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.