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7 August 2015: Critical Ecology

Gunter Christmann the commercialGunter Christmann, NEVER AGAIN, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 61.00 x 61.00 x 3.00 cm, courtesy the Estate of Gunter Christmann and The Commercial Gallery, Sydney (photo: Jessica Maurer).

 

This week the first public hearing of the Senate inquiry into arts funding swung into action in Melbourne. Representatives of the Victorian arts community spelled out their concerns about the Minister for the Arts’ proposed National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) before a panel of politicians and bureaucrats. Interested parties around the country followed the action on social media via the #freethearts and #ArtsInq hashtags. George Brandis himself was nowhere to be seen. Arts journalists tweeted aphoristic reports from the hearing and only occasionally was the information stream disrupted by the transcendent prankery emitting from the anonymous Art of Brandis Twitter account.

The hearings will proceed around the country until September. They form a dramatic and unpredictable backdrop to my first weeks as editor of the Sydney Review of Books. Literature is one of the specific exclusions from the NPEA funding remit; cuts to the Australia Council’s funding pool and the still-unclear parameters of the Book Council have left writers and independent publishers wondering how they will pay the bills. The apparent confusion of the Minister of the Arts as to the likely effects of his reform agenda have been at odds with the calm assurances that excellence must and will prevail.

The interdependencies between criticism and a thriving literary culture are complex and multiple. The critical practice that flourishes at the Sydney Review of Books has been made possible in part thanks to generous funding from the Australia Council. The vitality of the magazine, however, ultimately relies not only on the stability of our own funding but also on a well-funded and diverse literary sector that exists as a part of a healthy arts ecology.

The federal government’s brave new arts funding vision hasn’t diluted my optimism about the Sydney Review of Books. I’m thrilled to have been appointed editor of this magazine and look to the future with great gusto. A decade ago an online-only magazine of criticism such as the Sydney Review of Books, one dealing with Australian and international literature, would have seemed like a quixotic venture. The first years of the Sydney Review of Books, steered by inaugural editor James Ley, have shown that it’s a necessary one.

I’d like to acknowledge the work that James has done to set the foundations of the Sydney Review of Books in place. He has gathered some of the best critics in the country and published provocative and robust essays on Australian and international literary culture. Under his guidance, the Sydney Review of Books has shown that serious criticism can thrive online. He’s been a diligent and attentive editor, as well as an astute critic, and it’s an honour to succeed him. I’m delighted that James’s association with the Sydney Review of Books will be maintained in his new role as Contributing Editor. A review essay by James will appear monthly along with occasional shorter pieces. I’m very grateful for his efforts to ensure that the transition between editors has been smooth.

Long essays that engage in a substantial manner with books and literary culture will continue to anchor the Sydney Review of Books however over the coming months regular readers will notice new features on the site such as interviews, comment pieces and reports on current events in the literary world. I’ll be asking for readers’ input on these initiatives as well as the future direction of the Sydney Review of Books.

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The Sydney Review of Books goes to the movies this week. James Ley writes on The End of the Tour, the new film about David Foster Wallace based on David Lipsky’s 2010 book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. It’s not quite correct to frame The End of the Tour as a film about Wallace. Rather, as Ley observes, ‘the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol’. Ley writes:

The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task. It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of the book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him.

James Ponsoldt’s film reinvigorates the posthumous fascination with Wallace and challenges the audience to consider their complicity in the objectification of the writer many view as the most significant of his generation.

Our second essay, by Stuart Cooke, addresses the latest volume of poetry by David Brooks, Open House. “Many of the poems in this collection,” writes Cooke,

embrace very public and contemporary discussions; their purposeful, conversational and even prosaic diction positions them not only as aesthetic forms, but also as miniature socio-political arguments or assertions. They can, in other words, be read as active, provocative instances of language, which form part of the author’s broader set of concerns.

Cooke’s reading of Open House extends the poetic and political discussions initiated by Brooks and joins his careful dialogues with communities of non-human animals, taking issue, at times, with his critique of the instrumental use of non-human animals. The openness of Open House, its “aesthetic activism” invites such engagements, argues Cooke, and by means of potent affective strategies and “powerful opinionated rhetoric”, the poet challenges the privilege accorded the merely aesthetically pleasurable.

From the Archives this week returns to Cameron Woodhead’s essay  on D.T. Max’s 2012 biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a significant artefact in the celebritisation of Wallace. Woodhead wasn’t convinced that Every Love Story is a Ghost Story could sustain a claim to being the definitive DFW biography – “perhaps it was too much to hope that Wallace could be memorialised so quickly” – but predicted that it would serve as a “stepping stone” to subsequent biographers. The End of the Tour is based on David Lipsky’s book but director James Ponsoldt has publicly acknowledged that Max’s biography was indeed a kind of stepping stone that helped him plot a path towards his subject.