FIGURES IN THE LANDSCAPE
Critics, Writers, Readers
Often in reviews of books, I read about a place called the Landscape of Australian Literature. Books and writers get placed in this landscape. When writing a book, you maybe should work out where you want to put it in the landscape. I think perhaps the critic is an ant in the leaf litter of the Landscape of Australian Literature.
Then there is a certain language that belongs to criticism. The other day I saw on the cover of a new book:
‘The most intelligent, captivating, and exquisitely written book of this year or any year.’
For one thing I don’t know what that means. But I had to assume the blurb was trying to be funny. I didn’t actually investigate. Anyhow I looked the book up online and discovered it to be – I quote –
‘An original, poignant modern-day take on Wuthering Heights, as a high school senior searches for her teacher and meets a boy who may just be Heathcliff come to life.’
But back to critics.
The critic has a small role to play in the reception of a book.
I think the critic must somehow try to follow the project that the writer has set out to present. No use reading Shane Maloney and trying to make him into Jane Austen. But you do sometimes read reviews that accuse a writer of not being another writer. I have been accused of not being Shakespeare, and Marion Halligan has been accused of not being
Patrick White. There are really no rules by which a novel, for instance, can be judged. The reader/critic has to give over something to the terms of the particular novel itself. No use wishing you were reviewing the latest Ian McEwan if you are actually reviewing D.B.C Pierre.
I suppose you could say you need to ‘honour’ the work in hand. Give it the benefit of the doubt, maybe. But then critics also have to be able to give an opinion on how well they consider the writer has fulfilled the writer’s own criteria. In other words – what does the critic think the writer thought she was doing, and does the critic think this aim was achieved? And was it worth doing?
When a radio play I wrote was broadcast on the BBC in 1998, a listener from India called in with her response which was outrage. She vowed never to listen to plays on the BBC ever again because of the shocking racism of the first few minutes of my play. She had switched off after that. The play was a dramatic expression of MY outrage at violent racism in Van Diemens Land in the nineteenth century. This woman has gone into my vocabulary as Outraged of Bangalore, and she is an example of a critic who has no idea what she is talking about because she hasn’t paid fair attention to the whole work.
The first thing any critic must do is consider the whole work under review. You might be surprised at how often this is not the case.
When I read a book review my first criterion is that it should not be dull. If the construction and tone and sentences of the review are dull, if the review itself doesn’t invite me in, I can’t take it very seriously. For an author, the dull review is worse than the negative review. Dull and negative – well of course that’s the pits. I want a review of any book by me or anyone else to give the sense that the reviewer has engaged with the work, reflected on it, and constructed a response that will honour the work and inform the reader-of-the-review. Does the reviewer like the book and why? If not, why not? I am a big consumer of reviews.
Way back in the early 1980s, before the internet, before book groups, before writers’ festivals, I started subscribing to the Literary Review which is an English monthly journal of book reviews written by selected experts in matters literary. I love the Literary Review and I still read it every month. I’ll read reviews anywhere and everywhere. If I start listing all the places, it will sound a bit ridiculous. But I will confess that once a month I go to the hairdresser and there I read the reviews in the Women’s Weekly and also The Monthly. I also get nice haircuts and good cups of tea.
I believe that the best way to learn to write in any form – novel, short story, poem, review – is to read and analyse many many examples of the chosen form. I can’t remember when I wrote my first review, or what I reviewed, or who published it. I’d like to read it, but I’m a poor archivist of my own work. So it’s pretty much lost, I think. I do know that my only information on how to do it was the reviews I had absorbed, since there were no courses or books I knew of on how to do it, and my formal education ended before the invention of the task called the ‘book report’. At school we used to study novels and analyse them and write essays on them. That was all.
Because I also write novels and stories, I am familiar with having my own work reviewed, so I have at least two perspectives on the matter.
The reviewer and the reviewed. And another perspective is that of the consumer, the reader who reads reviews to discover how books are being received and described.
Before a book is available for sale, there is much promotional activity that goes on. Some if it is kind of crypto critical – all positive of course. Also there is vigorous social media, and these days there are sometimes animations of the narrative.
But often the first piece of comment the book-buyer gets on any book is found on the cover. Such as the one about being the best book of this year or any year. The publisher provides a few words of praise from critics etc and offers them to the prospective buyers and readers. A recent collection of stories by C.K. Stead says the stories are ‘challenging, fun, urbane and brilliant’. On the cover of a selection of poems by Billy Collins, Carol Ann Duffy says: ‘Billy Collins is one of my favourite poets in the world.’ I actually prefer her kind of personal comment to the ‘brilliant fun’ thing. I suppose because her kind sounds alive, whereas the other one is just a collection of buzz words. So there, at random from my bookshelf, are two different ways of presenting a book – with an authoritative list of adjectives, or with a completely personal rush of praise.
You can see that such things don’t really mean much. You wouldn’t expect to find negative comments offered by the publisher anyway. It is also fashionable for writers to be described as writing luminous or limpid prose, but I have never quite understood what kind of prose those might be.
In other words, book reviews are often collections of rather weird ‘review clichés’ which glide past the eyes of readers as code for good or bad. You know when you see a reviewer, towards the end of the glowing review, saying ‘however’ that this is the signal for the fact that they are going to say something derogatory. They go: Searingly honest, poetic and visceral, monumental, luminous, brilliant, deeply uplifting, gripping like the jaws of a dingo… HOWEVER…says the critic …here are some REALLY BAD things that will put you off.
This is a dull and routine review rhythm.
Good good good – really bad. Where did the reviewer really stand on that book? Not sure.
The next earliest commentary on a book can be found in journals on publishing, produced for booksellers and publishers. In June you will read reviews of books that are going to be published in September. This gives the reviewer a chance to discover where the book will sit in that good old Landscape of Australian Literature. For one thing. Make no mistake – it’s really the Landscape of Australian Marketing that we are talking about here. The reviewer is a very small element in the grand plan of the marketing department of the publisher.
Anyhow – what you see after the stuff in those journals might be a blurb from a bookseller. Now these are always positive, because the bookseller is selling books, but they do give you some insight into the kind of book you are dealing with. Of course these things are not without commercial support from the publisher – so they will never be altogether without bias. There exists a blurry line between criticism and promotion.
Then come the reviews in local and international newspapers, and in journals, on radio. There are the blogs, some useful, some not – it’s a given that these days anybody can publish a review, and that much of what is written online is by any average standard just rubbish – but I think the most reliable reviewing is still found in places where editors have selected experienced reviewers who know what the whole thing is about. The best things are often longish essays in which the critic has been given the time and space to deliver thoughtful and careful analysis. The Sydney Review of Books is such a place. You also get panel discussions – on TV and at Festivals and so on. Somewhere in this maelstrom of words is the critic.
The critic plays a small part in the complexity of the life of a book, and is as I said, probably an ant among the leaf litter in the Landscape of Australian Literature.