DP: You've worked in the freelance literary journalist and critical industry for 20 years. What kind of obstacles do contemporary book critics and journalists face in the current landscape?
TO: Well, the obvious one is the downsizing of the (printed) space with which to critique any books. Sadly, I don’t think this situation will change for the better. I certainly don’t survive financially just on book criticism/literary journalism alone. I have long been enraged about how disposable the arts pages are when it comes to the cutting down of newspaper acres. Imagine the outcry if the sports or business section is razed with the same ruthlessness sidelined for books coverage.
DP: In the internet era where everyone can be a critic, what is the cultural role of the literary critic?
TO: The internet era means a democratisation is possible and yes, theoretically, everyone can be a critic. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be one. I am of the firm opinion for instance (particularly as a literary critic) that not everyone has a book in them. And I feel the same when it comes to criticism. There is no filtering on the internet and often no editing either. This means that there is an abundance of enthusiastic but unformed gush of vitriol or hyperbolic hype out there, without the mediating voice of experienced critics who have been plying their job for years.
The cultural role of the critic? To act as a bridge between the book and the reader. You have to point out the sights along the way as well as the potholes. You are contributing (and it’s a privilege to be able to do so) to the national discussion on literary trends and anxieties.
DP: Your upcoming workshop Reviewing and Literary Journalism aims to give writers an overview of book criticism practice. What are some pitfalls of a bad book review?
TO: I have many ideas of what constitutes a bad book review. Here are a few: those that spend three quarters of the allocated page count reconstituting the plot, those that contain spoilers, and those that digress to other subsidiary detours that have less to do with the book at hand than it does with the desire for the reviewer to name-drop or insert his/herself into the critical narrative unncessarily. The pitfalls are that the reader does not get a good sense of the work being discussed because all that is being offered is a regurgitated and extended blurb and the smug self-importance of the reviewer.
DP: Literary criticism walks a line between public service and art. To what extent do you view literary crticism as a performance?
TO: I don’t see it as a performance but it has to work as an entertaining as well as instructive piece of writing on its own terms. No one wants to read a tedious review much like no one wants to read a boring book. You are a writer; it behoves you to make it interesting and you only have a limited space with which to air your views so every word has to count: no self-indulgent waffling about extraneous matters unrelated to the book (my pet hate).
Whether it’s 200 or 2000 words a review should do everything a novel should: attract attention from the first sentence, sustain interest throughout and end on a forceful, memorable note.
DP: Reviews are powerful and there have been debates over the necessity and impact of negative book reviews. How do you balance your responsibility to readers against that of a book author?
TO: My responsibilty is to be as fair as possible to the author; to try and present his or her book in the spirit in which it was offered. And that means to judge it against others in its genre. For instance I would never review a popular commercial book with the same criteria I would for a high-lit novel: they are different beasts and deserve different treatment.
My responsibility to readers is to offer them a sense of whether the book is worth an investment of their time and money. There are a gazillion choices out there in terms of reading material; the critic should be trusted to make a compelling case as to why or why not the book under consideration should be their next choice.
About Thuy On
Thuy On is The Big Issue books editor and writes for a range of publications including The Age, The Australian, Books + Publishing, The Sydney Morning Herald and ArtsHub. She has twenty years experience in book criticism and journalism and has been a judge at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards four times.