I handed in my badge as editor of the Sydney Review of Books (SRB) in May 2023. Over eight years, I commissioned and published hundreds of critical essays about new works of Australian literature. Not everyone who writes for the SRB has evaluation as their primary objective, but one way or another, I found myself in the business of evaluating literature, of thinking about the value of literature, and of being immersed in conversations about just what constitutes that value – and who gets to name it.
In what follows, I want to present the SRB as something like a case study in the intersecting conflicts about value in contemporary Australian literature, organised around the negative feedback and complaints I received about the journal. Mine is, I will admit, a patchy, descriptive and highly partial account of these complaints in support of two simple linked propositions: first, that the contestation about what a critical journal like the SRB is for illuminates broader issues about the economic, social and aesthetic value of literature; and second, that nothing draws out these contested ideas of values like a negative review.
As I have had ample opportunity to observe, there is a great divide between what Australian critics, writers and readers are willing to say about the value of literature – and about the SRB – in public and in private. Most of the feedback I have fielded about the journal’s program is informal, and clearly not for publication, whether in the form of corridor conversations, Twitter DMs, caveated emails or chance encounters. It has not been unusual to receive quite robust responses to our essays secondhand, whether passed on via screenshots and forwarded emails, or in conversation. The SRB readers to whom I refer in this paper are, in the main, readers with a stake in contemporary Australian literature. They are writers themselves, scholars, critics or otherwise highly motivated readers connected to the publishing and distribution of Australian literature. They form the core of the SRB audience, and irrespective of whether I agree with their criticism or not, I am grateful this cohort of energetic readers exists. Readers who not only bother to read critical writing, but take the time to contest it, are precious indeed.
My task here is not really either to dismiss or to adjudicate complaints – but nor is it particularly to apologise for them. A cheery unbroken consensus is often presented as the model of intellectual life on this continent and negative evaluations provoke deep discomfort; there is something taboo about complaints, a sign of discord. (See Stinson;Etherington on the so-called ‘epidemic of niceness’ in critical culture.) I take it as given that complaints can be generative, instructive, even, and also that a critical journal that does not attract complaints cannot really be doing its job.
Some readers may be disappointed to learn that this paper will not be a bridge-burning exercise. I will not be spending time with specific complaints or naming names. In a different version of this paper I might have taken a systematic approach, tabulated all complaints received in a given period, sought permission from my correspondents to quote them. Here I have disregarded, among other missives, the one-sentence emails that point out errors of proof or fact, for example, and emails from people disappointed that we did not review their book. In the very small and precarious field of Australian literature, however, going on record, going public, can have serious consequences and I doubt that I would have received permission to publish. Samuel Ryan and I recently undertook research into literary journals in Australia, interviewing twenty-two editors about their experiences, and a wariness about going on record with complaints – about peer organisations, about the priorities of cultural policy, about funding distribution – typified that process.
If anyone is to be humiliated by this ledger of complaint, it is me, the person who has had responsibility for the program. There are complaints that point to real issues with the SRB program and to structural issues in the sector, there are complaints that have forced uncomfortable reflection on what I do. I take seriously Sara Ahmed’s exhortation in her 2021 book Complaint to give complaint a hearing, to heed the power dynamics, especially racialised power dynamics, around complaint. As she writes, ‘To hear someone as complaining is an effective way of dismissing someone.’
What I propose here is a loose taxonomy of complaints I have received about what the SRB publishes: complaints about the market effects of essays, about critical conduct, about who writes for the SRB, and about negative evaluation. Sales representatives and publicists want criticism to help sell books, or rather, they want reviews and feature articles about their authors to help sell books. That is because they see books essentially as commodities. Often authors subscribe to this thinking, believing that reviews can save or sink new books. When people call me up to berate me for publishing a negative review, often they will present it as an insult with financial implications. This is essentially a complaint that the market value of a book is downgraded by a negative assessment of its aesthetic value. This complaint is most frequently made about books by debut authors and reinforces the view that literary careers are made – or not – on the sales and success of first books. Such complaints tend to reflect unrealistic expectations about the financial returns of publishing a book. The release in November 2022 of the latest authors’ survey from Macquarie is an important counterbalance to this optimism. A variation of the market effects complaint is that a review is published too late to be useful for book sales, that it does not sync with the publicity campaign for a book.
Book sales are no trivial matter. They contribute to author incomes and keep publishing houses afloat. But I remain skeptical of most claims about how critical acclaim or lack of it affects the value of a book in the book market. There may be some evidence that the prestige accorded by major literary prizes, for example, most particularly the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize, helps books circulate in the marketplace – though this evidence tends to accrue in media reports about prizewinners (See Story; Delaney). I have, however, seen no evidence to support a correlation between the publication of a negative review of an Australian book published in 2023 (on the SRB or elsewhere) and sales, and cannot imagine the form that it would take. Indeed recently I have observed on social media the reversal of this phenomenon, as readers struck by the perceived nastiness of a negative review take a pledge to buy the book under examination in protest. Either way, the job of the critic is surely to explore notions of literary value, aesthetic, political, social, that are not defined by the market.
The mode of critical writing published on the SRB prompts contradictory responses. Some readers upbraid the SRB for publishing criticism that is insufficiently analytical, that eschews close reading in favour of a fictocritical or narrative approach to evaluation. These complainants despair of critics who bring, in their view, an insufficient disciplinary formation to the task, and especially who lack knowledge about Australian literary history. Some of them are contemptuous of any form of personal writing. My feminist hackles have been raised by the appearance of dismissive and sexist comments about so-called self-absorbed millennial women in my inbox. Although personal or memoir-driven responses to literature are perennially derided as ‘soft’ criticism, there are numerous important lineages in Australian and international non-fiction that critics draw on when they write in this mode. Efforts to narrativise the scene of reading serve, among other ends, to decentre a universal reading subject in favour of a highly specified reader, one whose politics and aesthetics may upend any received notion of literary value. I myself strike out the word ‘relatability’ as a matter of habit when I copyedit, but the objection of this group of correspondents, is, I think, to writing that explores relationships between readers and texts, to a critical practice that conceives of reading as a form of relation, and locates value in that exchange.
On the flipside, there are those readers who find themselves agitated about SRB essays being too scholarly and theoretical and overloaded with critical jargon. I usually field these complaints in the form of the unsolicited business advice email. If the SRB really wanted to appeal to readers, they would stop publishing pretentious essays like this. I note that the words ‘catachresis’ and ‘ekphrasis’ are a particular trigger to such feedback. This is a familiar charge of elitism: the writing is inaccessible, the terms of evaluation are irrelevant to the reading lives of non-academics. I have been inclined to put these complaints aside and to conjure for myself and for SRB contributors the figure of a sophisticated reader, one who will not abandon us upon encountering unfamiliar ideas. Perhaps the assumption that clicking a link to read a five thousand word essay on contemporary poetry signals an openness to critical theory and the terminology of poetics has lost us a few readers over the years. But this willingness to ask readers to put themselves in the hands of a critic whose analysis may be dense and forensic, to ask that reader to trust the critic and journal that their conclusions will be worth the effort, this is a distinguishing feature of the work published by the SRB.
It is true that many academics write for the SRB but in the main their essays for the SRB resemble scholarly essays very little, or even the reviews that appear in scholarly journals. The longform essay is well suited to the development of critical responses that are both scholarly and impressionistic, and many academic contributors appreciate the space to write in a more discursive style as they draw on their disciplinary knowledge. The problem for academic contributors is that SRB essays do not ‘count’ in the ways that universities want writing by their staff to count. The freedom of writing outside the formal constraints of the peer-reviewed scholarly journal needs to be weighed against the time-cost of doing the work, as Jennifer Hamilton and Matt Allen (2022) have explored in their recent work for the SRB on academic writing and time management.
I have worked hard to avoid cultivating an SRB voice or mode of critical practice and have published hundreds of essays that might merit rebuke for being scholarly or for being too personal. It is striking, though, how frequently this opposition between the scholar critic and the belletristic essayist is staked out in informal conversation – and these different expectations of criticism reflect very different ideas about what it is that equips critics to evaluate texts.
That I have commissioned the wrong critic for a given book is a perennial complaint. A critic is usually deemed the wrong one for the book when the author – or readers to whom that author’s work is significant – feels that their work has been misread, that a conflict of interest has not been disclosed, that the work has not been taken seriously, or indeed that it could never have been fully apprehended by this critic. The right critic would have known how to read it and therefore would have seen its value.
There is a glib and self-righteous suite of responses to all this: that authors write books, and critics read them, and there is no such thing as the right or wrong critic. But in the small world of Australian literature, the prospect of conflict of interest is always present. If I have offended critics by trying to work out whether their relationship with an author makes them the wrong critic for a given book, I have also had many illuminating conversations about the way relationships with authors can be disclosed to readers, and might even expand the terms of a critical reading. And in hindsight I have had occasion to regret matches of books and critics, but most frequently when a critic struggles to generate any reading at all.
There is presently a heated public conversation underway about who gets to allocate value, who gets to make public adjudications about value (see for example: Harvey and Lamond; Whittaker; Leane). Until quite recently, Australian literary critics were a pretty homogenous group, which is to say a cohort dominated by white settler men. This is changing, in part because of organised initiatives like the Stella Count, in part because of the activists and advocates who have pointed to the mismatch between Australian writing and Australian criticism, and to the ways that an all-white critical culture has historically inhibited the understanding and growth of literary culture. This is the context for many complaints about the wrong critic being allocated to a specific book, and more general complaints about too many or too few critics from particular groups appearing on the SRB program such as: there are too many established writers; too many white writers; too many emerging writers; too many writers from diverse backgrounds; etc. Because the SRB published writers from all these groups, we receive complaints about all of them; both that my commissioning decisions reinforce a hegemonic version of Ozlit and that quote unquote political correctness guides all that I do.
This bears on what qualifications critics bring to the task of evaluation. Here the concern is less to do with whether a critic might lack institutionally authorised knowledge, but that they lack cultural knowledge and insight to write about a given book. I defer here to First Nations critics and thinkers who have led the way in thinking about culturally informed criticism on this continent, about cultural rigour, to use Jeanine Leane’s terminology. These conversations have guided my thinking and I am proud that the SRB contributor list has become more diverse, and features more emerging writers, many of whom are still figuring out how their value system works. But making the decision to prioritise representation and inclusivity requires that space be held to amplify voices or perspectives, to contextualise neglected histories and writers, and by correlation, that the usual suspects make less frequent appearances. Not everyone is happy about these changes and I often hear that I have got the balance wrong.
This is probably where I need to gesture in a curt fashion towards cancel culture. It is a term that I find basically reactionary, just as I abhor the use of the pejorative ‘woke’. Both are unhelpful, I think, especially when they are used to stigmatise feminist, anti-racist and decolonial thinkers in this country. I have done all I can to deprive the so-called debate about cancel culture of oxygen by not really contributing to it at all on the SRB. Indeed, several would-be contributors have been outraged by my refusal to even consider potential corrective essays on cancel culture at large. And so I have been accused of capitulating to a woke consensus, or ceding too much ground to political correctness, as if a diverse contributor cohort compromises quality. What is interesting to me is that this feedback – about too much diversity in the SRB program – is almost exclusively delivered privately in the form of emails, or secondhand reported gossip and rarely ventilated publicly.
By contrast, arguments about a lack of diversity, about doors that are closed to writers from certain backgrounds – in journals like the SRB and elsewhere – do tend to be voiced in the public domain, whether that is in Twitter threads and in op-eds and essays on the topic (see for example Le; Hamad). Demands for accountability about the representativeness of the SRB program is one of the few areas where there is alignment between what complaints are made in public and in private.
Nothing, however, generates complaints like negative reviews. As Sean Tatol (2023) has written in a recent essay on criticism, ‘Today the mere suggestion that some things are better than others, particularly in the arts, is met with confusion and hostility.’ Negative evaluation, especially negative evaluation on aesthetic or formal grounds, provokes deep discomfort for SRB readers, especially those who are writers or somehow part of the literary industry. Even negative paragraphs or one or two negative sentences nested within otherwise positive reviews provoke complaints, although they are usually delivered privately.
What do I hear? I hear forceful arguments that negative evaluations are incorrect or baseless, that they are unkind. I have been given pointed directions to look at positive reviews published elsewhere. Readers have expressed incredulity that a woman of my insight could stand by and let such a cruel assessment of the work of an author who is, by the way, a lovely person, be published. Authors email me to tell me that critics have distorted their intentions.
People go public about negative reviews when the author is a big seller, I have observed. Negative reviews of the work of Trent Dalton and Craig Silvey were greeted mainly with enthusiasm (see: Menzies-Pike; Reeson). Readers felt emboldened to discuss these reviews in public: two very successful authors, not likely to suffer market effects from a bad review, surely, white male authors to boot. Otherwise, a stony silence tends to greet negative reviews online – and an increase in website traffic, because even if they are doing so in outrage, audiences apparently love to read and share negative reviews. From time to time, I should add, readers contact me privately to tell me they were pleased to see a negative review – the critic was brave, you were brave, that was a needed corrective – but rarely is there much public contestation of negative reviews. I am sure part of this stems from a kind impulse not to contribute to the suffering of authors who have received a bad review. Even so, the contrast with the enthusiastic circulation of positive reviews is stark.
It is my view that a critical culture needs to be able to deliver negative evaluations for the positive ones to have any significance. Readers seem unconvinced and critics are wary too. It is quite common for my invitations to critics of all stripes, academics, writers, emerging established, to write on certain books to be declined on the grounds that they do not want to write a negative review. Why? Bad vibes in a long period of precarity and anxiety for writers? The fear of consequences for saying something nasty about a hyped book or a book written by someone well connected? Not an insignificant risk. This is not cancel culture, it is a kind of literary utopianism, one that earnestly wants all books to receive top marks, to be valued for their aesthetic achievements and their contribution to the corpus of Australian literature.
The easy conclusion to draw from all of this is that you cannot please everyone, especially with an eclectic program. Another, self-serving conclusion, part huckster, part worn-out pragmatist, is that complaints show that people are reading the SRB, that they feel that they have a stake in Australian literature and critical culture, and in these philistine times, any sign of engagement is good.
The fact of complaints about a critical journal does not bother me. The wild divergence between what readers tend to do in public, which is to celebrate positive reviews, and celebrate an inclusive editorial approach and how they respond to critical essays in private does bother me. Readers might like to gossip and to moan about trends in Australian literature at bars and at conferences and at festivals but they are wary of contributing to any public discourse that detracts from the aspiration to feel-good excellence. This has a distorting effect that can be quite bewildering and is probably unhelpful. As ceaseless proclamations about the value of contemporary Australian literature bolster an increasingly hyperbolic public discourse about Australian literature, narratives of crisis and decline circulate in the backchannels. A really robust critical culture could bear to field its complaints about critics and criticism in public and then might be able to reckon – in public – with the value of literature, with competing ideas about value, and grant readers the autonomy to make up their minds.