It would appear that Gideon Haigh found it irresistible – when invited to write a piece for a new magazine called Kill Your Darlings – to mount a wholesale assault not just on his putative target, (alleged) hack reviewers, but the wider Oz literary culture itself – from his point of view a ‘small, snobbish, fashion-conscious’ bratpack colluding (no less) to dish up the literary equivalent of Myki ‘smart’ cards to an unsuspecting, impoverished reading public.
Now, I’m the last one to suggest this doesn’t make good copy – Haigh’s journalistic credentials stand him in good stead here. For those with long enough memories, his essay stands in the clear tradition of Mark Davis’s incendiary Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism – all very self-righteous and frothing at the mouth at perceived cultural apparatchiks. But in Davis’s case I remember thinking he did at least have some salient points, and certainly the career of the reigning pontiff in Australian literary criticism at the time, Peter Craven, never seemed to quite recover from Davis’s rather withering analysis of his motives.
I can only speak for myself though in finding Haigh’s assessment of the current crop of literary reviewers well wide of the mark. To my mind, by contrast, it seems a veritable renaissance at present in Australia’s reviewing culture. When JM Coetzee’s latest novel Summertime appeared last year, I relished the wonderful extended analyses by the likes of Geordie Williamson, James Ley and Delia Falconer that appeared in various publications. Indeed (and again contra Haigh), whomever reviewers such as these decide to write about, I inevitably tend to read their reviews: I know I’m going to be entertained and instructed, as expected from all good criticism. Kevin Rabelais and Jennifer Levasseur regularly publish considered and well-researched pieces, and a raft of others – the likes of On, Bradley, Starford, Williams, Swinn and Case (I’m probably leaving several noteworthies out here – please don’t take offence!) – all bring intelligence and taste to their – yes – usually very modestly remunerated commissions.
Of course, there’s still the occasional punitive piece (seemingly something Haigh wishes more of) but most readers, I’m sure, think: ‘surely-there’s-another-agenda-going-on-here?’ The most recent example that comes to mind is Catherine Ford’s near demolition of Cate Kennedy’s debut novel The World Beneath late last year, all very peculiar coming from a fellow well-regarded short story practitioner whose own first novel seemed to find scant fanfare. And that Melbourne literary types now grace the glossy supplements under the heading ‘Page Turners’ suggests the marketing wing of the new Wheeler Centre might be overdoing the ‘writer-as-celebrity’ just a tad.
But overall I fear that Gideon, you’re just not reading the review pages these days! That is probably the thing for all of us to be really concerned about – that books seem to be getting shunted ever deeper into the recesses of our newspapers. But still there are glimmers of hope – Ben Naparstek seems to have upped the word count at The Monthly for his book reviews page, giving reviewers more space to do some sort of justice to their subjects. He even ran an extraordinary critique of a book written by his chairman’s wife – no shrinking violet this man! Over at The Australian Miriam Cosic regularly has well-considered pages. I could go on.
So: Ozlit seems to me to be in remarkable good health at present, despite Haigh’s diagnosis to the contrary. Lots of new (and sometimes very exciting) work, considerable marketing and (healthy) buzz surrounding both new and established writers, and, most of all, much good faith amongst all those who work in and care for the industry, not least amongst the ranks of professional book reviewers.
My great literary and intellectual hero, the late WG Sebald, remarked somewhere once that a writer must at all costs avoid the contemporary literary marketplace – fashions, literary ‘rivals’, etc. – and indeed his own fame accrued only slowly and amongst a small dedicated following (much like Cormac McCarthy’s, I might add). Now each writer has of course to handle the accoutrements of publicity, of forging a career as a writer, each in their own way – a by no means easy task to negotiate in a culture which puts such a small premium on the written word.
But, a gravy train? Haigh’s insinuation is a bit of an insult – to authors and reviewers alike. It’s one thing to kill your darlings, quite another to throw the baby out with the (damn fine) bathwater.
Martin Shaw is books division manager of Readings Books Music & Film and an editorial adviser to Kill Your Darlings.