Literary Australia can hold a sustained public conversation about as well as a Salvation Army band can play Wagner.
I’m not referring to conversations held privately between peers, across coffee tables, on Twitter, or over email.
What I am concerned with is the absence of a more performative aspect of criticism in the public domain, which doesn’t necessarily assume specialised knowledge or recognised allegiances, but is prepared to discuss what criticism is.
Some might suspect that there is something antithetical in asking critics to engage in public conversation about their craft. Who the hell cares anyway? The traditional literary pages are shrinking, and choosing writing as an occupation is unlikely to result in financial reward. We’re all familiar with this narrative of decline, one at least partially brought about by the infinite page-count of the internet and its ability to measurable the finite nature of a reader’s attention. I don’t buy into this narrative. For example, across 25 years of reading, the general state of Australian literary journals has never been stronger than it is now. I don’t believe that literary culture and criticism is in decline or dead – but I do think it risks smelling funny.
As with any field, the practitioners of literary criticism demonstrate a wide range of abilities. While I would go out of my way to read the work of Delia Falconer or Tegan Bennett Daylight; work by other contemporary reviewers reads as placeholding content, primarily consisting of plot summaries, lightly evidenced assertions and almost inevitable references to beautiful prose. Unfortunately, the latter form of criticism seems particularly sustainable in an environment where the purpose and craft of criticism is under-interrogated.
I’m a great listener of podcasts, and an often-superb example of a kind of conversational criticism is Slate’s Culture Gabfest. The Gabfest is a lively discussion show, hosted by the whip-smart and articulate threesome of Dana Stevens, Stephen Metcalf and Julia Turner. Their conversations are the kind of incisive and witty back-and-forths that make the topics they discuss seem bigger than they were previously.
Their recent discussion of US author Laura Kipnis’ essay ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe’ examined that article’s provocative assertion that the banning of relationships between academics and students is part of a broader movement in tertiary education; one that not only pre-emptively treats students as trauma cases waiting to happen, but, through movements such as trigger warnings for books, poses a threat to the very idea of free discussion. Kipnis is a writer of real rhetorical force, and reminds me of figures from my parents generation who are not only convinced that they were the first ones to discover sex in the 1960s, but believe that they maintain a superior understanding of the subtleties of the erotic than any subsequent generation. But rather than eyeroll themselves into orbit as I may have done, the Gabfest picked apart Kipnis’ argument. They agreed with more of it than I would have, while also placing it within the context of a long-term change that has seen the role of academics pass from authority figures, to service providers whose quality of customer service is always open to question. The discussion was spirited, and precise, and aware of its limitations. I couldn’t help wishing that I could hear or read more of its like on a regular basis here in Australia.
The Australian literary conversation is one of long silences, punctuated by the occasional loud thud of a discussion falling at the second or third hurdle. Whether it’s John Dale’s rather tardy piece attacking the quality of Australian reviewing in The Conversation, Kerryn Goldsworthy’s precise survey of the form in ‘Everybody’s a Critic’ (paywalled) in the Australian Book Review, or Geordie Williamson’s opening j’accuse towards universities in The Burning Library, it is not apparent to me that any of these considerable challenges to domestic literary criticism’s complacency has resulted in a sustained public conversation. Furthermore, each flare-up forces a certain weary reformulation of the issues as the intervening silence robs us of an easy context.
Perhaps there are frequent conversations about these issues taking place, and I’m just not paying enough attention. In some cases, that may be true. But even though I’m stranded up in the Sin City, I make an effort to read as widely as I can across the review pages and literary journals. If there is a public literary conversation going on, it must be well hidden.
One that isn’t hidden in any sense is Ben Etherington’s ‘Critic Watch’ column in the Sydney Review of Books. Over just six columns since January 2013, Etherington has applied his sharp gaze to our domestic reviewing landscape: he has targeted the largely favourable responses to novels such as Anna Funder’s All That I Am and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, considered conservative magazine Quadrant’s conflicted attitude to state funding, and most recently conducted a survey of 12 months’ worth of poetry reviewing. A concern that I have heard expressed about ‘Critic Watch’ is that it risks becoming a navel-gazing exercise – that to publicly and polemically consider the craft and broad judgment of Australia’s critical culture could be both self-indulgent and self-regarding, the critical equivalent of a selfie. But I can’t see how a series of considered questions and judgments are indulgent, particularly when compared to the continued application of dull and threadbare tropes in so many contemporary reviews.
Ben’s last column – the poetry survey – was published at the end of January, and sparked a lot of informal, private responses within my hearing. But I have yet to see something substantial in reply. Perhaps I have missed it, perhaps it is coming. I do wonder whether the conditions that allow for substantive replies or even conservation starters are constantly present.
Conversations of this sort are not a matter of goodwill and a night set aside to write up a response. They are about money.
I assume that Etherington’s work is supported by the Sydney Review of Books and/or the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at UWS. I know that Slate pays its podcast contributors. Sustained public discourse must be supported by the right platforms, editorial skills and funding.
And now is the time.
Criticism as consumer guide, if it was truly ever viable, is dead. The consumers, via Goodreads and Amazon and Twitter, are doing it for themselves. Consequently, it is more important that ever to define criticism as a craft separate from a publisher’s marketing program. Writing about books is never going to be in short supply, but critical writing that is reflective, informed and persuasive can not be taken for granted.
This is an edited extract of a short paper delivered at Critical Matters, Australia’s first symposium on reviewing, held at the Wheeler Centre 9th April 2015.
Image credit: lwnski