James Ley

James Ley

was the Inaugural Editor of the Sydney Review of Books from January 2013 - July 2015, and is now its Contributing Editor.

About James Ley

James Ley was the Inaugural Editor of the Sydney Review of Books from January 2013 – July 2015, and is now its Contributing Editor. He is the author of The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood (2014).

Articles about James Ley

Articles by James Ley

All is Vanity: The Rich Man’s House by Andrew McGahan

The generic quality of The Rich Man’s House comes to serve a number of purposes. Not the least of these is sheer entertainment value — pun intended. The novel’s premise allows McGahan to play to his strengths as a writer, indulge his factual and descriptive inclinations.

The Drug of Otherness: The Returns by Philip Salom

The Returns portrays the acts of creating and engaging with art and literature as distinct modes of understanding. They are presented as processes that are analogous to, and perhaps even synonymous with, the paradox of selfhood, which decrees that we must live in a state of felt incompletion, constantly plunging into an uncertain future, striving towards some form of renewal or escape, but without ever really escaping ourselves, doomed as we are to drag around increasingly cumbersome sacks of old grievances and regrets.

Everything Is A Sham

What makes Moshfegh an uncommon writer is that beneath the scorn and the dark humour there lurks an authentic Swiftian disgust. Her work has a corporeal, rebarbative, scatological quality. She revels in the grubbiness of the human body, splashes the ordure around like a preschooler in a muddy puddle. Her characters smell bad. And this recurring note of fascinated distaste makes it hard to disentangle their misanthropy from their self-loathing.

The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani

Godwin is Dead

'"It is not just that the left and right consider each other repellent," observes Jeff Sparrow in Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right. "It’s also that they find each other almost incomprehensible." Trigger Warnings and The Death of Truth are notable contributions to what has become a deluge of books and articles trying to explain how we arrived at this point. They offer different diagnoses, but share some basic assumptions. Both propose that the peculiarity of contemporary discourse is, to a significant extent, a product of the culture wars.'

What are we doing here? by Marilynne Robinson

Attack of the Numinous

Robinson may be the moderate face of American religiosity, but she takes some pretty wild swings. The more you read her essays, the more it becomes apparent that she is positing a few simplicities of her own. Whatever manifestation of modern thought she happens to be criticising, her argument is basically the same: she proposes, in essence, that such thinking is too narrow, that it ignores or denies aspects of lived experience, and that its understanding of human nature must therefore be considered inadequate. She returns again and again to the core claim that modern thought is, as she puts it in Absence of Mind (2012), a ‘closed circle’ — by which she means, quite specifically, that its assumptions do not and indeed cannot account for her personal experience of religious belief, her intuition that the universe is a place of wonder and abundant meaning.

Fictive Selves: The Life to Come

De Kretser is an ironist without peer in contemporary Australian writing. Her instincts are subversive, her scalpel well-honed. She exposes her characters’ vanities, only to turn our sense of their thoughtlessness and self-regard inside-out so that we might sympathise with their loneliness. Her powers of social observation are as acute as her awareness of the fictions we live by.

Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra book cover

The Pleasure of Hating

It is always a good idea, I think, to resist the temptation to regard the politics of one’s own time as especially awful, but recent history does seem to have provided no shortage of prima facie evidence that there is something a bit unhinged and perhaps even pathological about contemporary conflicts. As Pankaj Mishra and Kenan Malik both argue, the volatility and irrationalism of the present are expressions of widespread feelings of alienation, resentment, anger and hatred. This much, at least, seems obvious enough. The difficult question Mishra and Malik set out to answer is why this should be the case.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders book cover

Good Grief: Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo is a democratic novel in its multi-voiced technique, but it is also concerned with the paradoxical and fragile nature of democracy itself. It raises the question of whether a fractious republic of atomised and unequal individuals, thrown together by circumstance – rich and poor, amusing and unpleasant, masters and slaves, perpetrators and victims – might nevertheless achieve mutual understanding and a common purpose.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead cover

Injuries and Usurpations: The Sellout & The Underground Railroad

'There is no subject that exposes the tensions, hypocrisies and flat-out contradictions of the United States’ defining myths – manifest destiny, individual liberty, self-reliance, exceptionalism – as starkly as that of race. It is hardly surprising that some of the most trenchant critiques of the nation’s problematic relationship with its own ideals should be found in the work of African-American writers. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Paul Beatty’s satire The Sellout are unalike in almost every respect, but on this point they share a consciousness, if not exactly an attitude. They have a common set of underlying preoccupations, which follow from the obvious historical fact that the institution of slavery made a mockery of the nation’s declared allegiance to the ideals of freedom and equality. What both novelists address, in their very different ways, is the problem of a nation divided against itself, not simply in a material and tribal sense, but on the fundamental level of its founding ideology. Both recognise that its history of conquest, exploitation and systemic inequality generates a profound cognitive dissonance.'

Bob Dylan goes to Stockholm

I would argue that the decision of the Nobel judges is not only courageous; it is also a welcome recognition of the fact that the concept of ‘literature’ is enriched by being understood in a broad and pluralistic way. And on this point, Dylan is a particularly astute choice. The judges’ one-line press release acknowledges that the significance of his work lies in the fact that it is larger than itself, that it acquires its full meaning in the context of the American songwriting tradition. He is, I think, a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize not simply because of the uncommon linguistic facility that his work displays, but because he occupies a unique position in relation to that tradition.

The School Days of Jesus J. M. Coetzee

Novelist of the Sorrowful Countenance: The Schooldays of Jesus

There are critics who have suggested that J. M. Coetzee’s writing lost its edge when he emigrated from South Africa to Australia.

Illegitimate Son: On Patrick Modiano

What becomes increasingly apparent the more one reads Modiano’s novels is that, whatever cathartic purpose they may serve for their author, their autobiographical elements are not merely expressive. They are more imaginative and speculative than confessional. The absence of reliable family structures becomes a motif that implies a radical sense of deracination that is central to his work.

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth by A. O. Scott

Expert Textpert: The Limits of Critique & Better Living Through Criticism

‘Anyone who has spent some time in a library hanging around in the vicinity of the low 800s will know that, for all their variety and intricacy, methodological arguments about the interpretation of literature invariably organise themselves around a small number of seemingly unavoidable conflicts, which are constantly being reinvented and given different weight by different schools of thought.’ James Ley on new books on criticism by Rita Felski, A.O. Scott. And Damon Young

A Strangness in my mind

Erosion of the Will: A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

‘The critical cliché about Pamuk is that he is preoccupied with the cultural tensions between East and West.‘The critical cliché about Pamuk is that he is preoccupied with the cultural tensions between East and West. The cliché is true, up to a point. In subtle and complex ways, Pamuk’s novels depict a Turkish society caught between the conflicting imperatives of tradition and modernity. A Strangeness in My Mind weaves an examination of the social and political forces that have shaped modern Turkey around a sympathetic portrayal of a decisively ordinary central character, a humble street vendor named Mevlut Karataş.’ James Ley on Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel The cliché is true, up to a point. In subtle and complex ways, Pamuk’s novels depict a Turkish society caught between the conflicting imperatives of tradition and modernity. A Strangeness in My Mind weaves an examination of the social and political forces that have shaped modern Turkey around a sympathetic portrayal of a decisively ordinary central character, a humble street vendor named Mevlut Karataş.’ James Ley on Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel

Patti Smith M-train cover

Measured out in coffee spoons: M Train by Patti Smith

‘I have been referring to M Train as a ‘memoir’ by default, but it is something far more ambitious and complex than the word implies. It is a work in an elegiac mode that occupies an indeterminate space between autobiography, essay and fiction.’ James Ley on Patti Smith’s M Train and Collected Lyrics.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen cover

Novelist Yells at Cloud: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

‘Purity’s unifying theme, clearly announced in its title, is not ultimately social or cultural or political, but moral and psychological. Its concern with information and technology on a large scale are ultimately subordinated to its interest in the characters’ states of being, which come to be defined by their relationship to Purity (both the character and the ideal). This grounds the novel in the intimate themes of personal guilt and secrecy.’

Christos Tsiolkas Merciless Gods cover

Frequent coarse language: Merciless Gods

‘Tsiolkas is hardly the first to find himself lionised by the bourgeois-types he set out to affront. The adversarial or iconoclastic artist is a naturalised and often celebrated cultural figure. But Tsiolkas’ celebrity has become part of a complex dynamic that shapes the reception and interpretation of his work.’ James Ley on Christos Tsiolkas’ short fiction and a new work of criticism on the author.

How does it feel to be famous?

The End of the Tour is the product of this posthumous celebrity. This is true in the obvious sense that neither James Ponsoldt’s film nor the book on which it is based would exist if David Foster Wallace had lived. But it is also true in the more complicated sense that the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol.

Hex Genuflect by Jess Johnson

New Editor

Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb

There was an interesting, if minor, piece of fallout from the clashing protests that occurred around the country last week when former Cold Chisel singer Jimmy Barnes told the Reclaim Australia demonstrators, who had been playing one of the band’s signature tunes ‘Khe Sanh’ at their rallies, that he did not want them using his music ... The rebuff was a crowning humiliation for Reclaim Australia, whose rallies were such a disaster that one could almost feel sorry for them were it not for the poisonous garbage they espouse.


It was Bloomsday this week – that annual celebration of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses (1922), which (as everybody surely knows by now) is set in Dublin and unfolds over the course of a single day: 16 June 1904.

Emma White untitled 2

Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Excellence

Now, I am strongly in favour of ‘excellence’ in the arts, because I am as a general rule strongly in favour of any non-specific concept with positive connotations. But the many writers and artists Minster Brandis appears to be targeting with his evisceration of the Australia Council, though they may well be his perceived ideological opponents, are also people who know and care about art, music and literature; they are the ones creating the culture.

In Perspective by Ben Denham
BRAITHWAITE, Busted, 2015

PEN and Freedom of Speech

My view is that the writers who have withdrawn from the PEN event have made the wrong call – though I have some sympathy for their attempt to acknowledge the cultural complexities and the underlying sensitivities of the issues – just as I think it is clear in hindsight that the writers who squirmed and hedged in 1989 when the fatwa was pronounced on Salman Rushdie, those who suggested in one way or another that maybe he shouldn’t have been quite so provocative or offensive, also made the wrong call.

Edward O. Wilson and the Meaning of Existence

It is Wilson’s central contention that science and the humanities should cease to regard each other as separate or competing endeavours that turns out to be the weakest aspect of his argument. In principle, the idea is a good one, but his characterisation of the humanities is dismayingly reductive, and often condescending. His perspective is, in essence, a form of conventional humanism.

Samuel Johnson and Critical Matters

One of many charming essays by Samuel Johnson is number 176 of his Rambler series, first published on 23 November 1751, in which he takes up the subject of criticism. It is a short essay, and not necessarily one of his greatest, but it is one in which his singularly gruff and appealing persona is very much in evidence, in the way that he moves from archness to sober reflection, and on to his rather melancholy moral conclusion.

The Crusader by Liam Benson

Knausgaard and Breivik

Next week, the fourth book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume series My Stuggle will be published in English translation. Titled Dancing in the Dark, it focuses on Knausgaard’s teenage years.

Hebdo and satire

To be able to laugh at someone who is being humiliated, it is necessary to feel that they are getting their comeuppance, that their pretensions are ridiculous enough for them to deserve mockery. This is why satire is an edgy business. There is always the risk that it might miss its target, misread the social context and its power relations, and thus appear cruel or unwarranted; there is always the risk that it will be interpreted entirely differently by someone from a different background.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

Gut instinct: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

Like The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation before it, This House of Grief proceeds from Garner’s first instinctive response. All three books are grounded in the idea that to feel something is a kind of fact. All wonder about the meaning and the status of that subjective fact. In this sense, they might be read as essays that question the concept of rationality.

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

The ceremony for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, which were announced in Melbourne on Monday evening, outdid itself in its awkwardness. I wasn’t there (though I did have my spies in the audience), but thanks to the decision to broadcast ‘highlights’ on SBS, I was able to soak up some of the unusually excruciating atmosphere. The Prime Minister seemed to radiate discomfort.

Demons by Wayne Macauley

Enter the swine: Demons by Wayne Macauley

In appropriating Demons for the title of his fourth novel, Wayne Macauley alludes not only to Dostoevsky’s Demons (which he also quotes in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation), but to the title’s biblical provenance. Near the end of Macauley’s Demons, in the holiday house off the Great Ocean Road where he traps his characters for the weekend, a secret is exposed and the cabin fever gives way to a physical confrontation.

Bad Sex Award

Perhaps the most significant news of the week for the book industry is that the dispute between online retailer Amazon and publisher Hachette has apparently been resolved, though the precise terms of the agreement have not been made public. At issue was the right to set prices for e-book sales. Hachette was unhappy at Amazon’s attempt to use its clout in the marketplace to dictate terms and drive down the cost of e-books in a way that Hachette regarded as detrimental to the interests of publishers and authors alike.

Richard Flanagan’s win, Barry Spurr’s emails

For anyone interested in the arguments about cultural value and authority, the competing interests and agendas involved in those arguments, and the various ways in which particular ideas and works come to be validated and venerated, it has been a week of provocative juxtapositions. One day after the ABC’s long-running television program The First Tuesday Book Club was admonished for not doing enough to promote Australian literature an Australian novelist took out one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.

Lucy Culliton, Self with Cock, painting, 2005

29 August 2014: libraries doing it tough

Libraries are doing it tough. Never have they been so popular (see the American-based but locally relevant PEW study, ‘The library in the city’), and yet so under-funded. The sector continues to grapple with cuts, often leading to reductions in staff, services, book access, and occasionally branch closures. The statistics behind some of the cuts are revealing.

Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach

Earthly happenings: Time, History, and Literature

It is the intellectual foundations of Auerbach’s far-reaching views that are most noticeably illuminated in Time, History, and Literature, a career-spanning collection that includes several essays which are appearing in English translation for the first time.

Nadine Gordimer, the Melbourne Writers Festival

Nadine Gordimer died this week at the venerable age of 90. She was the first South African writer to win the Booker Prize – in 1974 for her novel The Conservationist – and the first South African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she was awarded in 1991. Much of Gordimer’s literary career coincided with the period of apartheid, and the fearlessness with which she addressed its injustices in her work led to the banning of several of her novels in her home country.

A Man in Love: My Struggle Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Notes on ‘Kamp’: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

At the centre of these books, then, is the paradox of a man trying to be objective about his own subjectivity. The paradox is inherent in any autobiographical endeavour, but there are a number of factors elevating Knausgaard’s intimate revelations above the common run of first-person narratives. The most obvious is the ambitious scale of the project.

How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

Age of idiots

As the fifty-something David Shields remarks in How Literature Saved My Life, ‘everyone I know under thirty has remarkably little notion of privacy.’ We are living in an age of idiots, in the etymologically precise sense of the word.

I refuse to Rock and Roll: J.M. Coetzee: A life in writing

J.C. Kannemeyer describes ‘What is a Classic?’ as ‘one of the most important lectures of [Coetzee’s] career’. It is certainly one in which a number of key themes intersect. As Kannemeyer observes, it is especially striking for the way Coetzee relates Eliot’s ideas to his own experience...