book to the future bookmarks #3

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Welcome to the third instalment of Book to the Future Bookmarks, the fortnightly megapost in which I ramble about what I’ve been reading, and share a few of the many, many websites I’ve added to my Bookmarks folder over the past two weeks.

Maybe you might find yourself adding a few of these links to your Bookmarks list too?

(Ahem. This post might be a few days late, but I’m hoping no-one’s noticed. Let’s get on with it.)

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 It’s hard out here (for a critic)

One positive aspect of this post being delayed is that it gives me the opportunity to link to this article by Carody Culver, published in Kill Your Darlings yesterday, about The Saturday Paper’s pseudonymous book review policy.

I really like Culver’s discussion of the issues surrounding TSP’s choice to publish pseudonymous book reviews. In fact, it’s helped me to articulate something that’s been bugging me for a long time.

Editor of The Saturday Paper, Erik Jensen, is quoted in the Kill Your Darlings article as saying:

‘Books pages are full of authors reviewing authors, almost always in the uncomfortable position of writing about someone they know and in many cases someone they like’.

Every time I read or hear someone bemoaning the insular nature of the Australian literary reviewing scene, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated. A statement like this assumes so much about the professionalism – or rather, the perceived lack thereof – of Australian critics. And though I’m hardly a critic, I’m a reader of criticism, and I challenge this assumption.

As an outsider, I’m clueless as to why we’re so often encouraged to view our litcrit scene in such a relentlessly harsh light. I’m pretty sure it was Stephen Romei who mentioned exasperatedly at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, on a panel called “The State of Reviews”, that every writers’ festival he’s ever attended has included a panel on the “state” of Australian criticism.

Ben Etherington, in his first Critic Watch piece (“Critic Watch” – even the name implies that critics are a shifty bunch, in need of constant surveillance…) for the Sydney Review of Books, writing about critical response to Anna Funder’s All That I Am, makes the astounding claim that:

Given [Anna Funder’s] profile, I would guess that many of the reviewers have met Funder in one capacity or another: at interviews or, perhaps, dinner parties. There aren’t that many writers and critics in Australia, and we cannot expect that reviewers will not encounter their subjects, particularly when so many are themselves authors.

And here’s what I’m really getting at – if there’s really such a concern that Australia’s literary culture is getting too insular, maybe it’s time to consider new critical voices?

While all this handwringing over criticism is going on, there’s a whole heap of amazing literary bloggers out there, casually doing their thing. People who, I can only assume, haven’t yet been invited over to Anna Funder’s place for dinner.

It’s time for something new. Not just new critics, but new forms of criticism, too.

Look, for all I know, I’m making a complete fool of myself – it wouldn’t be the first time – and all the reviews in The Saturday Paper are written by emerging critics. After all, they’re pseudonymous, so I have no way of knowing. However, to me, Jensen’s comment above suggests otherwise. His motivation in publishing pseudonymous reviews doesn’t seem to be because he wants new critics to sit alongside the big names – it’s to allow established writers to feel more comfortable about being completely honest. This from Crikey’s Daily Review:

[Jensen] says The Saturday Paper’s guarantee of anonymity will allow his critics to write what they really think about a work that otherwise they might be loath to express in the small world of Australian publishing.

So, Erik Jensen – if you’re oh-so-bored with the literary pages of other papers, why not do something exciting with your own? Be brave. Engage emerging critics and take an active role in nurturing and developing and expanding Australia’s critical culture rather than bleating about its supposed narrowness.

Will publishing anonymous reviews really do anything to alter the status quo? Somehow, I doubt it.

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And, while I’m being all demanding – writers’ festival curators, how about a different type of criticism panel this year? Something different to the usual doom-and-gloom? Yes, I know literary pages are shrinking, but just for once, couldn’t we celebrate Australian critical culture rather decry than its supposed weaknesses? Wouldn’t that be lovely?

(Finally, I don’t think literary criticism should be above criticism, and despite my disdain above, I find the Critic Watch model of comparing responses to a novel interesting. Keeping an eye on criticism is important to make sure that a range of diverse voices are being heard – something that, of course, isn’t possible with pseudonymous reviews.)

A life lived in books

At the start of the year, I came across this rather lovely blog post by Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites, in which she discusses the notebook she’s used since 2008 to keep track of every book she’s read. I found the way she writes about recording her reading incredibly touching, and it made me reflect on the completely soulless way in which I’ve come to document my own reading history.burialrites

I use Goodreads to take note of the books I read, setting myself a reading challenge at the start of the year, then feeling miserable when, at the end of the year, I’ve invariably failed to reach my target. But Goodreads, while a useful site, has its limitations. It only allows you to enter a book once, which doesn’t account for books you read for a second (or third, or fourth) time. And, of course, I haven’t entered every book I’ve read since I opened a Goodreads account. When I first joined Goodreads, I used it only to catalogue the books I was reviewing for this blog.

After reading Kent’s article, I found a lovely, unused red notebook on my desk and I’ve started my own list of the books and journals I’ve read so far this year. Next year, I’ll post a progress report.

Art Garfunkel has famously kept a list of every book he’s read since 1968. His list of 157 favourite books makes for interesting reading. It’s probably the only list you’ll find Carrie Fisher and Marcel Proust next to each other, for instance. I can’t help but notice that, at number 157, he lists Fifty Shades of Grey. Oh, Art…really?

Fifty Shades of Grey? I’d much rather Hazy Shade of Winter, thanks.

On Book to the Future lately…

Finally, something to report! In case you missed it, this week, I reviewed Jessie Cole’s 2012 debut novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Which reminds me of something that’s been sitting in my Bookmarks folder for a long time. Towards the end of last year, Cole published an absolutely stunning memoir piece in Meanjin. I read it I was on a crowded bus, firmly lodged in an inner-city traffic jam, and had to stop reading at least three times because I was in serious danger of getting teary.

This is definitely a must-read, but save it for when you’re feeling strong. Trust me.

One last thing…

Kirsten Krauth’s first Friday Night Fictions post for the year is online! Friday Night Fictions, published every three months, introduces readers to the work of Australian debut authors. Make sure you head over to Wild Colonial Girl and take a look.

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I’ve ranted for much longer than usual (whoops!) and this post is late enough as it is, so I’ll save my usual What I’m Reading ramble for my next Bookmarks post.

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

4 thoughts on “book to the future bookmarks #3”

  1. Amazing post, Michelle, thanks for curating this for us.

    Totally agree about pseudonymous reviewing. I’ve often felt really awkward meeting writers whose books I felt lukewarm about. Usually I don’t review a book if I didn’t like it, to avoid just that.

    1. That’s one of the benefits of reviewing the “classics” – you don’t need to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings :)

      I was fortunate enough to meet a brilliant critic last year, who told me that a reviewer should never forget that a novel is “written in the writer’s heart’s blood” – and it’s a thought that’s remained with me since.

      At the same time, there’s no point in not telling the whole truth. A negative review doesn’t have to be scathing, or nasty or point-scoring. It just needs to state the critic’s case, clearly and calmly.

      Thanks Emily – I’m glad you liked my post!

  2. Wow, keeping a list of books read since 1968 is impressive. I have been keeping my Excel spreadsheet for 10 years. I would be devestated if I lost it!

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