Critical Failure, Indeed

Last night, I spent some time at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas to listen to a panel discussion about the current state of literary criticism in Australia. The discussion was part of the Centre’s ‘Critical Failure’ series of events, and, of course, the series name clearly gives away the drift of the conversation: the panellists unanimously concluded that the state of literary criticism in Australia is currently pretty dire. On the panel were the publishers Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford as well as the critics Peter Craven and Gideon Haigh. To some extent, the need for such a discussion was identified by Haigh earlier this year, when he published a brief but powerful opinion piece on the failure of Australian literary criticism in the upstart journal Kill Your DarlingsContinue reading

In Favour of “Compelling”

Earlier this year, Michelle Kerns’ “Book Review Bingo” went viral on the Internet. Having first assembled a list of the top twenty most annoying book reviewer clichés, Kerns added a few more to the list and then inserted them all into a series of Bingo cards. “Print them out,” she wrote. “Distribute them among your reading fellows. See who can get to Bingo first. … Wallow in the joy of artificially inflated, knee-jerk, ultimately meaningless book reviews.” Soon enough, The Guardian picked up on the story, and a couple of months thereafter Kerns was interviewed here in Australia on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show alongside Laura Miller, the book critic for Salon. Kerns and Miller were both asked to open the interview by naming their “favourite” (ie. least favourite) book review cliché. Kerns opted for “unputdownable.” I cannot take issue with that choice. Miller, however, opted for “compelling,” and that seems to me misguided. Continue reading

The Answer is “No”

Writing at The Nervous Breakdown, J.E. Fishman asks: is the New York Times Book Review still relevant? The simple answer, of course, is “no,” but the very simplicity of the answer suggests that Fishman is not necessarily asking the most pertinent question. A better question would be: why is the New York Times Book Review relevant no longer? Continue reading

On That Note…

Picking up from where I left off with my praise for Dan Chiasson, here are four more of the best and most memorable book reviews I have read in the last year:

I don’t mean to suggest that they’re all excellent reviews in and of themselves; but, for reviews specifically targeted at a mainstream readership, each one does a fine job of contextualising the work under consideration, of proposing a way of reading it profitably without prizing verisimilitude above all other literary qualities, and of evaluating the book on its own terms with solid logical reasoning and in-text evidence to justify any evaluative conclusions.

No Evaluation Without Justification

Two weeks ago, while I was at Sydney airport awaiting a flight back down to Melbourne, I opened Dan Chiasson’s review of Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories on my iPhone. I read it on the spot, then I read it twice over; and for two weeks now I have left it open on the iPhone so that I can pull it out at a moment’s notice — or in a moment of boredom — and read it over again. It’s arguably the best book review I have read in about a year, maybe more. It hits all the right targets. It contextualises Davis’ work, it quotes liberally from the Collected Stories, it identifies her overall aesthetic purpose, it illustrates the ways in which particular stories advance that purpose, and it evaluates the extent to which Davis makes an engagement with that purpose worth her readers’ time — that is, the extent to which she makes her book worth reading. Continue reading