Written in response to:
It is bracing, to say the least, to see one’s review being itself reviewed by such an erudite meta-critic as Dr Ben Etherington. No writer – certainly no book reviewer – can complain if a reader finds his or her work to be lacking in insight, deficient in sensibility or stylistically irksome, which, in Dr Etherington’s estimation, are just some of the faults of my recent review of Anthony Macris’s Great Western Highway. It is with some considerable reluctance that I now find myself responding to Dr Etherington’s review, since I have long believed that the correspondence pages of literary journals are usually pretty tedious things to read, full of whining and petty spats that, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, produce a readerly experience not dissimilar from watching two bald men fight over a comb. Nevertheless, I feel that some of Dr Etherington’s wilder claims should not go unchallenged (well, at least the ones he seems to be making about me).
First (and, to my mind, most seriously), Dr Etherington implies that my review is somehow lacking in good faith. Of course, Dr Etherington is perfectly free to say that my review is complete codswallop, but that doesn’t mean that he is also free to impugn my motives in writing it. One of the problems with Dr Etherington’s review is that it works by insinuation and, here as elsewhere, he offers no reason or evidence for implying that good faith is absent from my review. Dr Etherington’s prose is so hard to follow at times that I can’t be certain whether his ad hominem claim about my honesty is somehow related to his paranoid-sounding views on the practice of book reviewing in Australia. At one point, Dr Etherington seems to be suggesting that Anthony Macris’s novel got an undeserved leg-up from what he darkly calls ‘the Australian literary establishment’; he then pronounces, with thunderous certainty, that Macris is already ‘acquainted with many in the critical community’. I have no idea what any of this is meant to imply but I can assure Dr Etherington that, to the best of my knowledge, I am not a member of ‘the Australian literary establishment’ (assuming that such a monolith even exists). I am a freelance reviewer and, unlike Dr Etherington, have no institutional affiliation whatsoever. I have never met or had any dealings with Anthony Macris, nor with his publisher, nor with any of the universities that Dr Etherington says supported Macris’s work. Strange as it may seem to Dr Etherington, I wrote my review honestly and, I would like to think, with my usual pureness of heart. I look forward to reading his unreserved apology for suggesting otherwise.
Secondly, Dr Etherington accuses me of indulging in some ‘frivolous characterisations’ of Macris’s novel, citing two examples. The first is my tongue-in-cheek description of Macris’s stylistic unorthodoxy as the author ‘chanc[ing] his arm at some of fiction’s more difficult trick-shots’. I suppose that, like many reviewers, I have always tried to follow John Updike’s advice that book reviews should be ‘as jolly as candy bars’ (how better to convey the pleasures of reading?), but obviously not all readers appreciate levity in the same way. Tellingly, Dr Etherington doesn’t mention that, immediately after the phrase he finds so frivolous, I emphasise that Macris’s stylistic experiments are seriously made and not mere gimmickry. The second example cited of my frivolity is my characterisation of certain passages of Macris’s novel as ‘the sort of realism that one could do without’. Dr Etherington says that I am speaking of Macris’s descriptions of Parramatta Road, but he has misread my sentence – I was actually referring to the extended descriptions of two films that the characters watch on television, which I liken to being stuck in traffic on Parramatta Road. I point out Dr Etherington’s error in this regard because I happen to think that any writer is entitled to have his or her words paraphrased accurately before a reviewer slags off at them. The phrase that so offended Dr Etherington appears in what is intended to be a non-frivolous consideration of narrative strategies in Macris’s novel but – well, de gustibus, eh Dr Etherington? Readers of the SRB might prefer a bit of frivolity to your serious-minded table of pronoun usage in Macris’s novel.
Thirdly, there are some wider questions about book reviewing in Australia that Dr Etherington raises. I suspect that he and I would share a concern that reviewing is done to a high standard, but we would differ about its function and objectives. Dr Etherington is right to say that my review ‘summarises and interprets from a general perspective’ – as something written by an enthusiastic general reader for other general readers, it unapologetically seeks to do that. I have never seen the role of a reviewer as one of ‘developing an argument’ (one of the remedies Dr Etherington offers for what he suggests is the parlous state of reviewing in this country). My model is one of conversation, not argument. I certainly don’t think my review needed to ‘stake any definite claim for the novel’s significance in view of a long-term critical reception’ (another sin of omission for which I and others are castigated by Dr Etherington). Macris’s novel appeared only six months ago, so any such claims would probably be premature. Anyway, should reviewers be making such grandiose appeals to the unknowable future? I would never have the confidence in the definiteness of my views on such matters as Dr Etherington seems to have in his own.
Critic Watch was glad to receive Jeffrey Poacher’s robust response to ‘Road to Omission’, and apologises for any insinuation that his review as whole was written in bad faith. The suggestion of a lapse in good faith referred only to the ‘more frivolous characterisations’ cited immediately after. More on that in a moment. Poacher also rightly points out a factual error in the reading of his comments on ‘realism one could do with out’; a lapse of concentration unworthy of Critic Watch.
On a couple points: ‘the Australian literary establishment’ refers to those institutional agents mentioned that largely determine the funding for non-commercial literary projects in this country. There was no thunderous certainty about whether Macris is acquainted with his critics. ‘One would imagine’ that, in working and publishing in the locations that Macris has, he would naturally have encountered members of the critical community.
But, as Poacher has said, this is combing bald heads. Debating the purposes of reviewing, and the appropriate way of discussing a work such as Great Western Highway is, however, in Critic Watch’s geeky estimation, not only useful, but necessary – and Poacher’s criticisms and defence of his review are warmly welcomed, if not with agreement. This installment of Critic Watch was concerned with the boundary between the review and the critical essay. Poacher has not challenged the notion that such a separation exists, but has put his lot in with the tone, scope and purpose of a certain kind of review – one written by the ‘general reader’ for other ‘general readers’. I am not entirely sure what a general reader is (it sounds like a mannequin draped in the latest literary work), but one sees where Poacher is going. The question this Critic Watch raises is whether a review of Macris’s novel can articulate its qualities if it is limited to generalities. Poacher’s generous and learned review was able to point to the ‘full quiver of unorthodox techniques’ in the novel but did not give a concrete enough sense of the way in which they ‘pierce any familiar sense of reality’. Whatever John Updike’s prescriptions, jolliness does not seem to be a particularly convincing way of conveying to a reader that this has happened: what did you get up to this morning, dear? I went for a coffee, had my sense of reality dismembered by a novel, and then paid some bills at the post office. Ah, how nice.
So, although an instructive and enjoyable review, Poacher’s culminating comments on the ‘lover of serious fiction’ seems to Critic Watch inadequate. It suggests that Macris’s is an important novel because it attempts to be important.
Borges’s argument-stopper about criticism being like two bald men arguing over a comb is such a superb metaphor, you would think it would shut us all up. But no, some of us just can’t help ourselves, because as the late Helen Daniel used to say, we just want to have our say about books and writing. It is not, as many seem to think, because we wish we had hair, but because there is much joy in the process of saying to others, ‘Look here, and here and here, how this works with that, and that against this, and then…’ If you think ‘analysing’ writing spoils the pleasure, you’re not a critic. If you can’t read without it, then you are doomed to be one of the bald.
When I read Ben Etherington’s Critic Watch on the topic of Anthony Macris’s Great Western Highway, it got me thinking about something I used to say when I was a books editor. First and foremost, I used to say, the review has to be entertaining. Etherington’s discussion about some pretty scathing responses to Great Western Highway made me think about how being scathing is one way to be entertaining, and when you only have a few hundred words, a reviewer may be tempted to be loose with accuracy and justification, in order to be engaging and memorable.
Then came Jeffrey Poacher’s wounded response to the criticism he received in Critic Watch. Again, because the bald men are eloquent and writing with passion, it made for interesting reading. But I do wonder if this kind of analysis (did Etherington accuse Poacher of bad faith in general or just in the case of his frivolous characterisations?) takes us any further into a discussion about criticism and reviewing. So, briefly (I love Sydney Review of Book’s long-form criticism, but it would be good to remember length is not always a virtue in itself), two comments if I may.
First, I wonder what Poacher means when he talks about ‘his usual pureness of heart’. It’s such a curious thing to say, it may not be said seriously. That he aims for it is excellent, but how on earth to achieve it? As critics, we must examine our motives and our intentions all the time. But if you aim for purity, I think you have to do a Borges and shut up. And that would be a pity, for the sake of a conversation, as Poacher puts it, which is valuable and worthwhile.
Second, having just chanced my arm at reviewing here in the Sydney Review of Books, for the first time in a while, I have realised that the time away (or it may just be my age) has made me cautious. Does the critical reading faculty get rusty? And does it need to be oiled with new theory in order to remain in good working order? Specifically, when I called for an ironic distancing of the narrator from the narrative, did I review Fiona Capp’s Gotland or did I review the book I wanted it to be?
What I would like from Critic Watch and from responses to it is an opportunity to fossick about in such questions for myself, and, despite a bit of acrimony, that’s what did happen. There is a great deal of argument that closes down conversations; the challenge is to say what you think, even if it is negative, in a way that accepts dissent. Ah, wouldn’t that be nice.