11 July 2014
I used to think that public disputes about the state of book reviewing flared up, with a reliability that was almost reassuring, about every six months or so. The turnaround now seems to be more like six weeks. The latest spotfire was lit this week by John Dale, Professor of Writing at UTS, who published a flimsy article in the Conversation decrying Australia’s reviewing culture, its weakness apparently symbolised by the fact that there is no antipodean James Wood. Dale’s feeble effort comes only months after the recently launched Saturday Paper caused a minor flutter by deciding to run its book reviews (and only its book reviews) anonymously, with apparent aim of resuscitating the ailing corpus of Australian criticism – a decision that has been almost universally derided. Its only defenders seemingly have been within the Saturday Paper camp itself – most notably, the rambling interview given by one of its mysterious reviewers, which made a compelling argument for the essential incoherence of the paper’s rationalisations. Certainly, the issue has led to some lifted brows, though this is unlikely to be of interest beyond the narrow confines of the literati. But it is significant, I think, that the assumptions wheeled out to justify the anonymous reviewing policy resemble the lazy canards Dale perpetuates. The allegedly stifling smallness of the literary scene, the suggestion that there are hidden agendas at play, the imputation that reviewers are either logrolling or else afraid to say what they really think – these are things that can, apparently, be taken as incontrovertible facts when discussing the state of criticism. Yet no hard evidence ever seems to be given for this casual traducing of Australia’s professional reviewers. Even so, Dale’s effort was notable as an exercise in evidence-free sententiousness. It earned him a swift and entirely deserved smackdown from Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose, who called Dale’s argument, among other things, ‘clichéd, ungenerous and discreditable’ and ‘idle and pusillanimous’. I concur.
Wednesday saw the opening of the annual Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) conference, which is being this year held at the University of Sydney. The festivities included the awarding of the several prizes. The Margarey Medal for the best biographical writing on a female subject was awarded to Fiona Paisley for The Lone Protester: AM Fernando, published by Aboriginal Studies Press. The Mary Gilmore prize for a first book of poetry went to Rose Lucas for Even in the Dark, while the Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal was awarded to Alexis Wright for her extraordinary novel The Swan Book. Wright won the same award in 2008 for her previous novel, Carpentaria, and she brought her old ALS medal to the ceremony and held the two of them up side by side. Jane Gleeson-White – who wrote about The Swan Book for SRB – will be one of the scholars presenting on Wright’s work at the conference.
Since it is school holidays, we thought we would highlight the good work of the Sydney Story Factory, a not-for-profit creative writing centre for young people that runs workshops for disadvantaged or marginalised young people, as well as youths from Indigenous or ESL backgrounds. Their programs are designed to ‘develop students’ use of expressive language and improve their ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings’ and to ‘increase enthusiasm for writing and boost confidence, thus allowing students to find their own voice’. Their calendar of events is available on their site, which also features some sage advice from industry stalwarts.
Seizure, a launchpad for Australian writing (of which I am editor), is having a prom next Friday, 18 July, to celebrate another year as a literary journal, and to get all those literary types out from behind their desks or under their laptops and onto the dancefloor. In might just be the most glamorous literary event of the year. [Not too much competition there – Ed.]
This week SRB features a long essay by Eve Vincent on the work of Tony Birch that considers the various ways in which the ideas Birch has explored in his non-fiction writings can be seen to have manifested themselves in his fiction. In considering Birch’s place in the Australian tradition of social realist writing, Vincent reflects on the interaction between his realism and depictions of Aboriginality in his fiction, as a way of contextualising Birch’s latest book, The Promise, a work that, Vincent observes, marks an ‘interesting shift’ towards ‘an exploration of more vulnerable masculinities’.
We also bring you Ali Alizadeh’s essay on The Practice of Value: Essays on Literature in Cultural Studies by John Frow. Frow is one of Australia’s most eminent cultural theorists and, in his rigorous consideration of Frow’s latest book, Alizadeh takes up the issue of the fate of poststructuralism – ‘an ism deemed “radical” and “subversive” in the 1980s and 1990s, but arguably in decline since’ – and the way it may have shaped and limited Frow’s thinking.
To celebrate the chill in the air this week, the featured image in our newsletter this week is Euan Macleod’s ‘Above Glacier Lake’, while From the Archives focuses on warming subjects, starting with Jane Goodall’s descent into the inferno in her review of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as recently translated by Clive James. And to keep those flames flickering, we also recommend Nicholas Jose’s consideration of The Burning Library by Geordie Williamson. Williamson’s critical essays on Australian authors, Jose writes, ‘glow like embers in the dark’.