Creme de la phlegm

Gideon Haigh, Kill your Darlings

The books pages of Australian newspapers and magazines have become such a wasteland. Sections that should contain some of a publication’s sharpest, shrewdest, most incisive and irreverent writing have become hodgepodges of conventional wisdom and middlebrow advertorial.

The 2 qualities of a good book review

First, it is a lively and engaging piece of writing. It informs and invigorates. It detains and delights. Yet how often in Australia do you read a book review that is a sparky, spunky, memorable bit of prose? And how many reviewers can you name whose work you would cheerfully read regardless of the book being discussed?

Second, a competent book review should be a form of inquiry into what makes good books good – an inquiry with, as unfashionable as it sounds, the courage of its elitism. Without a benchmark of what constitutes excellent writing, scrupulous research and intelligent discussion, a reviewer is locked into a world in which ‘liking’ and ‘not liking’ are the only options – the Beavis and Butthead world, as the American literary critic Curtis White has put it, in which ‘this sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is just finally a lot stupid’.

As well as setting standards, a competent review gives context, deepens understanding and clarifies debate. This requires some discern­ment, some rigour, even some dedication. If you’re reviewing a work of fiction, it might be expedient to have read, or if not, to read, the author’s earlier publications; if you’re critiquing a work of non-fiction, it will require an acquaintance with the subject in question, even if it is a general one. Whatever the case, reviewing is a discipline, a form of argument demanding logic and evidence as well as ‘taste’ and ‘opinion’. And it is a discipline in barely acknowledged decline.

Read Haigh’s scathing critique of Australia’s literary critics in Kill Your Darlings