At the National Writers’ Conference at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, four of Australia’s best emerging arts critics appeared on a panel, ostensibly representing the critical analysis of four major art forms: film, theatre, literature, and television (though in fact all four critics have each written about multiple forms). Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Jane Howard, James Tierney and Chad Parkhill were brought together on a panel to discuss “Why do we like what we like, and should we even care? Why do we dissect things, and what value is there in examining the merits of the latest band, book, or show?”. The conversation was wide-ranging and showcased just why the Emerging Writers’ Festival is leading the way.
For the panel, each of these four critics was asked to prepare a five-minute introductory provocation. Such is the quality of these short pieces—and their overlappingness is also excellent—that The Lifted Brow asked if we could publish them all, one a day, this week.
Reviewing and the Long Way Round (to anger)
by James Tierney
The topic I’d like to talk to is that of wonder, both in its ecstatic sense and to mean questioning.
In essence I’ll be wondering if evenness—both in critical temperament and the population of critics—does book reviewing any lasting favours.
And within the scope of a five-minute talk, I’m going to take the long way around.
Wonder, a genuine sense of awe, used to be at the centre of art (and for the purposes of this paper, I’m considering writing in all its forms, including reviewing, as an art). A work like the King James Bible, as well as being a deeply political document, is the equal of Shakespeare in its supple and aphoristic use of language, employed to best raise its reader to faith. Beyond the directly religious, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a novel that depends for much of power on a direct line into a remorseless implacable need, something which reads as sexual to us today but is at least as much about a connection that is beyond the body, beyond life and beyond even explanation.
The critical receptions too that Wuthering Heights and other key novels of the 19th century received were often emotional in nature. Reviewers openly and purposefully struggled with miscomprehension and even disgust as they strove to assess an artistic form perfected by women. Some of the reviews of George Elliot’s work, especially Middlemarch, read as ecstatic hymns to the possibilities of fiction and their ability to be beautiful machines for training in empathy.
The nineteenth century was also the height of the Romantic movement, which aimed to celebrate life at its most expressive but too often and too soon soured into sentimentality (something often but wrongly seen as an especially womanly attribute). Perhaps as a useful corrective to what one critic called this almost endless abuse of adjectives, the twentieth century was decidedly cooler than the nineteenth.
Emblematic of this coolness is Marcel Duchamp’s work from 1917 ‘Fountain’. The ceramic urinal that Duchamp bought and infamously entered into an open art exhibition, signed R. Mutt, was both a blunt joke and a point about the transformative effect of context. It was also one of the moments when irony, that affectless art of sharp but superficial contrast, began its long march to cultural supremacy.
Certainly in the broad awful history of the twentieth century, a need for ironic detachment makes a certain sense but its inevitable effect is to reduce the opportunities for emotional responses. Book reviewing, like much criticism, as a result often reads like it’s dosed with anti-depressants – its language temperate, its offered judgements safe and indistinct.
I’m not arguing here for a purely expressive criticism, of the type that says I liked it / I didn’t like it. I’m not arguing this not least because readers are already engaged in this, in reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon. Some of the reviews I’ve read on Goodreads have been more vividly written responses to a book than anything in the literary pages.
But what I am arguing is that a critical response more open to trying to write about affect in new ways is one of our best chances of keeping book reviews lively, engaging and worth reading in their own right.
I’d like to wind up by briefly wondering about another critical emotion – that of anger. There are a lot of things to celebrate in domestic writing in and around books. One thing that can not is its diversity. Australia’s reviewing culture—with exceptions I think like poetry aside—is still largely white and male.
The Stella Count on gender conducted over the past several years has recorded some improvements but the over-all the number of women writing in or being written about in our literary pages is either flat-lining or declining. The representation of writers from different ethnic backgrounds is likely to be many times worse, as is any measure of class.
God knows the life of a literary editor is difficult enough these days. But whether it is due to a lack of resources, institutional inertia, personal indifference or hostility, the lack of diversity in Australia’s literary pages means that the default perspective falls to people like… me. I already live that perspective and I’m angry as its self-important bromides get carted out again and again.
I can’t imagine how the rest of you feel.