What is the purpose of book reviews?
At the Why Criticism Matters session of the Sydney Writers Festival, James Ley said that reviews answer three questions:
- What is the book about?
- Is it good or bad?
- What does it mean? This is the “critical” part, discussing the implications and significance of the book.
The art of a short review is different to that of a long-form review, said Ley, as only the latter can include the critical part. Ley is editor of the excellent online Sydney Review of Books, which specialises in long-form reviews.
Another panel member was the Literary Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Susan Wyndham, who is fighting a losing battle against the downgrading of newspaper book pages. The three Fairfax newspapers once had their own individual review sections, but they are now all the same. The number of book pages has also been reduced. Her one victory so far is fighting off the push for star ratings. In this climate only short reviews are published, doing no more than alerting readers to new books.
The other panel member, James Wood, writes long pieces (3000 to 5000 words) for The New Yorker. He described the pressure against seriousness, both in newspapers (book pages filled with articles on best sellers and gossip about authors at parties) and online, with many review blogs sticking to short and chatty posts. There are institutional forces, he said, against the serious discussion of anything. The machinery of promotion around books is not concerned with the meaning of the work. Yet criticism is our culture.
This made me look at my blog. Have I been influenced by the plethora of advice to keep posts “short and chatty”? My own experience, reading reviews and literary blogs, should point me in the opposite direction. I tend to flit over short posts, barely taking anything in; but if the voice of a longer piece catches me, I quickly become pleasurably lost in it.
Of course quantity is not enough – we will only be hooked into a piece by the quality of the writing or the analysis. Such quality can be found in the Sydney Review of Books and on blogs that are not afraid of writing long and serious posts. I recently discovered the website of Irish writer Darran Anderson (“literary flotsam & jetsam by an attempted human”) and was quickly engrossed in the first post I came across. The key was the voice, conveying both a deep love for literature and a weary scepticism about the motives of those who apply pressure against seriousness.
The post is an essay entitled Albert Camus and the ventriloquists, and takes off from a banal quote widely attributed to Camus on the web. Is the quote wrongly attributed, or does it become platitudinous because it is out of context? If the latter, Anderson says, to have a quote “floating like a speck of dust in a vacuum” does Camus a disservice and changes the meaning of the quote itself. From here Anderson abseils down to the purposes for which the web and social networking are often used, sadly pointing to “the prevalence of websites where for your convenience you’re served culture as you might be served chicken nuggets in a drive-thru” – sites using formulas such as “Top Ten Books/Films/TV Shows About Vampires/Zombies/ Fashion/Love.” There is pressure not to bother “looking too closely or at too much length at anything … your priority is clicks not culture.” Yet he does not despair: “there are lots of cultural places that give me hope on the net. Sites like The White Review have long heavyweight articles, The Paris Review long heavyweight interviews. Neither of them are fun-sized”.
Anderson makes an elegant plea to live (and read) “as deeply as we possibly can given there will be no second chances.” I recommend reading the essay in full.
The festival session and Darran Anderson’s essay have started me rethinking how I use the web. James Wood sees the book review as a literary form in itself, that we can take pleasure in reading, even if we don’t read the book. That’s what I want – to read (and to be able to write) reviews that give such pleasure, reviews that resist the pressure against seriousness.
In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell suggested four great motives for writing, which exist in different degrees in every writer: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Last year Deborah Levy was commissioned to write an essay responding to Why I Write, and to consider these motives from a female writer’s point of view. At the Sydney Writers Festival she described how she wrote the essay.
At the time she was moving house and had no room in which to work. Celia Hewitt, widow of Deborah’s friend, the poet Adrian Mitchell, offered her shed. There Levy had no internet and was without her library, apart from a few select books. For company she had the ashes of both Adrian and his beloved golden retriever, Daisy the Dog of Peace. It was the heart of winter, and sometimes she was snowed in and had to dig her way out.
Under these conditions, her writing flourished. But she worried that the essay was becoming increasingly autobiographical and contacted her agent. “Should I continue,” she asked. The editor replied, “All of Orwell’s work was autobiographical.” So she continued.
Recently she had found she could not stop crying as she ascended the escalators at tube stations. Going down was fine, but tears would stream from her eyes on the way up. As she wrote she realised this was a physical symptom of a conversation she was having with herself.
Levy’s father was a member of the African National Congress in South Africa. Once when she was five, it snowed in Johannesburg, a rare occurrence. She and her father made a snowman. That night he was taken away by the security forces and she did not see him for four years.
Anger, injustice and humiliation provide one impulse for writing, but Levy does not rage against the regime. She prefers to write calmly, telling the story of how, at five, she played with the daughter of the family’s servant – they loved taking a bath together – but also how she could not understand why her friend couldn’t stay, but had to return to her grandmother in the black township.
Orwell may have claimed that his main motive for writing was sheer egoism, but he also combined the political and the aesthetic, turning his political writings into art. Similarly, while Levy is prepared to take sides, she always asks, “Okay, but is it a good read?”
From the viewpoint of a female writer, she sees another question as vital whenever we write a female character into the world: What are her desires? We must ask this because women are so used to cancelling their desires. A similar point was made by Claire Messud and Cate Kennedy in another festival session (see Ouch!).
Levy’s response to the trauma of South Africa was to stop talking. Eventually a teacher asked her to write things down. She’s been writing ever since.
Deborah Levy is a British playwright, poet and novelist. Her novel “Swimming Home” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and her essay “Things I Don’t Want to Know: A Response to George Orwell’s Why I Write,” has just been published by Notting Hill.
Addition 16/6/2013: “Modernism is the soft typewriter of the womb that made me.” Deborah Levy interviewed by Darran Anderson at 3:AM Magazine here.
What do we do with our unfulfilled dreams?
At the Sydney Writers Festival, the American novelist Claire Messud spoke about her latest book, The Woman Upstairs. The protagonist, Nora, dreams of greatness as an artist, but ends up a teacher, disappointed and bitter.
This struck a chord with the other speakers at the Defining Moments session, Cate Kennedy and Georgia Blain. Kennedy is interested in how people deal with their own powerlessness, and Blain noted that she, Kennedy and Messud each wrote about characters who were very aware, but who still made bad decisions.
The implications of unfulfilled dreams differ in America and Australia. Messud talked about the American belief in agency and redemption, the conviction that if we make the right decisions we will live long, happy and healthy lives. This belief makes the consequences of failure greater than in Australia. In a culture where it’s more natural to make bad choices, people may not feel so bad when they do so.
Is there such a thing as the “human condition” when cultures are so different? In another session Michael Brissenden, who until recently was the ABC’s Washington correspondent, commented on American resistance to the state providing for health care, despite the fact that more the half the bankruptcies in the US are caused by health costs. “Health and guns,” he said. “It’s about what makes America America. They are fundamentally different from Australians.”
Perhaps guns and deficient health care are what you get when you have an absolute belief in agency and redemption.
In the Messud, Kennedy and Blain session, an audience member issued another challenge the idea of “the” human condition: the different expectations and experiences of men and women. Boys are allowed to be less nice and sociable than girls. Women are told that they can do anything and so may have a greater need to cope with disappointment. The question of service is different for women – in Messud’s novel, a male character tries to tell the bitter teacher Nora about the nobility of service.
Messud suggested that it is not wrong to speak of the human condition. While many things make us different – culture, gender, age, class – these differences are overshadowed by what we have in common. Kennedy pointed to this commonality by giving a one word definition of the human condition: “ouch!”
More from Claire Messud
Messud brought her Sydney childhood back to the city in her closing address, about that trickster, memory, which produces what Salmon Rushdie described as “imaginary homelands”. One audience member (Sokaleidoscope) summed up her address in a tweet: “Rootlessness but also possibility of multi-faceted roots. We are all far from home these days.” For more, see Josephine Rowe’s SWF Blog here.
Why make up characters when you can use your friends?
In writing Ticknor, her first novel, Sheila Heti inhabited a man who lived two centuries ago. “I was a lonely writer alone in a room,” she said at the Sydney Writers Festival, “and I knew I could never do that again.”
She wanted to be around her friends, so instead of being torn between life and art, she merged the two, writing a novel with herself and her friends as characters. In both life and the book she records her conversations with her best friend, the Canadian artist Margaux Williamson. The version of Margaux in the novel is disturbed by this, one of several difficulties that eventually lead to a crisis in the friendship. The story is fictionalised, so we don’t know what happened in life, but at the festival Heti told us that she always showed the drafts to Williamson, who sometimes got angry.
By talking to her friends and recording conversations, Sheila in the novel is trying to answer the question: how should a person be?
For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too.
… How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux? Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?
Clearly the question has no definitive answer and the novel will not end with wise words of self-help. Rather, we follow Sheila’s struggle with the question of how to be and her attempts to free herself from it, and from her need for the admiration of other people, especially the charismatic and depraved Israel, with whom she is trapped in a cycle of humiliating sex. All of this occurs in the context of her deep friendship with Margaux. Experiencing the intimacy and vicissitudes of this female platonic love affair is, for me, the most rewarding aspect of the book.
How Should a Person Be? has been criticised for triviality and self-indulgence. Anna Holmes suggests that this could be because it does not follow the usual rules for female characters in popular culture. Reacting against those rules in 1985, the artist Alison Bechdel devised a test: “In order to be considered a realistic depiction of women, a pop-culture product must feature 1) at least two female characters who 2) talk to one another about 3) something other than a man.” How Should a Person Be? meets the Bechdel test – Sheila and Margaux talk about everything except men.
Sheila Heti was open and accountable to her friends while writing this book, and respected their boundaries. This is in contrast to another guest at the festival, the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose work My Struggle (Min Kamp) consists of six huge volumes and tells the personal history of himself and his family. The work sold half a million copies in Norway and won several literary prizes, but shocked his family by revealing, without consent, details such as his ex-wife’s bipolar illness. Despite the acclaim for this work (James Wood says there is “something ceaselessly compelling” about it) I will not be reading any of its 3,500 pages. Flicking through the first volume in the festival bookstore – a weightlifting exercise – was sufficient.
Some critics have found Heti’s book to be lightweight, but I’m glad that didn’t dissuade me from reading it.
Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel, 2012
Questions of Travel tells the stories of two people who leave their homeland. Laura departs Sydney to see the world, while terrible events force Ravi to flee Sri Lanka to seek asylum in Australia.
Michelle de Kretser makes the reader feel Ravi’s experience – the horrors that prompt his flight, his reception in Australia – thereby cracking apart the stereotyping so often applied to refugees. Through the particulars of one individual, we can begin to see the diversity behind the label.
Laura spends her twenties and thirties abroad, and then returns to Sydney, becoming a guidebook editor at Ramsay, a Lonely Planet look-alike. Laura’s story invites us to think deeply about travel. At one point, she fears she has lost her faith in “away” by working at Ramsay. “There, everything was known about travel. That was true in the same way that a city was Sights, Markets, Itineraries, Eating. Guidebooks lured with the Taj by moonlight, with Machu Picchu at dawn. But the moment that mattered on each journey resisted explanation. It couldn’t be looked up under spoil yourself because it addressed only the individual heart. It was only an empty Kleenex box, only a dangling wire hanger, only a battered hillside in a cold spring.”
The novel’s title is taken from Questions of Travel, a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. Lines from the poem are used as an epigraph:
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty.
Lines from the same poem are found in the epigraph to another book on the Miles Franklin shortlist, Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain:
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
In this strangest of theatres?
In de Kretser’s book, these lines are echoed in an insistent whisper – What are you doing here? – that follows Laura around the world – Bali, Lisbon, London – but also finds her in Sydney. For Ravi the question is implied. It conveys the sense of displacement that both characters experience.
As I read I wondered if the book had to be so long, whether so much lavish detail was needed to build the characters. In his review, James Tierney says: “Ravi and Laura are boxed in – not fully expressed as characters – by all that isn’t left unsaid.” Usually I would agree that less is more, but for me the accumulation of incident and detail do result in fully expressed characters. They are two ordinary people, but I felt with them, and they will stay with me. I think the book is as long as it needs to be.
While giving the book extravagant praise, AS Byatt notes that it “isn’t easy to read because the reader is always in danger of missing something significant.” ANZ Litlovers says it is “one of those books that demand time and concentration.” I agree with both reviewers that the effort of reading the book is amply rewarded. The main pleasure is the well-crafted prose. Here is Laura looking out over Sydney harbour: “Ferries passed, lit up like cakes. The bridge went on holding the two halves of the city apart. On Saturday evening, everywhere was oysters and mozzies on sandstone terraces. Screams of gaudy terror noosed the minarets of Luna Park.”
In another scene, Laura is summoned to New Year’s Eve drinks at her father and step-mother’s Darling Point penthouse. “She crossed the living room as commanded, a journey of several minutes, to admire The View. This was reduced by twenty-one floors of steel and reinforced concrete to a scale model of itself. Laura contemplated the iconic sights: a midden of white shells, a toytown arch spanning a blue puddle. The value these diminished splendours added was laid out for her delectation along with the amuse-bouches.”
I have read three of the five books on the Miles Franklin shortlist, and while all three are superb, Michelle de Kretser’s craft puts her ahead of the other two by a nose.
Yet in Mateship with Birds Tiffany recreates dairy farming in the fifties exactly as I remember it: the ubiquity of cowshit, the Baltic Simplex milking machine that was always breaking down, the twice daily milking: “The first cow brings back the feeling in his fingers. He slides his hands up and along the warm skin between her udder and her belly, throws up a mug of wash from the pail, sluices the whole thrumming organ, feels for the cups, tests the pull of suction and threads them on. Fat udders with bud teats, small, fruity udders with long spiked teats like landmines, slack udders, tight udders.”
Tiffany gets cows exactly right – their relationships with each other and with the farmer, their status jostles, and the organic nature of the herd, with alarm, anger or confusion flowing from one to the others, just like a family.
The dairy farmer, Harry, entertains himself while milking “with the idea that the girls are a troupe – perhaps dancers or singers – and that he is their manager.” This delightful passage is quoted in full on ANZ Litlovers Litblog as one of the blog’s “sensational snippets.”
Harry’s neighbour is Betty, single mother of two children. While a fifties reticence holds Harry and Betty back, sex runs rampant in their private thoughts – and in the world around them, including the family of kookaburras that Harry keenly observes.
On Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily, Tiffany said: “I do write in a kind of collage fashion where it’s about accumulation and observation rather than plot or narrative.” I cannot remember a more accurate description of a book by its author. There is almost no plot, so that people who prefer narrative-driven fiction might be bored. And although I was entranced by Tiffany’s observations of birds, cows and people, I sometimes became impatient, wondering if anything was ever going to happen. Finally, in the last quarter of the book, there are several incidents.
Mateship with Birds has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. So far I’ve only read three books on the list, but they are so utterly different the judges must be daunted by their task. How can the short, collage-style Mateship be compared with Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain, which is twice as long and narrative-driven, or Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking, which is both collage and narrative? But then, each book is a novel, that is, it recreates a world, whether that be fifties dairying, pre-independence Papua New Guinea, or a remote community in the nineties. These three books each fulfil their world-creating role superbly.