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?


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.

4 thoughts on “Like, don’t like, and the quality of literary reviewing

  1. Art is as important or as unimportant as people want to make it. If people think it’s important, they will employ dedicated and trained commentators to help them interpret it. The lack of training of most commentators, and the unwillingness of many people to properly engage with a work of literature even while they’re passing comment on it, would seem to suggest that the consumption and public dissection of literature, while prolific, doesn’t incorporate enough respect for the thing itself or the potential it has. Why is this so? Is it the overwhelming ‘democracy’ of the internet, combined with the promise of breaking into Celebrity Culture with little more than a mouse-click? Or are we all so bent upon entertainment over engagement, when our so-called ‘productive’ lives are already so overloaded and so rigidly circumscribed?

    I’m sure I’ve been just as guilty as allowing my taste (or lack of it) to deviate me from a more balanced appraisal of all sorts of Art. Fortunately, the variability of responses is part of what makes Art interesting, provided we make honest attempts at engagement within our individual limitations. But I’m glad you’ve posted this, Ian, because you’ve reminded me that it’s probably best for me to leave most critical commentary to others better qualified than myself.

  2. A really interesting, well considered reflection, Glen – thanks for this.
    Just to clarify what I wanted to convey: it’s not my wish to deter anyone from expressing their personal views about anything they read, and I think social media can serve a useful function in letting readers share a wide variety of responses to books. But ‘public criticism’ in the literary pages of journals, where formal reviewing takes place, does require a certain sense of professional responsibility to provide measured, informed, analytical commentary of the kind that James Ley describes.

  3. I agree with these sentiments, Ian. Literary criticism that is working at its best holds the work to account, acknowledges the strengths, but doesn’t let it get away with lazy storytelling. Or execution. It helps to clarify the gold standard.

  4. I’m glad we take the same view of this, Iris. ‘Holding the work to account’ is a good summary of criticism’s main function, and it’s very different from evaluating something merely on the basis of personal taste. As Glen remarks in a comment on my previous post, wanting a novel to be likeable can soon lead to the absurdity of wanting its characters to be likeable too!

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