Working with Words: Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is one of Australia’s most respected (and most compulsively readable) reviewers. He is chief literary critic of the Australian and won last year’s prestigious Geraldine Pascall Prize for Critic of the Year.

Geordie’s essay in defence of Australian rural writing, ‘Our Common Ground’, is the second in the Wheeler Centre’s Long View series of critical essays on Australian writers and writing.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was seven or eight. It was a short story about American Indians that appeared in our local paper, The Grenfell Record. Looking back I can only wonder at how starved for copy they must have been.

What’s the best part of your job?

The chance to publicly communicate personal passions.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The grinding relentlessness of rolling deadlines.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and reviewing career so far?

Winning last year’s Pascall Prize for criticism was great, and not just for the prize-money. I passed the inaugural Pascall winner, David Malouf, on my way to collect the award at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. Now there is a writer to try and live up to.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about book reviewing?

Best advice? Always come in on word count – editors loathe overrun.

Worst advice? When I was thinking of starting a family, Irish author Anne Enright told me that children don’t interfere with writing. And yet, behind me as I type, my 11-month old son is enthusiastically un-shelving entire rows of books.

If you weren’t making your living by writing and reviewing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I spent half a decade cataloguing rare books and manuscripts in London, and would happily return to it. Bookselling is not so much a career as a life-long treasure-hunt.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

Reviewing has the same financial instability and quiet desperation of the creative writer’s craft – just without the novelist’s redeeming cultural cachet.

Geordie Williamson

Certain technical aspects of the craft can be taught – and the discipline and group support it offers are helpful. But the lonely place where true writers go to get words that sing on the page? Courses can’t help with that, and may well be a hindrance.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a book reviewer?

Don’t! Reviewing has the same financial instability and quiet desperation of the creative writer’s craft – just without the novelist’s redeeming cultural cachet.

If you can’t help yourself, however: read as widely as you can, never work for free (your labour has dignity), find your own favourite critics and read all their stuff, and (politely, strategically) don’t take no for an answer when approaching outlets for work.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I get sent a lot of books by publishers. But when I’m buying for myself , I use a combination of Kindle Store for digital titles and abe.com for physical books (I tend to buy the kind that are out of print).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? (And what would you talk about?)

I would like to join Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantegruel, along with Panurge and Brother Jean, for a meal. The booze would be plentiful and I would be keen to hear their views on contemporary Australian politics.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

That’s impossible to answer. This week I have finished Patrick White’s lost novel, The Hanging Garden. It reminds me that the ongoing discovery of the Australian continent through literature is one of the few undertakings that goes some way to making reparation for our presence here, so often unwelcome and destructive.

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