The Angry Young Critic

The critic has a role in the culture of literature, and Ryan Paine has gone from gushing Eggers fan boy to accidental Eggers contrarian to understand something of his own part. (From Emerging Writers’ Festival’s Reader)

I began writing book reviews when I was pretending to study English and Philosophy at Adelaide University in 2002. Mostly I just wanted to understand my own ideas about books. Since then, I have written my own fiction, worked as an editor and read hundreds more books for leisure – all of which, in various ways, have complemented my work as a book reviewer. Until quite recently, I have struggled to know when to write a positive review and when to write a negative one. I know that sounds dumb: good book equals positive review; bad book equals negative review. Right? But I have come to appreciate that the critic has a larger and more important role than that.

* * *

I reviewed seven books for On Dit before I dropped out and began working as a general labourer while I canvassed publishing houses for unpaid work experience. The uni workload was too immense for someone who needs to steep words before they yield ideas. But during that time I’d met a guy who wanted to get into publishing. Sounded like a good idea: I could be paid to work with books. So publishing became my out – an excuse to drop out of uni without feeling like a drop out.

If my single year at uni left me with anything, it was the beginning of a love/hate relationship with American author Dave Eggers. The reviews I wrote that year were terrible, terrible pieces of writing, and years later I was embarrassed to send them as samples to Jo Case, then Deputy Editor of Australian Book Review.

But I had discovered Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity! (YSKOV!) And long before anyone I knew had heard of him. When I finally clued on, years later, that I was something of an accidental Eggers contrarian – liking and hating all the wrong books – I considered the possibility that someone might have bought YSKOV! based on my glowing recommendation in On Dit. This was empowering beyond compare – that I might have influenced a reader’s opinion of the book with my fanboy rant.

During my time at Wakefield Press in Adelaide I reviewed only a couple of books. I still wanted to improve my critical understanding of literature and become a more discerning reader. But instead of writing about books I was reading manuscripts and discussing them with colleagues, learning to consider their inherent merits, regardless of how I felt as a general reader.

I read entire book manuscripts in one or two sittings and expressed my thoughts about them in brief reader reports – a useful skill to develop for any wannabe critic. I appraised and amended these manuscripts with a view to more effectively communicating the authors’ ideas. I was encouraged to put my personal tastes aside, to consider the quality and value in writing I would otherwise never have sought on my own. This was a crash-course in objectivity.

I also encountered Wakefield’s one-person publicity department forever trying to secure reviews of upcoming titles. Presumably, publishing houses everywhere were doing the same thing. I simply hadn’t thought of it in this way. I have never read reviews to choose a book to read. Instead, I read reviews after I’ve finished the book, to compare notes. I clearly had a lot to learn. I’m inherently naive – the least savvy person I know – so for a long time I thought literature was simply about good writing.

* * *

Two years after starting at Wakefield I moved to Melbourne to edit Voiceworks, a quarterly literature journal for writers under twenty-five. Books began landing on my desk. We didn’t have a review section in the magazine, but I thought I may as well put them to good use and started pitching review ideas around.

Jo Case had worked at Wakefield before me and I was encouraged to look her up in Melbourne. I sent her some of the woeful On Dit reviews. She posted me a book to review for the ‘In Brief’ section at the back of Australian Book Review – the place where she trialled new reviewers.

This was my chance to get into reviewing with the big kids. Jo had made it politely clear that if my writing hadn’t improved, she wouldn’t run my review. So I read as many In Briefs as I could find. I made notes about the styles, techniques and subjects of other reviews. I created a template for making notes on the book as I read it. I wrote far more than the required 180 words before distilling them into something coherent. I wanted to get it right.

I reviewed a couple of books for Jo at ABR before she moved on to work as Books Editor at The Big Issue and I got caught up obsessing over Voiceworks. Meanwhile, radio producer Sarah L’Estrange came to interview the Voiceworks team for a package she was putting together for Radio National’s The Book Show. I hit her up for a chance to review something then and there.

I was by no means assured that I could write reviews for these majors. I still just liked reading and writing about books. Except that I hardly ever liked books anymore. I mean, I still enjoyed reading – immensely – but working as a book editor meant that I would now pick holes in books the way I never could before. I developed a complex that my reviews were overly critical. I had no real understanding of why this was a problem – it just seemed … well, mean.

Jo had no preference for either positive or negative reviews, so long as my opinions were well argued. Most often my opinion was that the book was not very good. Sarah was more interested in covering good books, though I was encouraged to be critical if it was merited. This presented a problem for me, what with not liking many books and all.

I also had trouble separating the different approaches required to write for such different outlets. The Big Issue reviews are 180 words and printed. The Book Show reviews are 600–1000 words and broadcast – in my very own dulcet, ocker tones. The former are strictly expository, the latter more conversational. But it was the positive versus negative thing that really got me.

I worried I was compromising my literary judgement to keep the gig at The Book Show. I had refused a couple of woeful books previously, and thought I was being troublesome.

Then I was assigned to review What is the What by Dave Eggers, for The Book Show, and of course I freaked! I had been following Eggers since uni and wanted to pick up where I’d left off with YSKOV!, but I worried that I wouldn’t like it: the very premise of the book was dubious. All I could do was read it and write what I thought.

In the end I felt ambivalent about the book, and said so in the review. I tried to leave it open for listeners to decide whether they wanted to seek it out, and this was a personal little watershed for me: the ultimate test of my objectivity. Of course, I was one of the five per cent of readers who didn’t fall head over heals for that book, but I think my criticisms were sufficiently argued in the review.

After a bunch more reviews for both The Book Show and The Big Issue, I was nearing the end of my tenure at Voiceworks. I was exhausted. At The Book Show I felt as though my reviews would be perceived as indiscriminate praise and therefore unreliable as a legitimate resource for discerning readers. At The Big Issue I felt like an angry young man, discouraging readers with my uncompromising insistence that only works of outstanding quality be considered for purchase.

Either way, I worried that readers wouldn’t go out and find those books. So what was the point?

Why was I reviewing books at all? To contribute to the improvement of literature? Isn’t that the job of an editor? To encourage readers to be more discerning? But who the fuck was I! Just some guy who liked reading and writing about books. Where the fuck did I get off!

I really was swearing a lot around this time, and punctuating my diatribes with exclamation marks! I needed to get away. From everything. Figure out what this was all about. What I was all about. Whether I even wanted to write book reviews. So I drove off in my campervan. Her name’s Delilah.

* * *

I’d carved out six months for a sort of working holiday up north. Mostly I read books purely for leisure, went fishing and mooched off my parents. I read and wrote a whole lot of long-winded stuff I hadn’t had time for at Voiceworks, got work on a fishing boat and momentarily gave up questioning things – anything – altogether. I drove up and down the Bruce Highway in Delilah for hours, sometimes days at a time.

When I got back to Melbourne I faffed about, still not sure I wanted to do anything, until I heard Geordie Williamson, The Australian’s chief literary critic, on The Book Show. The topic: positive versus negative reviews. Geordie said that reviewers were a kind of “tour guide”: someone to show less-knowledgeable readers around our literary culture, pointing out the good bits and bypassing the shit bits.

I was inspired! Then I found Australian author and critic James Bradley’s series of articles about ‘literary blood sports’ on his blog, city of tongues. One of the things he said was that while the scathing critique is typically the terrain of the young, angry, fledgling critic, it serves the purpose of carving out space for new writers by bringing the stalwarts of the culture down a peg.

Their points both hit home, and something clicked into place in my mind. I had a renewed sense of purpose and faculty. I still just wanted to read and write about books, but I thought I could achieve something by doing this.

* * *

I want to encourage readers to buy good books, and to encourage writers to write good books – books that readers want to read. Whether or not I write a positive or negative review in the future will be determined entirely by which can most effectively achieve that purpose.

We’ll see how I go. To crystallise this new departure, my next big test is a commission to review Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ latest book.

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