In defence of book reviewers in Australia

Let’s not underestimate the intellectual goodwill that sustains our literary culture. Antoine Robiez

Book reviewers and the editors of periodicals that commission them are used to sour assessments of their worth, but Professor John Dale’s article on The Conversation yesterday is in a class of its own.

What a clichéd, ungenerous and discreditable overview of book reviewing in this country, with its sentimental and predictable coda about mythic Manhattan standards.

Professors should do their homework – like critics. Reviewing, Dale states, is not financially rewarding. But that depends on how good you are, where you publish, and what you consider a reasonable supplementary income. Even “insightful reviews”, Dale asserts, earn A$120. Where has he been, and what does he read? Many newspapers and magazines pay more than that.

At Australian Book Review (ABR), which I edit, our minimum payment is A$300, and often we pay far more than that.

Scholars, Dale claims, won’t work for low pay. In my experience, scholars are much more generous than that. (The Conversation – which, as a non-profit, does not pay authors for their contributions – surely attests to such generosity.) I have been consistently impressed by the readiness of busy academics to take on serious, lengthy reviews.

Nor, I believe, are they in the habit of limiting the task to a single day. We’re not all Barry Jones.

Dale goes on to suggest that editors resort “to the same old names” (the tiredest of arguments in the book of authorial disgruntlement). Again, look more closely. ABR – by no means alone in this respect – publishes 250 writers each year, in ten issues. Editors are all always looking for bright young critics.

John Dale seems to think people review books for base reasons: to earn a buck or (risibly) “to see their name in the book pages”. What an insult to the countless fine critics in this country who produce artful, learned, responsible critiques. What an underestimation of the intellectual goodwill that sustains our literary culture.

Frank Kermode, a masterly British critic, put it neatly: “So I educate myself in public, which I take to be the reviewer’s privilege”.

Dale’s article is full of arresting assertions. “Book reviewing is about the reader,” he confidently asserts. Which reader? Most of the critics I know feel a greater sense of obligation to the work itself, free of commercial or promotional considerations. “We all know what a good review is,” Dale goes on tantalisingly, suggesting that “for the writer a good review is anything positive written by someone who understands the intentions of your work” (my emphasis).

Are authors really so needful, so undiscriminating? Shrewd authors, in my experience, look for original and illuminating engagements with their books: not approbation.

Worryingly, Dale claims that because many reviews are “contradictory” a large number of our writers are manic depressives. It is hard to know what he means by “contradictory”. Is he against nuance, ambiguity, variety of opinion?

Of course not all criticism is first-rate – the same applies to our literature and our politics and our soccer. As Dale suggests, we have all experienced “a sloppy or inaccurate review”. I’m always tempted to say, “Move on, get over it – stop reading the stuff if you are so woundable”.

I may be perverse, but (as an author) I find bad reviews vivifying, emboldening. It is a contest, after all – a contest of ideas and aesthetics and sensibilities – and we shouldn’t be precious about it.

Like so many others, John Dale looks to New Yorker luminaries for inspiration. “Certainly there is no antipodean James Wood.” Well, no. A special set of circumstances produced James Wood.

But we have critics such as Kerryn Goldsworthy, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Morag Fraser, Lisa Gorton, Peter Craven, Delia Falconer, James Bradley, Robert Dessaix, Andrew Fuhrmann – and any number of other outstanding practitioners of their craft.

They do not deserve to be derided in such an idle and pusillanimous fashion.


See also:
Here they are: the rules for book reviewing
Anonymous book reviews don’t foster our literary culture