‘Truth and elegance soured’: Susan Wyndham on Gideon Haigh’s Kill Your Darlings piece

by Estelle Tang , February 23, 20103 Comments

Susan Wyndham of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote about Kill Your Darlings on Saturday:

Among the essays, fiction, reviews, cartoons and interview with Sarah Waters, Undercover was most curious to read Gideon Haigh’s piece Feeding the Hand that Bites on “the demise of Australian literary reviewing”. The books pages of our newspapers and magazines, he complains, “have become hodgepodges of conventional wisdom and middlebrow advertorial”. Newspapers publish them with “a grudging air” because they attract no advertising; reviewers are poorly paid and anxious not to stick their neck out.

As often in Haigh’s writing (including his book reviews), there’s truth and elegance soured with a lot of vinegar. I will also read with interest the rebuttal by Martin Shaw, a manager at Readings Books, which will be on the journal’s site next month.

Indeed. Stay tuned for a teaser of Gideon’s controversial piece.

  • Kate

    I haven’t read the article yet but intend to. I did listen to the Book Show interview and am really grateful that someone has finally called the newspapers on this. Funnily enough it was the Australian which came in for most criticism, some of which is warranted, but to me the real travesty is the Sydney Morning Herald, which has gone so relentlessly downmarket and tabloid in all its sections, including books, that it has started to resemble Who magazine. What little space is given to book reviews is often given to the most sensationalist, trashiest potboiler they can find or to a PR interview revealing nothing much about either writer or book. As a published author now working on a third novel, the fact that there are only two or three major newspapers offering any review space at all is very demoralising, particularly when compared with the UK or the US.
    On the poor state of reviewing in Oz – bless Ramona Koval who is cheery and well intentioned but who somehow manages to plumb ever-new depths of inanity in her interviews with writers. Again a shame – The Book Show it is one of our few literary radio shows and I find it relentlessly “middlebrow”.

  • Boris Kelly

    I haven’t read Gideon’s piece but can I suggest that publishing it online would be a sensible marketing move for Killing….I think the problem Gideon points to is endemic to reviewing in disciplines other than literature. Theatre reviews, for example, are often blandly uninformative and lacking the verve of spirited intellectual engagement. Which is not to say that broadsheet reviews should be highbrow. A good reviewer respects the intelligence of the reader and seeks to engage with him/her through a mixture of considered personal response, careful contextualising and a dash of provocation. Far too often I find it is the quality of the writing which disappoints. The broadsheets have a weariness about them these days which may be a symptom of institutional atrophy in the face of the quality and eclecticism of smaller more responsive inititiatives online and on paper.

  • Jo

    I am obviously somewhat biased here as I sporadically review for the SMH, but I’d like to wade in with a defence nonetheless. I actually think the books pages of the SMH and The Age (declaring another bias here) are pretty good, especially in the era of the decline of print newspapers. It is a great pity that space allocated to books is declining, but that’s due to the mess the print media is in – and particularly newspapers – rather than decisions made by literary editors, who I’m sure would all like as much space as they can get. I don’t get to read the SMH as often as I’d like, it often being hard to get from Melbourne, but I like the mix on its book pages and think that they often feature writers who aren’t hugely commercial but are of great literary interest. For instance, speaking from experience, I got a decent slab of space (in newspaper real estate terms) to review the excellent and underrated (and very cerebral) Rachel Cusk’s latest novel late last year, which I can’t remember seeing reviewed elsewhere locally (though I very likely missed it somewhere). This is just the example that comes to mind. The really commercial fiction stuff is often reviewed in shorts by Kerryn Goldsworthy, who I think is one of Australia’s finest reviewers. And I think we have to bear in mind that a newspaper books page isn’t just for literary readers; it needs to feature a range of genres as a newspaper’s audience is fairly broad. And commercial & genre writers deserve to be reviewed, too.

    I think when you look at the situation in the US and make a comparison based on the huge discrepancies in population and population spread, we’re doing pretty well in terms of space (not that I wouldn’t like more!) Many US books sections shut down altogether last year.

    All that said, I welcome your comments Kate and yours too, Boris. I think one of the wonderful things about Gideon’s piece is that it encourages debate and gets people talking and thinking about reviewing culture. For my part, I think Gideon’s very brave and stimulating piece locates some real problems, even though I may not agree on all the specifics or on their general severity. I think a lot of these problems are about the culture in general, rather than about individuals.

    But of course, feel free to argue with me!


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