On Reviewing

by nike, September 20, 2010

In this month’s ALR Geordie Williamson and John Dale have their say about the current state of Australian literary criticism, partly as a contribution to the ongoing dialogue generated by Gideon Haigh’s piece ‘Feeding the Hand That Bites‘, and partly as an apperitif in preparation for a panel discussion at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre.

Towards the end of his long, interesting, but disappointingly under-developed arguments about literary criticism and reviewing in Australia, Mr Williamson has a bit of a go at critiquing the good old WWW, and particularly the emerging (emerged!) world of  ‘amateur’ literary criticism that’s sprung up online. At one point, in a small section called ‘Bugger Bloggers’, he writes:

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.

There are lots of argument for and against online reviewing, but to me this is one of the weakest of them. It confuses the quality or value of the medium with the quality or value of the content. Of course, as we all know, and have known since Marshall McLuhan declared it to be so, the medium is the message, but we also all know that as catchy as McLuhan’s phrase is, it isn’t altogether accurate or complete: it’s truth value comes partly from it being said at a time when no-one had yet observed that the medium has an impact on how effectively a message is communicated. The medium is not the entirety of the message. The message is the message. What Williamson fails to consider is that what he claims about the internet as a medium is equally true of print:

However marvellous it may be, [print] is no more than a medium: its content is not more virtuous, intelligent or correct for appearing in a [traditional? old-fashioned? familiar?] space.

Williamson also has a go at critical theory, mostly by publishing two dot-point lists: what to discard, and what to keep. The lists are notable, to me, both for their sense of the possibility they suggest that Williamson has something interesting to say about the weaknesses of critical theory as a tool for literary criticism, and for the way in which they seem – to me, at least – to operate out of a reductive misunderstanding of some of the key arguments and theories of critical theory. Williamson argues for throwing out Barthes’s ideas about the ‘death of the author’, stating that one of the things we should discard is: Displacement of the author from a position of authority over the texts they create. This seems to me to suggest that Williamson is either deliberately or intentionally mis-representing the subtle and fascinating observation that, once a text is published, there are a multitude of readers who can offer views on a text and, sometimes, these ideas about the text can exceed or overthrow (or alter) the author’s own understanding of their work, its meanings, its messages, even its content. Intention, as we surely all know by now, is an imperfect mechanism. Not everything an author wishes to communicate is communicated, any more than everything an author wishes to keep silent about remains silent.

On the same list, Williamson suggests that we throw out critical theory’s refusal to permit communication of enthusiasm or value judgments about a text, and yet it seems to me that critical theory has opened up a space in literary criticism for precisely that: for the appropriateness of a personal response. A response that says: this is who I am, and therefore this text moves me, or irritates me, or silences me – or those I care about – in these ways. It opens a space for enthusiasm precisely through the dismantling of the idea that there is only one ‘proper’ way to read a text, and a proper fellow to do the job.

But, since Williamson has chosen not to elucidate, it would be unfair to read too much into his list, or to argue with it too strongly.

I enjoyed reading Williamson’s piece. It’s an interesting summary of a range of arguments about literary reviewing. My disappointment lies less in the breadth of the ideas than in the lack of depth in his argument. After a long personal anecdote about Williamson’s late discovery of the pleasures of his national literature, Williamson lists a range of arguments for and against the decline of the quality of literary reviewing, its ongoing purpose in an increasingly sub-literate world (my words, not his), and in the face of an increasingly online or technologised literature, and the value of an idea of a national literature in an the context of increasingly global notions of identity and community.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here; my problem is that, in this piece in which Williamson comes back and back to the need for well-written, coherent and interesting literary criticism, he has failed to WRITE a coherent, clear, cogently-argued essay. For me, much of his argument – at least in the first reading – gets overlooked because it reads like a bunch of ideas thrown together, and is so poorly edited. It reads, I’m afraid, more like notes towards an essay than an essay. The piece even includes post-it-note style lists of ‘places to start’ and ‘quotes to include’, without adequately embedding these odds and sods into an argument. The snippets are intriguing; I wish Geordie had taken the time to explore his ideas with more care. I would like to hear more of what he has to say on this subject. I wish he had written more, and more clearly, so that I could better understand his position, and learn from it.

John Dale’s tighter, more coherent, and considerably shorter piece on the same topic, by contrast, is clear, concise and engaging. He makes some good points, and does so in a way that engages the reader in a consideration of the qualities necessary to a good review.

I do want to write a little more about these pieces – they’ve stimulated me to think more, and more deeply, about the way we respond to books, what the function of reviews might be in the modern world, what we expect from them as readers, what we (should be) able to expect from them as readers. I have been particularly exercised about the issue of ethical and intelligent reviewing since I read the hateful hatchet-job review done on Fiona McGregor’s novel Indelible Ink and Angelo Loukakis’s Houdini’s Flight, in which the reviewer made several misleading and, one can only presume, intentional misrepresentations of the facts of both Ms McGregor’s writing career and that of the other author under review, Angelo Loukakis.

The review was of two new books by Australian authors: one by Angelo Loukakis and one by Fiona McGregor. I haven’t read either, so can’t say whether the criticisms of the books she offers are valid, (though I’d argue the review actually does very little in terms of actually responding to the content of the books under review), but what got me riled reading the review (actually, ONE of the many things that made me cross) was this little gem:

In comparing these writers it is worth noting that Loukakis was published outright while McGregor made her way via an Australia Council grant and the Varuna Writers Centre. She is undoubtedly the better writer, but at least Loukakis knows when to stop.

So many things to rail against in those two sentences. The second is scathing, dismissive, insulting. Damning both writers with an acidic and pointless throwaway line that tells me – as the review reader – nothing I need to know about either book. In fact, reading the rest of the review, one can hardly find any further evidence for the assertion that McGregor is a ‘better writer’ (though I would have liked some evidence, such as quotes from the book, or analysis of the author’s writerly strengths), or that she believes Loukakis knows ‘when to stop’. The tone is snide, dismissive and disrespectful of the books, the authors, the publishers and editors who worked on the books, and the readers of the review.

What does getting ‘published outright’ mean, exactly, and why is it ‘worth noting’? Since when is it not ok for a writer to have had either an Australia Council grant, or a Varuna residency during the process of writing their work? Since when does such support somehow have a bearing on the writing under review? Apart from the sense that the reviewer in some way resents authors who get support with their writing, or thinks that their writing should be taken less seriously, I’m really troubled by her inaccurate suggestion that either OzCo funding or Varuna support leads to publishing deals. In fact, both (except for some small and specific programs offered by Varuna) are definitely not publication programs, but manuscript and/or author development programs without any guarantee of publication attached. Elsewhere in her review, Hunt lists a series of questions she feels remain open at the end of McGregor’s book and says that: “Given more time and money McGregor would have answered these questions, stretching the saga like toffee and demolishing whole forests in the process.” More snide, psuedo-sarcastic dismissal, and a none-too-subtle reinforcement of Hunt’s apparent resentment (is resentment too strong a word?) of the support McGregor has received for her writing.

Then I think about how misleading this statement is on other grounds. Fiona McGregor  received an OzCo grant in 1993. 1993! 17 years ago. Any idiot with an internet connection can find this out if they want to. She went to Varuna in 1994; 16 years ago. It hardly seems fair to me to suggest (by implication, and by leaving out significant details) that Indelible Ink received assistance on its way to publication when clearly the support Fiona received she received some time ago, and for other works. The book under review (and you wouldn’t know this from the review) is her fourth, her earlier books were published by small or mid-size presses: UWA, Allen & Unwin, McPhee Gribble. This new book is (again) published by a small, independent press: Scribe. Her previous publications include: Suck My Toes, Au Pair, and Chemical Palace. She is also a performance artist who has toured Australia and Europe, particularly as part of the collective SenVoodoo formed with Aña Wojak.

And what about the other author under review, who apparently got ‘published outright’? Angelo Loukakis is the executive director of the Australian Society of Authors. He teaches/has taught creative writing at both the Australian Catholic University and UTS. He has sat on the Literature Board of the Australia Council, and acted as chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre. Loukakis has published nine books, including five works of fiction. He has an agent (Cameron Cresswell), appears to have positive and supportive relationships with his publisher and various signifcant figures in the world of publishing (at least three of his five novels have been published by the large international publisher Harper Collins; his first publication, For The Patriarch, was with UQP). He received $10,000 funding from OzCo in 2008 for the AA magazine. His previous works include: Making A Difference: Life, Leadership and Politics, The Memory of Tides, The Greeks, Norfolk: An Island And Its People, Vernacular Dreams, Messenger, Who Do You Think You Are? He is, clearly, an experienced, professional writer and writing industry professional.

Suggesting that McGregor has had her path to publication smoothed out on the grounds that she had a grant and residency 17 years ago, while Loukakis has been ‘published outright’ (published without any leg-ups or support), is totally and unethically misleading. And completely inappropriate reviewing. Hunt gets her facts wrong, or misrepresents the facts, and appears to be suggesting that writers do not deserve and should not seek support with their writing. That it is somehow morally (?) superior to write in isolation, with no financial support.

I don’t agree with this sentiment (veiled and obscurely made as it is), obviously, but I also don’t think it’s relevant to the review, or is made relevant. Whether a writer got financial, emotional, professional or editorial support or not, it is the quality of the book that is/should be examined in a review. If these background issues get raised at all, I think they should only be framed in terms of the reviewer’s own views about literature funding and support mechanisms, foci, outcomes, etc, definitely NOT as a misleading assertion about the authors or works under review. If the reviewer wants to claim that the support a writer received is relevant, then they should say how it is relevant, build an argument for that relevance and state their position clearly, rather than just state that it is ‘worth noting’ and not say why. That’s weak argumentation: poor writing. One is left to wonder, and not happily, whether Hunt means to imply that funding for all writers, or any other support, is not ok ‘outright’ or whether it is only the funding and support received by McGregor she considers unwarranted, or unsuccessful.

Although I would not agree with either position, I believe it could be ethical, or perhaps even appropriate, to write an article about the impact of funding and other support mechanisms on contemporary publishing in Australia. It might even be interesting to hear the reviewer’s views on the importance, relevance or necessity of such support. It might – and this is a big might – be interesting to read a balanced and well-researched article interrogating the impact of funding and other support on a particular author’s career and work. It is not, however, ethical or relevant to misrepresent facts, or to make insidious implications about the publication history of a work that are misleading or untrue. It is not appropriate to so skew the representation of the two works under review, or their author’s, that it is impossible for a reader who doesn’t know better to make up their own mind.

Reviewing is tough, but it should be undertaken ethically. A reviewer has an obligation to their readers to be honest, and to respond to the work as honestly as possible. If any information about the author or the history of the work is presented, it should be checked (both by the reviewer and, one would hope, the editor!), and should only be included if it is relevant, in some way, to the reader’s understanding of the work. Outside information should not be included if it is not relevant. The review is not a vehicle for the reviewer’s opinions about the world, but their views about literature, about writing, about this book in relation to the others they have read. They may bring their understanding of the world to their understanding of the book. They may do research that enriches their understanding of the book, and share it with their readers, but they should not lie or dissemble. They should not pretend to be presenting the facts, or reviewing a book, when really they are reviewing funding structures, or the author’s personality or personal history. A book review is about the book, and that is where the reviewer’s focus should remain.

Shame, Ms Hunt. Shame.

I guess I should admit that I am aware of the tradition, in reviewing, of the entertaining hatchet job. Of those reviews, and reviewers, like the infamous Dale Peck, whose goal as reviewers seems not so much to assess the merits of a book under review as to entertain their readers by tearing it apart. The entertainment value in reading such a review, it seems to me, is largely mere relief that the reader is not the one having their own work, or themselves, so insensitively and summarily torn apart.

Peck’s reviews for The New Republic were notoriously vicious. People read them – one presumes – not to find out about the books themselves, but to find out how low Peck could go. He began his infamous review of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, for example, by stating that ‘Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation’. So, I’m aware of this tradition, and I’ve read some of Peck’s reviews, and felt the schadenfruede and been mildly, uncomfortable amused, but that doesn’t mean I approve of such appalling abuse of the reviewer’s craft. For my money, such outpourings should not really even be called reviews: they are something else entirely. They are not about the book, or the book’s writer, but about the reviewer. Their pleasures, or satisfactions, lie not in a greater understanding of the book, but in a greater awareness of the depth of the reviewer’s capacity for insensitivity, or creative vilification.

A good review, I believe, is one in which the reviewer mediates between the work and its readers. One in which the reviewer does not merely state their opinions, but argues for them, based firmly on a clear and deep understanding of the work, the context in which it might be read, and the readers towards whom it is directed. A good review gives its reader a sense of why they might read the book, and why they might not; what pleasures it provides, and what disappointments. A good review – like any good literary criticism – is, of course, personal, but it is honest and honourable. Even when it concludes that a book is flawed, it does so not out of glancing dismissal, but as a result of a sustained attempt to understand the work. Perhaps I’m naive, or just sensitive because I, too, have been reviewed, but for me a good review keeps in mind that the person who wrote the book they are reviewing is a human being, and that – as I keep firmly at the front of my mind when I have the opportunity to read and give feedback on another writer’s work – nobody ever sets out to write a bad book.

The other thing to keep in mind? Updike’s gorgeous guidelines, partially quoted in John Dale’s article in the ALR cited above. Here’s what he has to say:

John UpdikeMy rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never…try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

1 Comment

    • Replay Cancel Replay
    • December 1, 2010

    Wonderful stuff=) I am going to require a decent amount of time to ponder your content!

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