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.

Here’s the review in question. It runs to 900 words. The first 300 words comprise a summary of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a precursor to Blue Nights. The next 150 words comprise a summary of the circumstances in which Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, the difficult months following the death of her daughter Quintana, which now occupy the foreground of Blue Nights. At this halfway point of the review, however, Riemer still hasn’t mentioned Blue Nights itself: Quintana’s death is folded into his coverage of The Year of Magical Thinking. Only after 550 words does he mention that Blue Nights is “an account of the illness and death of Quintana” — that’s after he expresses moral misgivings about The Year of Magical Thinking and after he discusses its stage adaptation — and then, almost two-thirds of the way into his review, he devotes only one paragraph to a description and evaluation of the book he is reviewing. At 154 words, it makes up just seventeen per cent of the entire review:

Didion’s skill is as evident in her new book as it was six years ago when she was working on The Year of Magical Thinking. The form and style are identical. This account of Quintana’s death, coming as it did at a time when Dunne’s sudden death was still raw and immediate, is surrounded by Didion’s memories: her marriage; the years during which the couple worked on screenplays; Quin-tana’s childhood; the fate of relatives, friends and their children. A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking. There is, in addition, a new note sounded here: the panic of old age, the suspicion that both body and mind are decaying, the awareness that the familiar life — the people you had known and loved — has come to an end.

In my experience with book reviews and book reports, there are three key flaws that suggest that a writer hasn’t actually read the book they’re writing about.

First: an absence of quotes from the book itself. Despite his remarks on “Didion’s skill” and on “[t]he form and style” of Blue Nights, Riemer does not use even one of his 900 words to quote Didion so that she might speak for herself, relying instead on paraphrasing and summarisation.

Second: a disproportionate focus on authorial biography and historical context, combined with a tendency towards contextual repetition, at the expense of a focus on the book. One-third of Riemer’s review of Blue Nights is a summary of The Year of Magical Thinking. One-third of the review is a summary of the context in which that book was published and adapted. Of the remaining one-third, half consists of the paragraph quoted above and half consists of Riemer’s repeated misgivings about Didion’s work combined with his repeated acknowledgement of her stylistic gifts. “[S]peaking here personally,” he writes, “I think the choice [to write publicly about the death of her husband John in The Year of Magical Thinking] was questionable.” “As I have said,” he continues, “Didion’s skill, sensitivity and intelligence go some way towards redeeming this book. …  I cannot, however, banish my sense of uneasiness.” Didion is a brave and stylistically skillful writer but her choice of subject matter makes Riemer uneasy: he repeats this notion three times in his review. Whether the stirring of such uneasiness might be part of Didion’s aesthetic project in Blue Nights — whether she is carefully preying on some innate voyeurism in her readers in a way that calls attention to it — doesn’t seem to occur to Riemer, much less to add complexity to his existing moral misgivings.

Third: factual errors which suggest that the writer has relied on his or her memory of an event rather than consulting a record of it. Riemer, as quoted above, has this to say of the adoption of Quintana: “A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking.” Now here’s Didion “hint[ing] at” Quintana’s adoption, at the end of chapter ten of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I’d call it a lot more than just a hint:

In 1964 and 1965, when we were living in the gate house with the beach and the peacocks but could not afford even to tip the parking boys at restaurants, let alone eat in them, John and I used to park on the street on Canon and charge dinner at The Bistro. We took Quintana there on the day of her adoption, when she was not quite seven months old. They had given us Sidney Korshak’s corner banquette and placed her carrier on the table, a centrepiece. At the courthouse that morning she had been the only baby, even the only child; all the other adoptions that day had seemed to involve adults adopting one another for tax reasons.

Other flaws are added spice. Didion’s career as an esteemed essayist and political analyst falls by the wayside — you’d never know from Riemer’s review that she has written anything other than screenplays and The Year of Magical Thinking — and the last word goes not to Didion, nor even to anyone writing about Didion, but to Ludwig Wittgenstein, halfheartedly invoked. Riemer’s review of Blue Nights offers no sense of Blue Nights beyond the barest consideration of its subject and the fact that Riemer is unsettled by it. You won’t get a taste of Didion’s own words; you’ll only get an overlong survey of The Year of Magical Thinking and a factually erroneous one at that. The whole review smacks of the sense that this writer has written about a book that he has only read about, rather than a book that he has read directly and with care.

It’s possible that Riemer wrote something closer to 1,500 words before some senseless editor axed the better part of his review and ripped out a fistful of Didion quotes for good measure. For Riemer’s sake, I certainly hope that’s the case, not that the rest of us would be any better off. This sort of review does a disservice to everyone associated with it: Didion’s work isn’t given the respect of careful consideration, readers who may or may not turn to that work are not given any sense of it, Riemer looks a fool for attaching his name to something so underdeveloped, and the Sydney Morning Herald tarnishes its own prestige by pretending that this sort of writing deserves a place in a paper of record. Can’t Australia do better than this?

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:

Structurally speaking, A Visit from the Goon Squad is an audaciously centrifugal multi-perspective narrative, its protagonists surfacing from a loose kinfolk involved, as musicians, groupies, publicists or fans, with the music industry. I drew all kind of charts, trying to detect an overarching pattern, but there’s no predicting who will be handed the narratorial mike from chapter to chapter. Once you get over the disappointment of knowing that the character you’ve grown so close to so quickly won’t be sticking around, the excitement comes from the leaping back and forth in time and space.

So the virtue of A Visit From the Goon Squad lies not solely in its choice of subject but largely in its approach to that subject, and in the experience it generates for its readers when it takes that approach. Credit to Melinda Harvey for putting it so eloquently — and, just as importantly, for managing to write a review that manages to incorporate discussions of feminism, the literary prize culture, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and American metafiction into an evaluation of A Visit From the Goon Squad, without losing sight of Egan’s novel and without even breaking the 2,000-word mark. Credit to the ALR, too, for publishing such an intelligent treatment of a work of fiction — although, with this being the only review of a work of fiction in all of the ALR‘s twenty-three broadsheet pages, a greater appreciation of fiction is still needed over there.

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.

I think these claims are self-evident. If someone either declines or fails to explain why or why not it is worth my while to read a particular book, that person has done something other than reviewing the book in question. He or she might simply declare a book to be worth reading, as tends to happen in capsule reviews and in venues like Twitter, but the absence of justification and persuasion offers no reason to accept the validity of the verdict. Alternatively, he or she might invoke the content of the book for purposes of cultural analysis or political commentary, as tends to happen in academic criticism, but then the writer forgoes an explanation of how the experience of reading the book is worthwhile and instead assumes that the book is simply worth having read in order to discuss subjects broader than the book itself. At these two extremes of literary discourse, a book is either proclaimed or presupposed to be worth reading or not. In between these two extremes, the inherent purpose of the book review is to elucidate the vagaries underlying populist proclamations and the value judgments implicit in scholarly presuppositions. It is an attempt to communicate literary experience with the book under consideration being the common referent between the reviewer and the reader of the review.

If these claims are really self-evident, why bother making them explicit? I make them explicit now because, over the last few months, the nature of the book review has been called into question in a number of high-profile venues and the responses to that questioning seem to me confused. Towards the end of last year, The New York Times Book Review asked six literary critics to explain the purpose and defend the value of their chosen profession. Last month, The Observer allowed Neal Gabler to question the purpose and attack the value of professional criticism and then solicited several responses from critics at work in various areas of the arts. Originally I had planned to write a more in-depth response to the inadequacies of the critics at both of these broadsheets, but the shortcomings of the Times critics have already been well documented by Dan Green and Rohan Maitzen and the shortcomings of the Observer critics are more or less the same. Here, then, I’ll stick to general impressions of the broadsheet critics’ approaches to literary fiction. Together, the Times and Observer reveal what strikes me as an endemic reluctance amongst literary critics to respect the literariness of literary fiction, to treat a work of such fiction as a work of art, and to face up to the notion that — first and foremost and prior to all other possible considerations — it is either worth reading or not. Amongst critics, in short, there is a widespread antipathy towards the non-utilitarian value of fiction and the possibility that the experience of reading fiction yields no outcomes prior to, and possibly none more productive than, a transitory engagement in the reading experience itself. The prevailing assumption is that the value of a work of literary fiction consists in its capacity to escape and supersede its own literariness rather than reveling in it. The most valuable such fiction is seen as valuable to the extent that it can first be seen as something other than what it is.

This approach to fiction always disappoints me. That, too, must be self-evident, given the title of this blog. To rise to the occasion of fiction and to meet it on its own terms is by no means simple or easy: it requires sustained close attention and dedication; it requires infinite patience. But mine is a minority view, of course, and all the more so as the alternative outlined above has been institutionalised in the most popular contemporary literary reviews in the USA and the UK.

Is the case the same here in Australia? Yes, unfortunately, and blithely so, as I was reminded last week when James Bradley’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow somehow popped up in my Twitter feed despite having been published in 2010. I remembered reading it when it first appeared in the pages of the Australian Literary Review, Australia’s answer to NYTBR and the Guardian Review with pretensions of being Australia’s NYRB, LRB, or TLS. Republishing the review on his blog, though, Bradley had taken the opportunity to comment on his own work: he wished he had been given another thousand words with which to extend the review. I wished the same, and I said so. As he devoted only one quarter of the entire review to an evaluation of the novel under discussion, I felt he had not met his obligations as a reviewer; I felt he focused disproportionately on Martin Amis as a cultural figure rather than the fiction Amis produced. But with James Bradley having long ago proven himself one of Australia’s most attentive and generous book reviewers, the shortcomings of his review seemed to me to owe less to his own critical weaknesses than to the limitations of the broadsheet review that published his work. Echoing Dan Green, I suggested that Bradley use his blog to give himself the extra words needed to engage with the novel in a way that he could not do in print. To my surprise, my comments elicited a brusque response from Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic at The Australian and — judging from his comments — a de facto co-editor at the ALR:

Daniel, you are quite the scold. I predict for a you a stellar career in academe.

As for the review: James, I’m only sorry we cut so much of the material directly relating to the text. It was decent of you to refrain from blaming the editors but still: that was our bad.

Wow. First up, given that value judgments are anathema to literary critics in the academy, the critical vision I’m trying to articulate here could hardly be further outside the limits of what the academy currently deems acceptable. More importantly, though: what an abrogation of responsibility on the part of those at the helm of the ALR. The last two letters of ALR supposedly stand for “literary review,” but, if I understand Williamson correctly, the editors of the ALR read James Bradley’s review of The Pregnant Widow and decided to strike out the part where he actually reviewed the literature. Why? Why flinch when faced with the prospect of concentrated literary discussion unencumbered by the creaky architecture of rote and trivial authorial biography? Why fear that such discussion cannot capture the interest of readers and sustain their attention throughout? Notwithstanding the occasional triumph — Estelle Tang, for instance, reviewing Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories — why does the ALR experience such difficulty dedicating itself, as advertised, to the review of literature? Why does it not seem to feel comfortable in being what it says it is? Is that asking too much?

Here’s how it’s done: Adam Gopnik on Mark Twain’s Autobiography and Andrew Delbanco on the very same book. Two first-rate reviews, equally persuasive, although the verdict of each one is diametrically opposed to the verdict of the other. There must have been an extraordinary temptation for both authors to veer away from the Autobiography as text, as literature, and to instead discuss the life depicted in its pages, but to the credit of both authors neither one takes the bait. They focus relentlessly on the questions that settle over the unread book and dedicate themselves to the task of communicating the experience of reading it. When it comes to book reviewing, Gopnik and Delbanco offer the real thing. The New York Times Book Review and The Observer and the ALR could do worse than learn from them.

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.

A couple of other posts discussing the same event have since sprung up online. Here, for example, is Rebecca Starford, one of the four panellists at the event:

I had been looking forward to a nuanced conversation with Peter Craven, Hilary McPhee and Gideon Haigh about the traditional modes of Australian literary criticism, the problems they encounter (shrinking editorial space, dwindling readerships, erosion of critical authorities, among others), how the digital world destabilises/complements this forum, and where Australian literary criticism is — if indeed it is — moving forward.

Unfortunately, I (and I suspect many of the audience) came away from ‘Critical Failure: Books’ frustrated and disappointed (in myself, it must be said). The panel had failed in its intentions: to generate a rigorous, considerate, balanced discussion about Australian book criticism in all its forms and the changing shape of critical thinking.

Meanwhile, Emmett Stinson offers a provocative take on the nature of book reviews in general:

There is a weirdness… in bemoaning the problems with book reviewing, given that reviews, at worst, are simply a form of indirect marketing, and, at best, are a sort of informed consumer recommendation. Of course, reviews may contain incisive analysis as well (indeed, it may appear as if they only contain such analysis), but reviews are absolutely tied to the notion of the book as commodity, and it is for this reason that virtually all book reviews cover new releases. In this sense, the book review is a deeply strange hybrid genre, which combines literary criticism, advertising and news reporting (since the publication of a book is a newsworthy ‘event’).

He also makes a proposal that has long been a favourite of mine:

[Y]ou will rarely see negative reviews on this site (or hear me give negative reviews on Triple R). It’s not that I like everything I read (indeed, the amount of fiction I like would comprise a tiny fraction of what’s published–certainly less than 5%), but rather that I only try to review books that I actually like. Doing this requires selecting carefully and reading a bit of a book before I decide to review it, but I see this as one excellent possible mode for book reviewing: review only the books that you enjoy reading. … [R]ather than spend my time readings books I don’t like, why not discuss only the books that I actually think merit discussion? In this sense, I critique by omission, and praise by inclusion.

I like that approach. After all, any attempt to discuss a book carries within it the implicit judgement that the book in question is worth discussing, which in turn carries the implicit suggestion that if it is worth discussing then it must be worth reading. The substance of a positive book review would therefore make explicit what is implicit in the book review as a form.

Anyway: both of those responses went online in the middle of last week, about a week after the event at the Wheeler Centre. Then, at the end of last week, I and a handful of other local bloggers were invited to participate in a second event at the Centre which was, in a sense, organised as a means of redressing the imbalance caused by the original ‘Critical Failure’ events. Which is a diplomatic way of saying that the original events — lacklustre when they weren’t outright infuriating — kicked up such a shitstorm online that someone thought it would be a good idea to bring together some of those who raised complaints and to also solicit their thoughts on the state of contemporary criticism. So I spent the lion’s share of Sunday at the Wheeler Centre discussing the ins and outs of online criticism in the company of bloggers and online journalists with interests in critical approaches to literature, film, theatre, the visual arts, and video games, as well as a concern for the state of cultural policy in Australia. Here’s the full line-up, running clockwise around the table as I saw it from where I sat: Estelle Tang, Pat Allan, Mel CampbellBen Eltham, Richard Watts, Mark HolsworthAlison Croggon, Angela Meyer, . Lisa Dempster, Paul CallaghanNikita VanderbylW.H. Chong, and George Dunford.

Not too long ago, sometime in early August, I had some harsh words for the Wheeler Centre. My gripe was twofold. First, as compared with the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature initiative, I didn’t like the extent to which the establishment of the Wheeler Centre had come to dominate Melbourne’s City of Literature initiative to the exclusion of almost all other literary endeavours. Second, I didn’t like the way in which the Centre, as a venue for literary events, had become a sort of enclosure — rather than a platform — for literary discussion in Melbourne. “Within a certain set of parameters,” I wrote, “the intellectual life of Melbourne is surely more vigorous for the establishment of the Wheeler Centre. But insofar as the Centre has dominated of the City of Literature initiative, it has also to some extent kept the facilitation of literary discussion cordoned-off from the outside world.” After Sunday’s discussion, I still haven’t seen anything that would lead me to reconsider my first problem with the Centre, but I’m happy to say that the Centre seems to have heard the second problem and taken steps to address it.

On one level, what I saw on Sunday was a group of people drawn together to discuss the shortcomings of the ‘Critical Failure’ events and to thresh out some possible strategies for avoiding those shortcomings in future publications and at future festivals and so on. On a deeper level, though, what I saw was an organisation first hosting a series of public events and gauging the public response to them, and then turning its attention to those voices that were largely excluded from the original events, listening to what they had to say, and sending them back out into public to share what they had said and heard. In other words, the Centre has finally found a way of not only fostering a discourse within its four walls but also encouraging that discourse to break out of those confines and enter the broader public arena. It’s a great thing to see. In the words of one of Australia’s greatest public intellectuals: “Ten out of ten and a koala stamp.” And, of course, I’d say exactly the same thing even if I hadn’t been there. I hope it represents the beginning of a pattern of behaviour for the Wheeler Centre.

I won’t recount the discussion point for point. At present, Mel and Lisa both have brief summaries up on their respective blogs, while Paul has written a more in-depth response to some of the points raised by the group and Nikita has published the first of two posts outlining the course of the conversation. I will say that both Paul and Nikita have a few notes on my favourite part of the discussion: “the art of criticism.” Before heading to the Centre, I was a little worried that the discussion might too easily become a conversation about the technical side of blogging or perhaps even a self-congratulatory celebration of the imminent death of print criticism — I was worried, in short, that the discussion would take the activity of criticism for granted rather than making an issue of it and questioning its associated motives, purposes, and aesthetics. I needn’t have worried at all. The group covered these topics thoroughly.

Here, though, I do want to elaborate on some remarks I made during the discussion which have since popped up, paraphrased, on Nikita’s blog:

Daniel Wood from Infinite Patience pointed out that a blogger’s archives are another feather in their cap. They are in effect far more permanent than the print critic’s weekly column on paper, or the newspaper’s online archive (which, I don’t know if you’ve tried, are impossible to navigate). If ease of access is valuable to readers then blogs have long fulfilled this niche.

I think that’s obviously true, but there’s a bit more to it than that. At the heart of the point I sought to make was not the issue of the accessibility of blog archives versus the accessibility of newspaper archives per se, but the much more slippery issue of the critical legitimacy of a book reviewer and the extent to which that legitimacy is inextricably bound up with the accessibility of the reviewer’s archives. In effect, a book reviewer writing for a newspaper obtains an aura of critical legitimacy because the newspaper’s financiers have agreed to pay the reviewer for his or her judgements. In making that payment, the newspaper effectively announces to its readers that it is familiar with the reviewer’s previous writings and it expresses confidence in the reviewer’s critical judgements on the basis of those previous writings. The reader of the newspaper, however, can only take the newspaper’s expression of confidence in good faith, since he or she does not enjoy access to the reviewer’s previous writings which, after all, simply can’t fit on the newspaper’s pages.

In this institutional context, then, a book reviewer obtains two different sorts of critical legitimacy from two different sources: the institution — that is, the newspaper — acknowledges the critical legitimacy of the reviewer on the basis of his or her previous writings, whereas the reader of the newspaper acknowledges such legitimacy on the basis of the pay cheque that the reviewer receives from the institution that maintains exclusive access to those writings. In the individual context, however, wherein a book reviewer runs an independent blog, he or she obtains critical legitimacy directly from the aggregate of the posts in his or her archives. Without the newspaper as middle-man — without the media as mediator — the reader has a direct connection to the reviewer’s previous writings and thus a direct means of discerning the reviewer’s critical legitimacy. On the one hand, this makes the online reviewer more familiar to the reader, allowing the reader to better gauge the reviewer’s tastes, inclinations, and standards of judgement. On the other hand, it makes the reviewer more accountable for his or her past judgements as well as future judgements make on the basis of past criteria. In the long run, whatever these developments may mean for particular critics, I can’t see how they could possibly do anything other than advance the quality of literary criticism overall.

ADDENDUM: A few more reports from those who attended Sunday’s event have appeared in the two days since I published this post: Ben Eltham and Mark Holsworth have both chimed in, W.H. Chong has uploaded his sketchbook featuring drawings of most of the participants including myself, and Estelle Tang offers a brief round-up that concludes with a nice reflection on the more down-to-earth aspects of blog-based literary criticism:

What impressed me was how mindful many of the attendees were of their writing practice, their aims, their ethics and the new terrain they were writing in and forging, whether in their blogging or print work. I have to admit I’ve never given my blog much thought. … But the one very constant and pressing thought I’ve had since the Critical Failure panel series is that, despite the throwaway nature of this blog’s genesis (Golly! Let’s start a blog!) and despite the fact that sometimes all I do is talk about foodstuffs, what this blog enables me to do is write regularly. There you have it: modest, yes, prosaic … but true. And that weekly process of attempting to honour a reading experience by fixing it in my own words has been valuable. You only need to go back and read my first few posts to see that. Not just because what I write these days is more coherent or readable, but because I feel more steady-footed when approaching a book; I feel like reading is much more reciprocal now.

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 Darlings. After briefly outlining the abysmal pay and conditions that literary critics can expect to receive from editors around the country, Haigh concluded:

[T]here’s little incentive for sticking one’s neck out, for actually taking a position, for arguing that a book is bad, or sloppy, or stupid, or two or three iterations short of finished — an affliction staggeringly common among Australian books. Who needs the aggravation? [It is] far easier to summarise the contents, recapitulate the blurb, describe the author’s reputation, or examine the author’s politics in a thinly veiled op-ed — is he or she ‘one of us’?

For Haigh, then, responsibility for the parlous state of Australian literary criticism lies partly with critics too risk-averse to actually make a judgement of a book and partly with editors who decline to adequately remunerate both the formulation and the painstaking articulation of such judgements. The result of this situation that most infuriates Haigh is the rise and rise of the capsule review, “one hundred words or less, executed for beer money, and [published only] to convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page, one superficial but reverberating assertion at a time.” To my mind, though, the worse result of this situation is the current predominance of criticism in which the critic does not articulate his or her standards of judgement — either because the critic simply fails to articulate his or her assumptions or because his or her editor has not allowed the critic the space for any such articulation — which, in any event, operates on and thus perpetuates the simplistic assumption that all readers share the very same standards of judgement. Still, what irritates Haigh the most about the capsule review could just as easily apply to what irritates me about criticism without clear standards:

[A] competent book review should be a form of inquiry into what makes good books good — an inquiry with, as unfashionable as it sounds, the courage of its elitism. Without a benchmark of what constitutes excellent writing, scrupulous research and intelligent discussion, a reviewer is locked into a world in which ‘liking’ and ‘not liking’ are the only options — the Beavis and Butthead world, as the American literary critic Curtis White has put it, in which ‘this sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is just finally a lot stupid.’

Then, in advance and perhaps in anticipation of last night’s discussion, Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic for The Australian, published a critic’s “manifesto” as the cover story in this month’s Australian Literary Review and used Haigh’s screed as his starting point:

Journalist, author and critic Gideon Haigh has recently written and spoken of book reviewing in Australia as a discipline in decline, whose “besetting sin is its sheer dullness and inexpertise.”

Author and academic John Dale, writing on Page 14 of this issue [of the Australian Literary Review], doubts there ever was a golden age of literary criticism in Australia for us to decline from.

Unfortunately for everyone, despite Williamson’s efforts to establish a sense of antagonism between the two men, Haigh and Dale are both right. As Dale suggests, Australian literary criticism has not declined from some golden age because there never was a golden age from which it could decline — but that doesn’t mean that Australian literary criticism has always been consistently mediocre and remains so today. And, as Haigh contends, Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness. Worse than falling from grace, it has fallen from blandness.

Can it possibly be rescued and reinvigorated? With Haigh having issued his plea for its reinvigoration, Williamson has now taken a stab at thinking through the logistics of how best to go about the task. As he sees it, the most adept literary critics are those who have spent their lives training themselves to become literary critics, which is to say those involved in academic literary studies. Williamson is quick to add, however, that the very nature of the academy too often corrupts the ability of such critics to successfully communicate with a general audience:

Many of the best readers of my generation ended up teaching in universities. There, as a result of the zealously quantitative approach demanded of academic career building, they are obliged to produce mountains of words for peer-reviewed journals which few people read. Until recently, writing criticism for newspapers or magazines was not given any weight at all in hierarchies of valued publications. Imagine the insights and enthusiasms that have been lost to the general public as a result.

For Williamson, academic literary critics are shackled by both the bureaucracy of the academy and a blind fidelity to critical theory. He suggests that the first set of shackles are currently, if slowly, being cast off — the academy, as he says, undervalued criticism for the general public “until recently” — and so he has taken it upon himself to attempt to cast off the second set of shackles by producing this list of what to keep and what to discard from critical theory:

What to keep:

  • A healthy suspicion of fixed literary canons.
  • An appreciation of the socially mediated nature of literature.
  • The quasi-scientific rigour of theory’s approach to textual analysis.
  • Greater circumspection in making broad or universalist claims.
  • An awareness of and respect for marginal, repressed, underground and countercultural traditions and communities, and the texts and voices that emerge from them.
  • A taste for the positive, spark-striking aspects of interdisciplinary research.

What to discard:

  • A lack of interest in the substance and real-world content of texts under discussion, unless it is to critique their ideological biases.
  • A disregard for literature’s special status, lumping it with every other form of writing, from bus tickets to bumper stickers.
  • A refusal to permit communication of enthusiasm or value judgments about a text.
  • The outlawing of literary canons and historical traditions as a guide to merit.
  • Displacement of the author from a position of authority over the texts they create.
  • Extreme scepticism and relativism with regard to Western concepts, categories and metaphysics.

I agree with most of that, and what I disagree with does not aggravate me enough to challenge it at any length. What does aggravate me, however, is what Williamson writes next:

Much has been written about the revolutionary potential of the internet for criticism. It is ridiculously cheap, blisteringly fast and the online community it engenders is one that thrives on argument and constant to-and-fro. Most significantly, the web breaks the monopoly on criticism once held by analog-era organs and allows everyone to have their say.

Just because the medium allows argument to thrive, however, does not mean that it is ideal for criticism.

For every brilliant new blogger that has emerged, 100 pallid yes-men (and women) have sprung up. And while these bloggers often define themselves against in-house elitists who impose their tastes from above, they have a tendency to move in digital packs, to think as hive minds.

But there is nothing lonelier than a true critical response. Whether calling out a dud novel by a writer of reputation or trying to drag an overlooked work of merit from the swamp of mediocrity, the critic is doing their job to the degree that they achieve separation from massed opinion.

However marvellous it may be, the web is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a novel space.

How completely and disastrously wrong. That last sentence, in particular, is shockingly obtuse, from the capital ‘H’ in ‘However’ and onward through to the full stop at the end of the paragraph — not so much in view of what it says as in view of what it misses in so saying.

We want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘yes-men’ in literary criticism, the sort of ‘yes-men’ who write the capsule reviews that irritate Gideon Haigh. We also presumably want to avoid what Williamson calls the ‘hive mind’ aspect of literary criticism, the sort of ‘hive mind’ that is perpetuated when literary critics fail to articulate their individual standards of judgement or are otherwise prohibited from doing so by their editors. In other words, those aspects of literary criticism in blog format that Geordie Williamson finds most objectionable — the supposedly disproportionate number of facile readers and the supposed tendency to not allow group assumptions to be challenged — are precisely those aspects of print criticism that have brought it to the very parlous state in which we now find it. Pot, kettle, black.

More importantly, though, these shortcomings of print criticism are direct consequences of the publication of literary criticism in a print format. They are the result of the physical constraints and demands of the printed page: the need, as Gideon Haigh writes, to “convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page,” as well as the reticence and perhaps even the inability of literary editors to provide book reviewers with adequate space in which to articulate their standards of judgement. Does it not then follow that a medium free of those physical constraints and demands is better suited than the printed page to avoid those shortcomings?

Unfortunately, not one of the four panellists at last night’s discussion seemed to think so, or even to have considered the question. Gideon Haigh and Hilary McPhee paid lip service to just one local litblog, Angela Meyer’s LiteraryMinded, while Rebecca Starford spruiked Killings — the blog associated with Kill Your Darlings, of which she is a founding editor — and the pompous and frequently condescending Peter Craven altogether dismissed the suggestion that a blog could provide a suitable venue for sophisticated but non-academic literary criticism. Worse, when a questioner in the audience asked the four panellists what they believed constituted a successful work of literary criticism, not one of them gave a direct answer. Hilary McPhee and Rebecca Starford didn’t answer the question at all, while Peter Craven laughed it off. Only Gideon Haigh offered a response to it, but he didn’t go any further than to reissue one of the less intelligent claims in his essay: that a successful work of literary criticism is “a lively and engaging piece of writing [that] informs and invigorates” and “a sparky, spunky, memorable bit of prose” — a definition of successful literary criticism that doesn’t exactly suggest an understanding of the specific aims and qualities of literary criticism that would differentiate a successful work in that genre from any other successful piece of writing. Across the board, the panellists — whose task was ostensibly to examine what has gone wrong with Australian literary criticism and to consider the ways in which we might set it right again — not only could not specify exactly what makes a work of literary criticism successful, but also would not take seriously a medium for literary criticism that is physically better suited to the production of successful criticism than is the medium that has brought it to its knees. Critical failure, indeed.

I don’t mean to suggest that the blog format will necessarily produce more sophisticated literary criticism than the print format; I mean only that it is more conducive to producing such criticism than is the print format because it allows critics to do what print does not. There are three key elements to a successful work of literary criticism. First, it must articulate a vision of what literature is and what it is for, based on the critic’s understanding of the particularities of the literary artform as distinct from alternative artforms. Second, it must show some understanding of the particular ways in which different works of literature can possibly, and have previously, made themselves “literature” in the sense just articulated. Finally, it must assess the ways in which, and the extent to which, a given work of literature either successfully or unsuccessfully makes itself “literature” in the same sense. In other words, a successful work of literary criticism must answer three questions: what is literature supposed to do, how has that best been done in the past, and how well or how poorly does the work under consideration do it?

The print format simply does not have the luxury of allowing literary critics enough space to include the first two of these three elements of a successful work of criticism. That is why, rather than articulating their own individual understandings of what literature is supposed to do, we find print critics almost unanimously assessing and pronouncing judgement on a work of literature by drawing on an assumption of a shared belief that the purpose of literature is to “move the reader” by placing “fully rounded characters” in a “carefully drawn narrative” and detailing their exploits in “finely wrought prose” — as if any work of literature that doesn’t tick all the boxes in that checklist simply isn’t worthy of an attentive readership. The blog format, on the other hand, allows for exactly what the print format does not — firstly in the essentially unlimited length of the individual blog post, and then in the comments spaces at the end of posts and in the aggregation of posts in blog archives which together allow for the perpetual elaboration on and refinement of standards already articulated.

I hope my own blog provides an example of what I mean: cumulatively, a number of posts over the last nine months (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) should give some idea of what I think literature is and is for, while the three on narrative voice (1, 2, 3) should give some idea of how I think certain works have been able to become what I think literature is. None of these has been specifically addressed to the question of how successfully a given work of literature makes itself “literature” as I conceive of it, but the pieces are there for later reference and assemblage — which is more than can be said for much of what appears in print in newspapers and magazines today. There may or may not be a cure for the current state of critical failure, but there is a medium that can soothe the symptoms. When will our otherwise attentive critics give it the attention it deserves?


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.

I understand the logic behind Miller’s choice. “Compelling” is vastly overused in book reviews, and, worse, it is used almost exclusively as a synonym for “unputdownable,” “captivating,” or simply “interesting.” In the more literal sense of the word, though, “compelling” denotes some overpowering force that drives those who feel it exerted upon them to follow a course of action that they would otherwise be inclined to resist. For a reviewer to declare a book “compelling,” then, is for the reviewer to implicitly acknowledge that he or she initially resisted entering the book and perhaps resisted the early stages of reading it, only to discover something within the reading experience that forced the reviewer to acquiesce to the book itself and to read through to the end. In my personal reading practices, I find myself resistant to a book whenever I pick one up — there are a thousand other things to which I could devote my time, and, of course, countless thousands of other books to read — so that, if I were to know which books a reviewer very literally found “compelling,” I would know which books are most likely to induce me to relax my resistance and thus which ones are most worth my attention and concentration.

When I say, however, that a compelling book is one that forces its readers to acquiesce to it, I do not mean to suggest that it is in any way necessarily a “page-turner,” a book in which readers gradually “lose themselves.” It may well be such a book, of course, but the books that I find most compelling are the very opposite of “page-turners.” Rather than breaking through my resistance and allowing me to lose myself in them, they acknowledge my resistance and manipulate it and toy with it in various ways; and, as a result, I find myself so deeply engaged in the back-and-forth of what the book is doing to me that I am more content to linger over the pages, to luxuriate in them, to prolong the engagement in the back-and-forth, than to turn them and turn them until they have been exhausted.


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 are 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.