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‘The fights most worth having are the ones you won’t win’: The continuing debate on Australian literary reviewing

by Estelle Tang , June 23, 201011 Comments

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.

  • Alison Croggon

    As an “in-house” Australian critic, and worse, a critic of theatre, perhaps I’m a little aside from this argument about “literary” reviewing. I’ll just note the irony that the brief fame I have unwittingly scored myself via the Guardian isn’t because of my print reviews, which were not even mentioned in the original notice (apparently I put many “professional” critics to shame), but because of my blog, which allows me enough space to actually think about what I’m writing. I’ll also note that the last two winners of the Geraldine Pascoe Prize for criticism – myself and Mark Mordue – are both bloggers. Perhaps this suggests something interesting about the return of amateur reviewing, and in particular, the relation of “amateur” to “love”.

  • Gideon Haigh

    Thanks Alison – and congratulations on your recognition too. I am also a disciple of the amateur creed, ‘amare’, meaning ‘to love’, being one of the few words I recall from six years of high school Latin. The most thoughtful review I received of a book I wrote last year – generous but not uncritical – was by a reader whose bio note described them as a farmer. I suppose, though, we should be careful what we wish for, as I’m sure many media proprietors would be pleased to give us further experience of writing for free.

  • sancz

    This is clearly a hot issue, not just in respect to the increasing shrillness with which the fading oligarchies of print media defend their ‘professionalism’. I bought Issue 1 of Kill Your Darlings after reading a review on (another emerging literary blogger of note), and thoroughly enjoyed your article; mostly because it is a vindication (and very well put summary) of the same argument I have been making about theatre criticism on my own blog 5th Wall, for which I have received an encouraging response to continue.

    I have been spending the last week or so toying with the prospect of a response of my own, particularly since Mark Mordue published his own take ‘Pioneers In The Digital Snow’ – and even more so since just a couple of days ago I got into a brief twitter debate with @marcfennell and a couple of others (Someone even referred me to Neill’s article) about the legitimacy of ‘Star Ratings’; in my view a completely reductionist approach tailored to art as consumer product… My own approach being to expand upon the work and attempt to enhance the broader public conversation that the art is continuing in its own form, regardless of whther I liked it or not. So it’s timely that I have come across this follow-up piece as the arguments continue to gel.

    But I digress. In regard to the debate around ‘amateur’ and ‘writing for free’; the entire publishing model is in transition from the centralised to the democratic. It’s only the quality of the content that will allow writers to flourish. In other words, it’s write for free, until your reputation precedes you. But make it good. I fear the plot-summarising-three-hundred-word-model will be left for the publicists to solicit, while the real conversations happen in the virtual theatre foyers of blogs such as my own and Ms Croggon’s.

  • Alison Croggon

    Hi Gideon – absolutely. I’ve found that autonomy tends to expensive.

  • Gideon Haigh

    I concentrated on book reviewing, and it’s as far as my professional knowledge spreads. I’d be interested in the forces shaping theatre criticism. I suspect it’s a little more like movie reviewing, inasmuch as everything mainstream is attended to, than book reviewing, where the selection of what to cover gives the literary editor considerable gatekeeping powers.

  • genevieve

    I’ve just scrolled back up to the top of this and realised what got me in before I saw my blog mentioned in such fine company, and by such a fine writer.
    “The fights most worth having are the ones you won’t win.”
    Thanks for being brave enough to bring them on, Gideon.

  • Mark Mordue

    Have to agree with Gideon on how media proprietors would be happy to use more unpaid material they can access through blogging. This kind of ‘creep’ has been occurring for a while now as sections that were formerly paid for (eg This (…) Life column in The Weekend Australian Review and ‘The Heckler’ in SMH) are re-interpreted as reader-participation columns akin to Letters to the Editor.

    Onerous contracts being forced onto freelance writers whereby you are expected to sign away your intellectual copyright for print AND online rights first-time publication internationally certainly make the whole construct of ‘user-pays online libraries’ for major media organisations hard to swallow from a writer’s perspective – especially if you seek to develop material that has some enduring quality or depth to it. Curiously this idea of quality – and work that last beyond the moment or instant – is yet to be appreciated in the digital rush to somehow make money off ‘content’.

    Being a professional writer has always been difficult, of course, but for last decade I have found myself frequently in situations where a new editor in the chair tries to reduce my pay rate (the amount I get per word) – or does it reflexively in the flat earth theory that everyone is being paid a bottom line amount and no more. I question it, they go away to check with management, and the response is phew, okay you can have what you were being paid for before. In other words I am in a perpetual cycle of stopping my earnings being reduced and being asked to treat it like a pay rise! Further teeth grinding ensues from me. This is the industry ‘gold’ standard – backwards, not forwards.

    Blogging doesn’t help this economic woe and moan, but the freedom it allows in terms of not just the length of your pieces but their content and style (and writing style IS important in this discussion since many newspapers tend to adhere to rather conservative voice), does compensate a little. It also means you can republish material in a form you are happy with, providing of course you are not locked into the onerous contracts mentioned above which carry all manner of excessive stipulations on what you can and can’t do with your own work. This republishing and re-framing of stories is an important right for writers, but there is a deep tension between what writers should be entitled to do with their underpaid-for articles and the copyright hegemony major news organisations seek to impose.

    I teach at non-fiction writing at UTS and Sydney Uni and the other thing that really upsets me is to see how much talent – truly great talent, better already than what I see being published – is going out there into what I regard as a print vacuum.

    I seriously doubt there is a major mainstream newspaper or magazine in this country over past decade that can lay claim to having published more than a handful of new names, if that. In fact I doubt many editors out there have published a new writer EVER in their lives. By ‘new names’ I mean young writers who come to them cold (not cadets already on the pay-roll), with no hype behind them, and nothing more than a good story and good writing to submit.

    Unfortunately editors don’t seem to have any impulse towards breaking new talent. I think this is why the pages can be so repetitive and lifeless, as we read the same half dozen names over and over and over. I am thinking of one weekend lift-out in particular where a monkey could pull the levers and we would know exactly which writers would be doing what stories five years on from now. Is it any wonder readers (and writers) are bored and turning to other places – online magazines, blogs, and the literary/alternative quarterlies – for signs of life.

  • Gideon Haigh

    I heartily concur, Mark. Australian media organizations enjoy tremendous power in their tiny market and, with a few honourable exceptions, abuse it utterly. I’m fifteen years a freelancer, twenty-six years a journalist, and in the blessed position of having more work than I can handle, but would not wish to be starting out, trying to sell work to the sinecured mediocrities now in the relevant positions of authority.
    One underestimated bastion of work-for-free racketeering, however, is the national broadcaster. In recent years, I’ve several times been offered work at the ABC in which the arrangement was essentially to be that I provide free content in return for ‘exposure’ to the corporation’s audience. In one case I took my complaint to management, as I thought the invitation was a breach of the charter. This was shrugged off; the message was that if I wouldn’t work for nothing, then they’d easily find someone else who would. Now, I’m not particularly bolshy. I’ll cheerfully work for next-to-nix if a project is of sufficient interest – God knows, that’s what writing books in Australia is all about. But the same ABC currently hiring scores of digital producers at the moment treats contributors with scandalous contempt.
    Mind you, before we hasten to the conclusion that things aren’t what they used to be, I encountered this passage recently in Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness, published fifty years ago, referring to the paltry rewards for creativity in this country, long before blogs, Twitter and social media: ‘Constructive talent of the kind essential to the initiation of ideas in all fields is given lower rewards, proportionately to the country’s richness, than almost anywhere else. While every man who prints a magazine and every boy on the corner who sells it received fair payment for his labour, the man whose writing appears in the magazine is often lucky if he clears the cost of his paper and postage. Australian newspapers with respectable circulations…are in the habit of paying the national oracle on any subject five or six guineas for a special article. The highest-paid Australian actors or actresses receive, while a season lasts, less than a competent carpenter is paid continuously….Perhaps a dozen painters and as many writers in Australia make their living solely by practising their art. Visitors from abroad are frequently flabbergasted by being offered a fee for a television appearance of roughly the same sum as their hotel bill for one night, or by being offered nothing at all for a lecture to a richly clad audience. This is the pattern. Nearly everyone who has a part in the presentation of any form of cultural activity: the cameraman, the sound engineer, mechanic, printer, distributor, manager, agent, is protected by unions or professional organizations or trade practices which ensure him a fair share of one of the world’s highest living standards; but one member of the team frequently is paid very little or nothing at all. He is the one who supplied the creative idea which made possible the whole project.’ It could be argued, then, that the mainstream media is simply continuing age-old predispositions and prejudices.

  • Mark Mordue

    The whole payment issue for your work in the arts is a can of worms, and with it the issue of intellectual copyright, especially in areas like journalism, photography etc that are affected by major media organisations expanding their online grip. You could summarise it by saying yes things are the same as they ever were, but with digital culture even more is being taken from us!

    Before this degenerates into a whinge about lousy pay and conditions (they are lousy), I’d still like to emphasise the bridge between all that impoverishment and lack of commitment and the failure of weekend supplements and many national magazines to take on and develop new talent. As their world of print collapses around them and everything is blamed from aforementioned digital delivery of information to a recession slashing advertising revenue, not many look to the lack of fresh talent in their own pages, or their less than imaginative editing (just keep doing what you did a decade ago seems to be the policy, with a Food or Travel issue thrown in to blow our minds) as problems.

    Yet another re-design of the pages seems to be the best idea people can come up with. At heart there is a lack of commitment to quality content versus some half-arsed and even desperate notion of what the market (not always same thing as the readers) want, lat alone need. The publications stand for nothing, are driven by advertising imperatives, then as it all crumbles they look around aghast wondering why no one cares. The answer is obvious: they are as necessary as a vanilla-flavoured brand of Coco Pops (then again I should probably patent that idea! in fact copyright to Mark Mordue now).

    Maybe I am naive but I think the solution to this is either full tilt quality or full tilt commercial ruthlessness. People who sit on the fence equivocating will be burned away. Maybe that’s a good thing. But I don’t think the present crises mean quality is finished with. Quite the opposite. It will be the making of some publications. And hopefully some good writers and photographers and graphic artists etc. To win that war though you need publications (print and or online) who invest in their talent in terms of finance and freedom and encouragement. Then the talent gathers. In a way I think it is actually easy but no one wants to hear ideas about an entity based around publishing what is great – only what the ‘market’ will be. That is the issue. And yet those who supposedly have the market sussed are going down the gurgler. Gee, could be they are looking at things the wrong way around.

  • Gideon Haigh

    What do I think of the quality media? I think it would be a good idea.

  • Mark Mordue

    I will make this one short and agree. A magazine that is exciting. The vision: publish what’s great. I think it can work. Kill Your Darlings have been doing okay. There’s room for a few more that care and want to do exciting things. Hey it might even be profitable and successful to try it. It’s a wild world.

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