It was a bad year for criticism

Catherine Hanrahan 

Last year was a bad year for literary criticism in Australia, as the litany of loss outlined by critic James Ley to the festival audience on Thursday night indicated.

“The Australian Literary Review folded, we lost the [ABC] book show, there were cutbacks in Fairfax, which affected the books pages, the Canberra Times lost its independent literary editor – and it underscored something that was evident from many years before, that professional space was shrinking quite drastically.”

Speaking in a panel discussion on literary criticism chaired by Sophie Cunningham, Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, Ley, the editor of the Sydney Review of Books, said he set up the publication online in January on the back of a bad year for Australian criticism in 2012.

He cited an academic analysis of articles run in Fairfax last year – looking at The Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – which found that duplication across mastheads was “enormous”.

Panellist Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian, made the point that we’re at the beginning of a change in the way people consume media, and that’s shifting the way they read book reviews in print and online.

“I think what will happen over the next few years is that different spaces will emerge that become the go-to places for all the sort of things that you like and already read. Some will be online, ideally some will still be in print.”

James Ley pointed to the distinction between what people call reviews and criticism in the online era.

“If critics can write 2000, 3000, 4000 word critiques of a book without the kind of constraints that they have in a newspaper, then maybe we can change the nature of the culture somewhat,” he said.

The panel agreed that guarding against bias in the small pond that is the Australian literary scene can be challenging.

Critic James Ley: a bad year for criticism

Critic James Ley: a bad year for criticism

Panellist Angela Meyer, who has blogged on LiteraryMinded for six years, says it’s about integrity on the part of both the reviewer and the literary editor.

“The editor has to be vigilant, which is hard. But the reviewer, for their own career, has to have integrity,” she said. “Even with my blog, if I feel I’ve become close to an author and I know them too well, I won’t review their book.”

James Ley noted that people think of criticism as a secondary or parasitic phenomenon. “Authors are fond of this interpretation, but in fact it’s a mutual reinforcement. In fact the art and the criticism need each other. One dies and the other dies.”

Stephen Romei commented on the high calibre of Australian critics.

“That we have world class writers is beyond dispute,” he said. “Australian writing is perhaps at its zenith at the moment, in all genres. And I think we have critics that are equal to the task.”