Editor? Editor?

The last few weeks have offered some stellar coverage of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights — read Mary-Kay Wilmers, read Cathleen Schine, read Matthew Specktor, read the Didion interviews by Emma Brockes and Boris Kachka — but then, to spoil the party, there’s the coverage of the book in Australia, and particularly the review by Andrew Riemer in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. These two Fairfax publications aspire to be the national papers of record, each one a snapshot of the best local analysis of current events and discourse, and Riemer, usually a reliably good essayist, is the Herald‘s chief book reviewer. Yet what Riemer has written, and what Fairfax has published, is a report of Blue Nights which is labelled as a review but which is so poorly written — so evasive, repetitive, and unspecific — that it leads me to suspect that Riemer hasn’t actually read the book he purports to review. Continue reading

A Breath of Fresh Air

Now, back to book reviewing. In the latest Australian Literary Review, of all places, Melinda Harvey shows us how it’s done. Here she is writing a review for a relatively broad audience without falling back on the populist assumption that what makes a novel worth reading is the strength (believability, plausibility, vitality) of its characters and plot. To begin with, of course, she concedes that such an assumption should play into our evaluation of a work of fiction:

For all the high jinks [of postmodern pastiche and playfulness], A Visit from the Goon Squad… cares deeply about story and character and aims to meet the reader with some modicum of approachability and sincerity. … [N]obody’s boring and everybody’s got their reasons. We are thrown into closeness with Sasha, Bennie, Rhea, Lou, Jocelyn, Scotty, Stephanie, Dolly, Jules, Rob, Ted, Alison and Alex for short but intense intervals, one at a time.

None of these characters regains the centrality they enjoy in their chapter of the novel, but most of them don’t really go away either. They hover on the periphery of their familiars’ stories, as real people do, sometimes giving off an impression that is incongruous with the one we’ve formed through near acquaintance. This treatment of character makes them more, not less, authentic and is the literary equivalent of faceting gems.

But then, she looks elsewhere to identify the real source of the pleasure of reading this novel: Continue reading

Asking Too Much

Pick up a book you have never read. Whether it is more than a century old or one of this week’s new releases, any unread book will do. Now hold it in your hands and flick through the pages but do not look at the words. Look instead for the question that descends on the book and settles over it like a mist: “Is it or is it not worth reading?” Now look for the corollary questions: “If so, why so? If not, why not?” Short of actually reading the book in order to answer these questions yourself, you might turn to a book review in search of the answers offered by others. To offer answers to these questions is the single most urgent task faced by book reviewers. Different reviewers will of course have differing views on what the activity of reading involves and how a book can best go about making that activity worthwhile for the reader. Such differences amongst reviewers are the beating heart of contemporary literary discourse. Beneath their differences, though, book reviewers face a common and fundamental obligation to answer the same questions that settle alike over each and every unread book. Continue reading

Critical Failure, Redux

My post from a couple of weeks ago left a few threads dangling which I hope now to tie up. Last weekend, that post also opened up an unexpected opportunity for me which I’ll explain in a moment. First, though, for those who wish to see for themselves the event I discussed in that post — the ‘Critical Failure’ debate on the current state of Australian literary criticism at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — a lightly edited video is now online at the Centre’s website. Witness the great Peter Craven in all his grotesque glory. Continue reading

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