Tag Archives: Kerryn Goldsworthy

The other ABR: an Adelaide story

If an institution celebrates its 40-year anniversary, you might well think it began four decades ago. In the case of a major arts periodical, the Australian Book Review, you’d be wrong.

The Melbourne-based ABR has been proclaiming a Fortieth Birthday to commemorate its 1978 starting point, but that date actually marks only the resumption of a publishing history inaugurated in Adelaide, the magazine’s home for thirteen years until 1974. The original ABR deserves respect as a noteworthy production, distinctly local in tone but national in importance. Its role in promoting and evaluating Australian publications was innovative, if sometimes quirky.

In 1961, when the first ABR issue appeared, few people could have sensed that South Australia was a place where literary enterprise would soon thrive. The state’s cultural climate exuded no more than a faint whiff of impending change. The everlasting Sir Thomas Playford, having held office since before World War 2, was about to be elected Premier for an eighth successive term of economistic and parochial government. Though the Adelaide Festival and Writers’ Week had got under way the previous year, the burgeoning of the arts under Don Dunstan still lay ahead.

Yet over the next five years several Adelaide-based activities, propelled by Max Harris in collaboration with Geoffrey Dutton and Rosemary Wighton, brought an exhilarating vitality to Australia’s literary scene and publishing industry. Mary Martin’s Bookshop, after ownership passed to Harris, created a new business model and international outlook for bookselling, which quickly spread to the eastern states. In those days, Kerryn Goldsworthy aptly recalls, MMB seemed ‘one of Adelaide’s few real gateways to the great world.’

While MMB required much time and effort, Harris found further outlets for his immense energy during this period. He started his weekly ‘Browsing’ column in The Australian newspaper, which would continue for 27 years and generate three book-length selections. He worked with Penguin Books on developing Australian titles, including The Literature of Australia, a highly successful critical handbook which Dutton edited and to which Harris contributed a chapter. Wanting a livelier Australian list of their own, Harris and Dutton then partnered with Brian Stonier to establish Sun Books, an eclectic paperback imprint featuring brilliant new work like Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance. The quarterly Australian Letters, co-edited by Harris and Dutton, had begun earlier but came into its own in this period. And through the advocacy of this same pair of impresarios, the Union Theatre successfully staged three experimental plays by Patrick White that the Adelaide Festival had disdained. But it was the Harris-led ABR venture that, arguably, had the broadest influence.

While Adelaide hasn’t forgotten Max Harris, even now he is mostly associated with the youthful turbulence of his 1940s Angry Penguins phase and the Ern Malley hoax in particular. For a capacious account of Harris’s prodigiously extensive achievements as trenchant critic, versatile poet, bold editor, entrepreneurial publisher, unorthodox bookseller, gadfly journalist and much else, we are indebted to Betty Snowden’s definitive biography, which should be better known.

Harris’s founding and sustaining of the ABR, supported by Dutton and Wighton, merits special tribute. I remember with affection the magazine’s heyday. Though my own involvement was peripheral, as a regular reviewer I dealt directly with its editors and warmly appreciated its ethos.

My contributions were not remarkable for critical acumen, but their nature illustrates a significant aspect of the ABR phenomenon. During the magazine’s last few Adelaide years, I reviewed scores of miscellaneous titles at Max’s behest, gathering armfuls of them together for each instalment in a series of longish essays. All were New Zealand books! Why give them so much attention in a publication nominally devoted to Australian publishing? Because, like MMB, the ABR was cosmopolitan in spirit. Harris and his co-editor Wighton had the aim of not only reviewing almost everything newly published in this country but also including brief notices of many books from overseas. Impossibly ambitious, but they gave it a really good crack.

As a juvenile Kiwi recently arrived in Adelaide, I’d been browsing one day in MMB and got chatting with the genial Max about my prospective research project comparing Australian and New Zealand fiction in their social contexts. ‘Ah!’ said Max. ‘Well then, I hereby appoint you as our New Zealand editor!’ Thereafter I reviewed whatever happened to come into the magazine’s postbox from across the Tasman: not only literary work but also books on topics as diverse as ornithology, visual arts, criminal sociology and Maori culture. These I supplemented by titles I solicited myself. Max and Rosemary gave me a free hand.

I was conscious that my apprentice reviews were appearing in distinguished company, including Strehlow on anthropology, Bannon on trade unions, Shapcott on poetry, Semmler on fiction, Petty on cartooning, and Harris himself on Sidney Nolan, or on book design, or on the ‘blind self-righteousness’ of Governor-General Hasluck’s speeches. I was conscious, too, that while material under review might have a foreign source the magazine’s main readership was Australian. So I’d try occasionally to show what was distinctive about a chosen NZ book by juxtaposing it with a comparable Australian book – to consider, for instance, how some Janet Frame novel resembled and differed from one of Patrick White’s.

The Adelaide provenance of the ABR remained unmistakable. Harris had a keen eye for local matters that could potently dramatise issues of larger concern, such as censorship. He didn’t hesitate to print in full a dissenting judgment by Chief Justice John Bray, running to well over 100,000 words, on the appeal against an injunction prohibiting any South Australian performance of the musical Oh Calcutta! Still, readers would often encounter exotic items as well: an article on Prague’s political and cultural scene in 1970, for instance, or a witty piece by Dutton on some curious tome picked up in a Bucharest bookshop.

In 1971 the magazine moved from monthly to quarterly publication. This partly reflected commercial trends: for one thing, advertising space was becoming harder to sell. It probably indicated also that Harris was beginning to wilt under the demands of the production process. Misprints and other errors crept in. The 1972 correspondence column carried complaints and corrigenda from publishers, one stern letter being addressed ‘Dear Max the Lax.’ Meanwhile, as Dunstan’s wave of reforms gathered momentum in South Australia and Whitlam’s federal government came to power, the whole cultural and political environment was being transformed.

Adelaide’s ABR expired a couple of years later, only to be revived elsewhere after a four-year interval. This 1978 rebirth is what the Melbourne-based ABR is now celebrating. May the magazine continue to prosper! – but let’s not forget its earlier incarnation.




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.