Reacting Against the ‘I’ Industry: An Anonymous Saturday Paper Reviewer

Last month, we published an article on anonymous reviewing, in the context of the new Saturday Paper’s embrace of the format. We interviewed a range of writers, reviewers and arts managers for their views; most were against anonymous criticism as a form.

Soon after, we were approached by a Saturday Paper reviewer offering to give an alternative view.

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case spoke to the reviewer about the ‘creative potential’ of anonymous reviewing as a form (and the wider possibilities of doing criticism differently), the need to give a new space for literary coverage a chance, and a look at the Saturday Paper so far.

Image above courtesy of cometstarmoon.

You have said that you’re in favour of anonymous reviews. Can you talk a bit about what you think the benefits are of anonymous reviews?

There’s a creative potential in anonymity that I don’t think is being recognised. It’s not about getting away with things; it’s about a certain level of freedom. It’s about detaching yourself from your identity in a way.

I think we’re pretty used to anonymity in the digital sphere. We’ve seen that abused in the digital sphere, too, but we rarely talk up the creative potential. Writing is so attached to the ‘I’. To move away from questions of the self, perhaps you just need to completely remove yourself.

Do you mean anonymity allows you to remove yourself from your part in the writing community?

Yes. You can be freer with your own point of view. For me, it’s not about attacking other people. I’ve talked to other reviewers at the Saturday Paper and they’re struggling with where they sit in the review. I know someone who’s writing a review currently of a book about the Boston Bombers, and at the time of that bombing, this person was obsessed and staying up until 3am watching the news on it, but how do you put that into an anonymous review?

For me, it’s also a reaction against the growing ‘I’ industry. The personal pronoun ‘I’ industry. I know The Lifted Brow are going to do an issue later in the year that will be far more creative than anything the Saturday Paper is doing, where they’re going to completely ban the first-person pronoun from the entire magazine. For me, that’s really interesting.

My hope for the Saturday Paper is that it opens up a creative potential. My absolute favourite review of all time is Delia Falconer’s review of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, which she wrote in the third person. ‘She read this book, she had these questions…’ It ran in the Australian Literary Review (may it rest in peace). I don’t think that kind of thing is currently happening in those pages. But I implore Erik to really explore the potential of this anonymity and own it.

I’ve read the Wheeler Centre article about anonymous reviewing, and it’s so humourless. Everyone’s made their minds up; they’re completely against it. But they’re being quite blindsided by the negative capacity of anonymity. They’re projecting the worst onto this. Which is in opposition to what they’re saying. ‘Good criticism should open up a dialogue between author, critic and reader. Anonymity shuts down any serious dialogue.’ I don’t agree with that. Why does it have to be a two-way dialogue? For me, it’s opening up creative potential.

We live in the social media age where we expect a right of reply every time anything gets published. Part of me really likes that, but not everything’s an open dialogue. Sometimes there’s just a call that’s made and the right of reply is in the discussion that happens around it and doesn’t need to be with the author. For me, that’s one of the great things about this. That I can put stuff out there and not have to think about it again. Not have it come back to me. And I’m not saying that in terms of escaping … if I say something wrong, I’m not trying to escape that. I just thing it might be more useful, if that is a wrong position, if that is discussed at a public level. The comments that come back are always pissy and you’re always going to stand up for what you say, and no one ever apologises because everyone’s a dickhead.

Do you mean the idea that the conversation, when it happens, focuses on the work and what is said about the work, rather than who’s saying it?

And if there’s an issue with the criticism, it gets taken up by the readers rather than coming back to the author or the critic. I love that there’s this one space where that’s not possible. More often than not, in the digital age, with comment threads and Twitter, it just loops around into this feedback loop. This breaks the circuit, or has the potential to.

I think it’s too early to criticise the format. Criticise the content. There have been some shoddy reviews run; there have been some really great ones. There have been nine in total now. Give it a bit of space and time before you make a judgement call. That probably applies to the Saturday Paper as a whole. Most other newspapers that have been around have been around for 40 years. Don’t kill it now, just give it a bit of space. Unfortunately that’s the age as well. We want answers now. I find the humourlessness and the judgement calls on this a bit unfair. If you think anonymity shuts down dialogue … well, don’t shut this down.

Because it’s criticising it before it’s had a chance to generate more discussion?

Yes. Honestly, give the dude 12 months. See how it goes. After 12 months, there could be a public call to say the experiment hasn’t worked. There’s no shame in that. I hope Erik is approaching this as an experiment. They’re finding their voice with this roster of whoever these people are and that will take time – to crack the code of this anonymous format and start using it more effectively.

I trust that Erik has chosen responsible people and I am aware of some structures of investigating conflicts of interest. Reviewers are asked to state up-front if there is a conflict of interest. I hope that goes beyond the reviewer stating it and there is some literary background check. I’m trusting them.

There have been mistakes in the last three weeks. There was a lot of emphasis on the readers building trust with the pseudonyms. There’s been one particular fuck-up where someone was attributed to the wrong pseudonym and it was simply an editorial hiccup. That is apparently going to be corrected in print this coming week. A couple of us went to Erik and aired that concern and he’s rectified that.

The only point I really agreed with in your piece and that I took to Erik was about gender and diversity. I talked to Erik today about concerns that they’re absolving themselves of the Stella count and criticism is such a big part of those stats. But Erik told me this morning that they will pass on the gender breakdown to Stella at the end of the year, and will do that annually and publicly. I think that’s good. Again, there’s a lot of trust in play, because we’ve got no idea. But they’re journalists; if they breach trust, they’re fucked.

What do you think about that question of trust, and that idea that with anonymous reviews, all the trust goes to the publication?

I was very concerned when it was announced. I thought ‘this is going to be insider baseball, a whole bunch of bitching’. But when Erik approached me, I thought, this is great, I can do this with a level of responsibility. And I hope the other reviewers are too.

My main concern is the bad reviews, especially the particularly shoddy one that ran last week of P.M. Newton’s book. It was just offensive in terms of not-good criticism, not making a case against that book. And unfortunately those were the initials that were misprinted on someone else’s work. So that someone else has been attributed with bad writing, and that person who was attributed did a really great review, of Sam Wallman’s book of graphic work. That one was outside of the mainstream publishing cycle and that was the more interesting review for me.

That’s part of a bigger conversation that has nothing to do with anonymity. I think the books pages are really stuck in publishing cycles and the pressures from publicists to cover certain work. I think Stephen Romei does a really good job of every now and then chucking in a bit of a different tack. That he’s invested in Ronnie Scott to write comic reviews is amazing and recognises that there is this kind of niche, almost self-published, community that doesn’t get the big reviews.

For me, at the very base, you’ve got to support this stuff. The closure of ALR was a huge thing and no one made a big deal of it. As spaces close for writers, that’s death. And this is a new space, so give it some space.

What about the idea that this is a new space for writers, but book reviewers in particular … half the reason you write is to engage with the work and put your opinion out there, but part of it is that you create a piece of work you want to be proud of. So the idea that in the books pages in the Saturday Paper, writers can’t put their name to their work and that can’t be part of their body of work … that’s disappointing in a new space for writers.

I do agree with that. I think that completely ignores, first of all the financial reality of writers. The Saturday Paper does carry a level of prestige and that you can’t trade off that to get another gig really ignores the economic structure of the life of a writer.

For me, I think the story that isn’t being told is the mix that Erik’s got. He has told me that there are reviewers within that structure who have never reviewed before. At the same time, I have a feeling that a lot of them are potentially in positions of power and this extends their reach, which I’m not sure about.

You think that’s the trade-off of having those positions, that you’re restricted in what you publicly say?

Be a freelancer if you want to be free. That’s an interesting question, I guess.

I’m putting this out there … you are not a smart person if you read The Monthly. You are not a smart person if you watch ABC. If you watch The Book Show. You are being spoon fed culture. You’re not going out and finding stuff; you’re turning on the TV and it is being fed to you. And a lot of the time, you dumb yourself down on those things as a critic.

One of the reviews in the first Saturday Paper, there was this one word – micropoetic – and I thought, I’ve never read that before. That review was specialised. Within a short word count, a very close careful reading of David Malouf’s oeuvre and getting that across. That very, very tiny review of the Sam Wallman, that was beautiful work. Referencing Ivor Indyk talking about embarrassment in Australian culture: specialised. That’s what the Saturday Paper could be. I don’t know if anonymity necessarily comes into it. There is an art to commissioning.

Do you think some of that is having a stable of people you encourage to pitch to you as well, who know an area? This can be fraught and that’s where a conflict of interest can come in, but …

What is the conflict of interest? If I’m telling you, you’ve got to fucking read this book by my mate. Is my mate giving me 50 bucks to say that? No. Or am I mates with that person because I fucking believe in that person’s work? Yes, that’s probably how we met. That’s the smallness of the culture. You need to support work that you believe in in Australia, because there’s not much of it.

So would you review work by your friends, then?

I have reviewed work by my friends. Not close friends, but people I know on friendly terms. And it’s been the case when I haven’t seen work like theirs represented in the mainstream. Not in the Saturday Paper. I’ve put my name to those reviews and you could do the maths.

I think people are getting caught up on the anonymity thing. Come back to that, yeah, but think about the creative potential of it. I keep coming back to that. There is a freedom there that is being policed. We are being told it’s being policed and we do have to put our trust in it. But also, Erik can do what he wants. It’s a private company. If you’re not happy with it, start your own paper.

But don’t you think that while people can do what they want, other people can also … this sort of conversation about how we do things and why is perhaps valuable?

I love it. It’s incredibly valuable. What it’s done … I may not agree with anyone in the Wheeler Centre article, but that itself has opened up a dialogue. I think it’s too soon to make these comments and that everyone is being particularly humourless, but it’s opened up a dialogue. I want to chuck out the Geoff Dyer quote: ‘I’m so revolted with writers taking themselves seriously that I’ve deprioritised writing in my life.’ That’s my approach to life at the moment.

But in a weird way, I think this is great. It’s brought people together to discuss criticism so closely and people are so invested in it. That’s the best thing Erik’s done; he’s opened up that discussion. I remember poetry was on the front cover of the Sydney Morning Herald because Robert Adamson had sent death threats to John Kinsella. It was like, what are you guys doing? This is what gets poetry on the front page? But at the same time, it was like, fuck yeah, poetry’s on the front page!

To me, I really thank Erik, because it’s boosted the profile of literary criticism. Yes, it could well be a marketing ploy for the Saturday Paper … and yet we’re still talking about it. But as someone who is still incredibly passionate about literary criticism, it’s advancing the visibility of literary criticism. That can’t hurt. Suddenly there’s something flashy, you can disagree with it – that’s criticism in action.

That’s the positive side. The negative side for me is, don’t push people away from literary criticism by being humourless about this stuff. Don’t make it too meta. Don’t try to guess who the initials belong to. Don’t try to tear this down because it doesn’t speak to you. Because ultimately, who’s having the problem with the conflict? It won’t be the readers; it’s going to be the industry. And don’t tear it down from an industry perspective, because we’ve got so little space. Erik could just cut the pages. That would be the worst outcome for me; Erik drops the whole thing. I can’t see this being a long-term thing. I would like to see, in 12 months’ time, when hopefully the paper has more pages, the books pages expand and the anonymous thing drop. Or maybe they keep one or two anonymous columns or pieces.

I think the anonymous column is an interesting idea. Yesterday, I was speaking to someone who has an anonymous blog on comedy that they’ve been writing for ten years and has a specific following. And there’s Theatre Notes – Alison Croggon’s not anonymous, but it’s similarly specialist. It strikes me that if you’re writing about a particular area, it has more meaning, or it’s easier to follow.

I think people are worried that people are going to betray the anonymity to dish dirt on the industry. To me, it’s the other way round. It keeps the industry at arm’s length. You’re dropping your identity. I can freely criticise structures of power. I can criticise openly the people who deserve criticism, which is the industry. I’m not going to abuse the trust of authors; I think authors have a hard enough gig. Publishers, horrible publicists, writers festivals. If anyone needs criticism, it’s those guys.

For example, I read this speculative review of Melbourne Now in unmagazine, which just blew my mind. It was very precise and very critical of the exhibition and it hadn’t even opened yet, and they were right about it. One thing it did was to review the marketing of the exhibition, something I’ve never seen done before. I think that’s fascinating. I would love to write for the Saturday Paper a speculative review of, say, Christos Tsiolkas’s next book. Where is he going to go from here? That’s the creative potential I’m talking about.

Do you mean, for instance, reviewing a book in the context of the publishing process?

I guess I say that and I come back to that Critic Watch column about Hannah Kent in the Sydney Review of Books, which was disgusting. Which was exactly that. That was dud criticism in terms of, who cares if they paid Hannah Kent $2 million? She deserves $2 million. That was an investment and they knew that book was going to sell. Actually, that’s exactly what I don’t want to happen. What I really want is for it to be just about the writers, but often the industry isn’t doing things in their best interest. So they should be held accountable, but not if it’s some, ‘Oh this writer got paid this much’ gossip.

So the creative freedoms that anonymity could bring is to review things in a different way?

Yeah. The anonymity is not of much interest to me personally. It’s neither here nor there. If you are a person in a position of power, it does free you from the connotations of you giving the review. I still have problems with people in positions of power extending their reach beyond their positions of power. But for me, it’s too early to say what this could potentially be.

So it sounds like one of your biggest problems is that this is a new space for books and writing to be talked about, someone’s trying something new, you like the idea of someone trying something new, and people are taking it down before we’ve had a chance to see what it is and we should be encouraging creativity and different things and this is doing the opposite?

Exactly. I’m coming out ‘openly’ to say that I have concerns about the Saturday Paper, but I’m just asking that the critics of the format trust that the people behind those initials are being responsible. I know two of the other people, but I don’t know the rest. Continue to interrogate it, sure, but trust that Erik has picked people who are trustworthy. I think if it was all revealed tomorrow, people would be surprised at the breadth of people who he’s chosen.

I’m really worried that they’ll cut the books pages. And I’m pretty sick of how sanctimonious people are being. Literature at a micro level needs nurturing.