‘The fights most worth having are the ones you won’t win’: The continuing debate on Australian literary reviewing
The pleasure of, and also the trouble with, writing something about book reviewing like ‘Feeding The Hand That Bites’ is that you become a perceived sympathetic ear to everyone’s literary horror story.
Since my article appeared in the first edition of Kill Your Darlings, I have been privy to the stories of a novelist stalked on Facebook by another novelist whose book he’d given a negative review, a book so bad that nobody would review it because the author was an important figure in the distribution of literary grants, and a writer whose book was reviewed savagely by another writer whose book on the same subject was about to be published. I’ve heard publishers complain bitterly about the bizarre books some newspapers choose to review, and the important ones they somehow forget about; they’ve confided, sotto voce, that they regard the review pages of Australian papers as of little practical relevance.
Now, this doesn’t mean that my critique was right. I’m not sure that similar stories and attitudes haven’t been in circulation throughout the annals of literary history. But that wasn’t really the point of ‘Feeding the Hand’. It seemed a good idea at the time, and it still does: even if I was wrong, it could not hurt to remind people of the usefulness of nourishing intelligent, provocative and fearless criticism, at a time when for all sorts of reasons it is under threat and undervalued. The piece was pungent, naturally. It also offended a few luvvies, and I don’t doubt that some will in future hold it against me. You’re meant to suck up to people who might review your work, not take a dump and smear it in their eyeballs. But, of course, the fights most worth having are the ones you can’t win.
I’m pleased to report, though, that the general response was perhaps surprisingly cordial. Most people seemed to grasp that ‘Feeding the Hand’ was a plea on reviewing’s behalf, not an indiscriminate condemnation of it. I was criticised for not naming and shaming, but I didn’t want to become personal: literary debates in Australia degenerate so quickly when individual animosities are aired. My concern was chiefly whether we had an environment that conduced to the kind of criticism genuinely capable of distinguishing good from bad and saying so, rather than one existing as a kind of last link in the publicity food chain.
Just for the record, I was not moved to write ‘Feeding the Hand’ because of a bad experience with reviewing or being reviewed: over the years, even if I’ve occasionally been disappointed by the standard of prose and thought in reviews of my work, I reckon I’ve had a fairly good run with reviewers. My provocation was merely a sensation of diminishing returns as a consumer of a genre of writing I happen to enjoy. Thank you to, among others, Ramona Koval, Stephen Romei, Jane Sullivan, Susan Wyndham and Martin Shaw, who entered into the public discussion in a generous spirit even where they disagreed with me.
One rather confused and confusing entry into the conversation was published in the Review section of The Australian at the weekend by Rosemary Neill. ‘Critical Mass: The Shifting Balance’ promised to answer the question as to whether ‘professional critics’ were ‘an endangered species’ in ‘the age of bloggers, Amazon and Rotten Tomatoes’. (To digress: isn’t it time for a moratorium on the cliché ‘critical mass’ as a headline for pieces about reviewing?).
There were many odd things about this not very interesting piece, which felt like it could have been written ten years ago, given the way it treated critics as all of a piece, even though the modes of criticism for books, films, plays, poetry are all completely different, and viewed blogs as the latest and greatest addition to the interwebs while ignoring Twitter, Facebook and other social media altogether as phenomena by which old-fashioned ‘word of mouth’ now spreads. I spoke to Rosemary Neill when she was writing this piece. We had, I thought, a most pleasant half-hour conversation. I am quoted in her piece – we’ll get to that later. But when she sent me her list of questions, I groaned. Here we go again: the same old set of unexamined assumptions and predigested prejudices. And guess what? That’s what the article ended up as. There was a polite examination of many of the phenomena I described in ‘Biting the Hand’ – diminishing space, dwindling relevance, indifference to the role of the critic in society. But don’t worry! On the basis of a poll in The Stage, cited in the penultimate paragraph, in which theatregoers said drama critics would still be relevant in a decade, Rosemary concluded bullishly: ‘The obituaries, it seems, are premature.’ Well, there’s a surprise? A newspaper review section saying that obituaries are premature for newspaper review sections!
The whole exercise, in fact, was deliciously conflicted. We were offered two huge pictures of David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, just to remind us what ‘professional critics’ looked like, and a picture of Alison Croggon, too: a little in-house, one might think, given that both Stratton and Croggon are Rosemary’s colleagues at The Australian. Similarly incestuous was Rosemary’s summary of the redemptions of the modern reviewing scene: ‘The Australian and The Age now run two daily arts pages rather than the traditional single pages; The Australian has also invested heavily in a redesign of Review and, in 2006, revived its monthly literary journal, the Australian Literary Review.’ Anyhow, this twenty-four carat silver lining set the scene for Rosemary’s response to ‘Feeding the Hand’:
Even so, in March, author, critic and journalist Gideon Haigh tore into Australia’s book-reviewing scene. Books reviews [sic] these days were too short, he said, they entrenched a culture of shallow reviewing. In the new journal Kill Your Darlings Haigh argued that the books pages of Australian newspapers and magazines were a ‘wasteland … hodgepodges of conventional wisdom and middlebrow advertorial’ and that the ‘besetting sin of Australian book reviewing … is its sheer dullness and inexpertise’. (He did not say whether his criticisms applied to his own reviews).
Does this mean literary reviewers have brought their decline on themselves? Haigh dodges the question. ‘I feel a bit sorry for literary editors,’ he tells Review, sounding a little sheepish. ‘I was probably a bit harsh on them. I think their pages are a bit neglected by the bores and philistines who make decisions on newspapers these days.’
This is a double misrepresentation, suggesting that I’m ‘sheepish’, when what I was being was charitable, and that I dodged the question, when I clearly didn’t, by exhibiting an understanding that reviewers operate in a climate in which much is out of their control; perhaps I should just simply have said ‘no’. It was just a teeny bit disingenuous of Rosemary to take a generous aside as a true flavour of my opinion.
The fact is that I am sympathetic to the lot of literary editors, whom I think are generally good people in fairly thankless jobs – because, alas, I can’t really imagine the scenario under which anyone would thank a literary editor. By the same token, while almost everything about the way in which we write in newspapers has changed over the time I’ve been in them, review pages basically look the same – just smaller. You get reviews. You get interviews with authors. Ho-hum. It’s not very vibrant, or engaging. I will always read books pages, I imagine, but I’m bound to say that I struggle to find much original thinking on them; nor, I fear, are they gaining many new readers.
There’s something, furthermore, that Rosemary dodges in her question. Who or what are ‘literary reviewers’? Because I’m not sure I’m one, or even how many real ones I know of in Australia. A sizeable proportion of those who review are not specialist ‘critics’. We’re novelists, journalists and poets, plus the occasional academic, who do some reviewing on the side. And this, surely, is a problem. If we have our own dogs in the fight, might we not favour a degree of general muzzling? That’s nobody’s fault, by the way. The writing and reviewing markets are small in Australia, and tend naturally to overlap. But it does mean, I think, that we will always have to try harder if we’re to have a robust and creative critical culture.
Here’s more Rosemary and me – clearly a match made in heaven.
Does traditional criticism have the same traction it used to? ‘There is no doubt the answer is no.’ But Haigh is not particularly taken with online criticism, either: ‘You read the reviews on Amazon and IMDb [the film website] and you think, ‘Really these aren’t reviews, they are just responses to things.’
I’m quoted here not because I have anything very much to contribute, but because I shore up Rosemary’s premeditated conclusion, which as mentioned earlier is that ‘the obituaries’ for mainstream criticism are ‘premature’ because online reviewing hasn’t filled the vacuum.
Except that here I cannot claim to be very well-informed. ‘Biting the Hand’ makes no mention of the interwebs – arguably it should have. Since writing the piece, I’ve actually made a greater effort to read reviews online, and I’ve been more impressed than I expected: I now follow City of Tongues, LiteraryMinded, The Rejectionist and Reeling and Writhing. The other phenomenon I should almost certainly have mentioned is Arts & Letters Daily, on my favourites list for ten years, where reviews are accorded paramount importance. Despite being set explicitly in ‘the age of the bloggers’, Rosemary managed not to mention a single blog by name. Could this, perchance, be another dodging?
Just one more bit, I promise:
Haigh thinks the underlying problem is that Australia has never had a sophisticated tradition of cultural criticism: ‘I don’t think cultural criticism has ever had deep roots here.’ Instead, he argues that we have a ‘best buy’ reviewing mentality.
It’s a pity Rosemary wasn’t more interested in this, or didn’t understand it, because I had been thinking about it a good deal. I’ll illustrate it by referring here to the common practice, particularly in movie reviewing, of the mark out of five. Far from being magisterial practitioners of the art of the cinema criticism, David and Margaret are chiefly consumer guides, who condense everything to a ratings system rather like a Choice survey of vacuum cleaners; indeed, it is integral to their success.
The mark out of five is a powerful tool, and I suspect a coercive one: who would willingly go and see a film to which both David and Margaret gave a 3? Yet I remain unsure how fair such a system is. A thoughtful review permits disagreement; a number seems to brook no argument. I wonder if any literary editors have been taxed about introducing such a number system; I wonder, too, if they would be capable of staving off a management determined on enforcing it.
Anyway, unlike Rosemary, I’m not getting paid for this article, so it’s back to paying the mortgage for me, but that’s a few thoughts to reflect on. There have been some worthwhile developments since I wrote ‘Feeding the Hand’, including one at The Australian: the appointment of Geordie Williamson as ‘chief literary critic’. Not only do I enjoy Williamson’s writing, but the idea of giving him official authority seems to me entirely commendable.
I’ll be kicking this topic around further with some eminences of the world of reviewing at the Wheeler Centre on Monday 6 September. Come tell me your horror stories. I’m all ears.