted most of my attention, and several novels (plus some short story collections) have kept a tight grip on me.

It would be hard to forget the narrator of Toni Jordan’s lovely story Addition: hilariously and sadly compulsive, intelligently self-aware, Grace almost manages to wreck her chance of happiness – but despite the shadows of mental instability this is a comic romance, after all. Comparable in its affiliation with true romance, though focused on a less quirky protagonist, Deborah Burrows’s A Stranger in My Street blends the love interest with a murder mystery and an historical setting (Perth in the WW2 years) that is convincingly rendered. Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper is similarly set in Western Australia and partly in the same period, but its narrative structure is more complicated than in A Stranger in My Street, and what has imprinted itself most distinctly on my memory is the nostalgic elaboration of its descriptive detail.

The genre of Kathryn Heyman’s Floodline seemed at first a satirical blend of a Hollywood disaster movie with a Deep Southern evangelical morality play – except that the muddle-headed self-thwarting characters and the emotional troubles generated by their poignantly dysfunctional family relationships soon compelled me not only to believe in them but also to want the best for them. Convincing characterisation is also the main thing that sticks in my mind from Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a well-researched story of Norwegian whaling and Antarctic exploration in the 1930s: all three women at the story’s centre are distinctive and entirely credible.

The fine achievement of M.K Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans stems largely from its devising of an outlandish situation that is fraught with moral conflict and insoluble dilemmas, so that everything that unfolds from the brilliant narrative premise carries a sense of almost inevitable doom. ‘Brilliant’ is also an apt descriptor for Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, in which sentence after polished sentence sparkles with a mordant wit that often reminds me of Patrick White – though in retrospect that bright hard surface is more memorable than the interactions between characters.

During 2013 I read a number of short story collections, which by their nature are difficult to summarise although I still have a precise recall of several individual stories. Some of them were first published long ago: Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories (which I re-read every two or three years, and which I’ve discussed in a chapter of Narrative Exchanges) belong to the early 20th century, and Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of Fall goes back half a century. Mansfield’s are full of startling imagery, Hazzard’s are full of subtle perceptions, and both writers remind me that even the most economical form of narration can be capacious in its implications. The best pieces in two short-story volumes by Perth-based writers also made an impact on me last year and won’t be forgotten for a long while: Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky and Amanda Curtin’s Inherited. I’ve commented on both, along with Alice Munro’s Dear Life, in a previous post titled Brevity with Scope.

Amanda Curtin’s latest book is the outstanding novel Elemental, which for me (and many others, I’m sure) provided one of the most memorable reading experiences of 2013. Much of its enduring power comes from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch, but there is a great deal more to admire in the language of the text as a whole – every word counts, every sentence is perfectly balanced – as well as in the clever structure and in the vivid rendering of historical detail. Last year I also read Amanda’s previous novel, The Sinkings, which had been on my shelf since it appeared five years ago. (I’d delayed my reading of it when I became aware that its subject matter appeared to have something in common with a novel of my own that I was working on, and I didn’t want to be distracted or influenced by seeing how she had handled her story. As soon as I finished mine I read hers, and it turns out that I needn’t have worried: despite some similar ingredients, our novels are quite different from each other.) The Sinkings is a haunting tale; it depicts hardship, cruelty and loneliness unforgettably; and in my mind its most remarkable quality is the way it combines its unblinking realism with a deep compassion.

The main thing that sticks in my mind from Iris Lavell’s novel Elsewhere in Success is its insight into what can lie beneath the seemingly banal surface of suburban Perth. Most of the story’s foreground action is unspectacular and the characters are (as one of them says) ‘just ordinary people’ – which poses a considerable narrative challenge. But as deep currents swirl under them they thresh around, gasp for breath, and struggle towards something close to redemption.

I read a couple of novels by another Western Australian writer in 2013, and both have continued to give me plenty of food for thought. Nicholas Hasluck’s Our Man K and Dismissal are fine examples of political fiction grounded in historical fact – a genre that few novelists in this country have successfully grappled with. The central figure in Our Man K is Egon Kisch, a real-life Czech journalist who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Hasluck’s portrayal of Kisch emphasises his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (with whose own character ‘K’ Kisch becomes associated), and with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Dismissal is an absorbing tale of espionage, ethical dilemmas and personal disloyalties in Australia during the period from the 1930s to the fall of the Whitlam government. I can’t think of any other novelist so well equipped to write this kind of work.

So there it is – a mere glance back over my shoulder at residues of a year’s reading. The retrospect doesn’t extend to every publication I consumed last year but takes in about 30 books of various kinds (including those mentioned in the previous post) that for different reasons have lodged in my consciousness more than other things read during the same period. Two-thirds of them were written by women.

I wonder whether I’ll still recall the same aspects of the same books a year or two from now.

 

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 1

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Every December it’s a staple item for the literary pages of newspapers: an array of brief responses by a bevy of writers and critics to the question ‘Which books stood out for you during the last year?’ Many of these respondents have reviewed several publications over the previous months, often in the same publication, so it’s not difficult for them to slap together a couple of paragraphs that draw selectively on verdicts they’ve already delivered.

I do a fair bit of reading, but not since my high school days have I kept a memo list of all the titles, and I no longer write reviews frequently. So if – lacking those aids to memory – I now ask myself which books back there in 2013 made an impact on me, the emphasis of the question shifts slightly because a few months have elapsed: it’s about what still lingers in the mind, what the residue of all that reading is. In some cases a book that may have engrossed my attention at the time when I was holding it in my hand has since begun to fade from recollection, while another book continues to do its invasive work in my head.

Writers hope that their readers will experience both kinds of engagement. I was delighted when someone reviewing my first novel (in Bookseller & Publisher) said she was ‘completely absorbed from the first page to the final scene’; but it was especially satisfying that another reviewer (in The Sydney Morning Herald) said ‘It has stayed with me and has been hard to shake off.’ Lasting impressions, even if they involve mixed feelings, can sometimes be more important than an immediately positive response of ‘liking’ a book.

Most of what I read last year was hot off the press; other titles had been out in the world for longer. Regardless of whether they were newly published, what do I now think about some of those books?

I’ll omit reference to a lot of the non-fiction, because that reading was merely instrumental – it belonged to the research groundwork for a couple of novels I was drafting last year. But a few other non-fiction books have stayed with me, and I’ll discuss them in the rest of this post, leaving the fiction to a sequel instalment.

An unusual ethnographic study that came my way is Icelandic Men and Me by Robert Faulkner, who spent many years as a music teacher in Iceland. He writes about the way in which male identity in Icelandic communities is still shaped by traditional group singing. A specialised book, yes – but its author makes it very readable, not least by bringing candidly into the foreground some fascinating reflections on the shaping of his own masculinity in England. Faulkner’s book also appealed to me because of my own long-standing interest in Icelandic cultural traditions (I learned the language as a student, and analysed a 13th-century mythological tale by Snorri Sturluson in part of my book Narrative Exchanges).

When the shaping of an entirely factual story is exceptionally skilful it can acquire most of the qualities of literary fiction. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, by Kate Summerscale (whose previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was similarly memorable), is a meticulous, compelling account of a sensational mid-19th century divorce case in England and the events leading up to it. I can’t think of any other book that gives such a moving insight into a woman’s experience of marriage and sexuality in that period.

Completely different in its scope and in the kind of reading experience it provides, Simon Schama’s massive work of scholarship Landscape and Memory was heavy going, and at times the weight of detail felt oppressive as I waded through its 650 pages of text and its countless colour plates and other illustrations. Yet I keep recalling portions of it, and I think I’ll be opening the book again from time to time. The extraordinary range of Schama’s research has produced an encyclopaedic compilation of imagery and stories about the relationship of Europeans to their physical environment – forests, waterways, rocks, mountains and the rest of it – over many centuries. It’s a gigantic monument to the process of making meanings from the symmetries and tensions between culture and nature.

Noelene Bloomfield’s Almost a French Australia is a handsomely produced and diligently researched book, full of fine illustrations and fascinating historical details. But for me its most memorable feature turns out to be the recurrent narrative pattern summed up in its title’s plaintive first word: almost. This account of French exploration in the southern oceans relates episode after episode of near-success, disappointment and last-minute disaster. Among the most notable tales of (mis)adventure are those of Saint-Aloüarn, who claimed Australia’s western coast for France in 1772 but died in Mauritius on his journey home, and of Baudin three decades later, who also perished in Mauritius after surveying much of Australia’s shoreline. Between those hapless voyagers came (among others) the brilliant navigator La Pérouse – lost in a shipwreck near New Caledonia after criss-crossing the Pacific from Cape Horn to Russia and from Alaska to Botany Bay – and D’Entrecasteaux, whose search for La Pérouse took him to many places before he too died at sea. Apart from hundreds of French place names dotted around Australia’s coast, there is little to show for all that doomed heroism.

I remember clearly the distinctive qualities of three books of essays read in 2013. Other Colours, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, gives a colourful picture of what cultural life in Istanbul has been like for someone who education and family background bring east and west into a productive tension. Legal Limits, by Western Australian lawyer-and-writer Nicholas Hasluck, illuminates several aspects of the relationship between law and literature and conveys particular insights into fictional work by Kafka, Orwell, Coetzee, Borges and others – including some of Nick’s own novels. And Telling Stories: Australian Life and Literature 1935-2012, impressively edited by Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, assembles nearly 90 short lively essays by different hands to give a kaleidoscopic account of literary and popular culture in this country during that period.

But most of what I read last year was fiction, and I’ll discuss about 20 titles in my next post…