‘Intelligence and Readability’: The Sydney Review of Books
James Ley is the editor of Australia’s newest literary publication, the Sydney Review of Books, our (online-only) answer to the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books.
We spoke to him about how the new publication came to life, its aims and operations, and his ideas about literary criticism and how social media has changed the literary community.
What is the Sydney Review of Books? And what is your philosophy as editor?
The Sydney Review of Books is an online literary journal with an emphasis on Australian writing, though we are also covering the work of noteworthy overseas authors. Its aim is to provide a forum for long-form critical writing. It is about providing an opportunity for Australia’s critics to rediscover the art of literary criticism, to give them the time and space to respond to books with the kind of consideration they deserve, to be a bit more reflective and essayistic. My philosophy – though that’s probably too elevated a term – is really just to try and make the Sydney Review of Books as good as possible, to get interesting people writing about interesting books, to give them the space they need and solid editorial support.
How did you come to be involved as editor – and what drew you to the project?
The Sydney Review of Books is an initiative of the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, where I recently completed a PhD. My first involvement was in September last year, when I attended a meeting at UWS at which the idea of starting up this kind of publication was discussed. There was never any thought that I might decline to be involved. The need for this kind of venture seems to me to be absolutely pressing, so I was more than happy to accept the challenge.
How will the Sydney Review of Books be funded?
The initial funding, which is finite, has come from the University of Western Sydney. The journal has been set up to give readers a sense of what we are trying to achieve in the longer term. The hope is that readers will recognise the value of this kind of publication and support it, and so far the response has been heartening. We are exploring various avenues for ongoing funding and all options are on the table at this point, but if people do get behind the SRB and demonstrate that there is a desire for a journal that encourages this kind of serious critical writing then I am sure we can make it sustainable somehow.
The Sydney Review of Books is an online-only publication. What were the attractions of this format? And does this present any challenges?
Being online takes the logistical issues of printing and distribution out of the equation. We’re a small operation, so now that we have the site up and running we can devote the bulk of our attention and our resources to making the content as strong as possible. I think one of the big advantages of being online is that space ceases to be an issue, so we can accommodate long, reflective essays without any trouble. As for the challenges, they are pretty much the same as any publication faces: we have to make the most of our finite resources, find a way to make the SRB a viable concern, and do our best to connect with as wide a readership as we can.
How regularly will you be publishing new material?
Our initial aim is to publish a minimum of two new essays each week.
Are there any other publications – local or overseas – that inspire the Sydney Review of Books in some way? If so, what are they and what is it about them that inspires you?
Well, the name gives an indication of what we are hoping to achieve. Those venerable publications the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books are still the models for what this kind of venture can become, though I also think the upstarts at n+1 are also doing some excellent things. They set the standard, really. When a book is reviewed in their pages it damn well stays reviewed (so to speak). But in a general stylistic sense, it is that ability to write intelligently about literature for a non-specialist audience in a way that is lucid but not dumbed down that is the ideal. The combination of erudition, intelligence and readability is what we are aiming for. If we can get our critics to start thinking of themselves less as ‘reviewers’ and more as essayists, I think we will be getting somewhere.
One of the sections that intrigues me about the Sydney Review of Books is your Critic Watch series. How did this come about, and how will it work?
The impetus came from Ben Etherington, who wrote the ‘Brain Feign’ essay that is up on the site now. He will be driving that aspect of the SRB. The idea is that he will contribute a regular essay analysing an aspect of the local critical culture. He has the editorial freedom to choose his own subjects. I’m not directing him, so he can go after me if he likes (in fact, he already has). It came about because Ben was living overseas for a time and returned to Australia to find the quality of the critical discussion was, shall we say, rather underwhelming. The basic idea behind Critic Watch is really just to keep Australia’s critics on their toes, to make sure that we don’t become complacent and lose sight of criticism’s intellectual responsibilities.
Many commentators have recently argued that social media and the online environment are making the literary community more insular, and conditions for criticism more difficult. In the first in your Critic Watch series, Ben Etherington writes that the literary community’s transition to the online world is ‘expanding the massage circles of publishers, authors and reviewers, and shutting critical voices out’. What’s your view?
It’s one of the many interesting points that Ben makes in his essay, I think. I’m not sure anyone completely understands how social media is changing the literary culture – that’s something for critics to argue about in a hundred years time. On one level, the internet and blogs and social media are all very wonderful and democratic because everyone can have their say. We have a greater plurality of voices, which is good. But at the same time social media make public a lot of the connections in the literary world, which at a different time in history would have been hidden. It’s a very complex issue. We all know there’s a big difference between high-fiving someone on Twitter or being their Facebook ‘friend’ and really being their friend, right? But that kind of online interaction certainly doesn’t help the perception that everyone is in each others’ pockets, and everyone is patting everyone else on the back, even if it’s not necessarily the case in reality. It may well be that this is, on some level, making critics reticent when it comes to being frank and outspoken in their judgements, though we’re heading into very murky psychological waters there.
You come to the position of editor as a respected and experienced literary critic. What is your own approach to literary criticism?
The aim is always to do justice to the work and say something worthwhile about it at the same time. As a critic you are always up against constraints of time and space, but even in a short review I think it’s important to try and get at the essence of the work. Criticism carries no weight unless the critic can demonstrate understanding, so it’s always the quality of interpretation that matters in the first instance. Critical judgements can come later. This can be tricky if you’ve only got 800 words to play with, of course. Tricky, but not impossible. A 3000-word essay is a very different beast, but the same basic rules apply.
Who are some of the critics you admire, and why?
There are lots of them. At a pinch, I would probably nominate William Hazlitt as my favourite critic for the sheer vitality of his prose. But I’d hesitate to choose. The twentieth century produced an extraordinary number of great critics and they all tend to have different virtues. A brilliant close reader like Christopher Ricks can be inspiring, but a bluff journalistic critic like Edmund Wilson can be great on his day too. Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis has always struck me as a major critical achievement. There are critics I admire because they have taught us to think about culture in new ways, critics like Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes, but in general I tend to be drawn to critics who can combine depth of knowledge with an accessible style, people like Frank Kermode or Susan Sontag, or some of the old New York intellectuals – Elizabeth Hardwick or Lionel Trilling, for example. A lot of the literary theory that was a big deal when I was at university resulted in some very interesting thinking but it didn’t produce much in the way of good writing.
One of the fascinating things about criticism, I think, is that an individual critic’s obsessions, weaknesses and blind spots can be important too, because in their way they can also help to clarify certain arguments and distinctions. I often disagree with James Wood’s criticism, for example, but I invariably enjoy reading him. His anti-‘hysterical realism’ campaign was wrong-headed in all sorts of ways, but it identified a faultline in contemporary fiction and got people talking. Daniel Mendelsohn, Adam Kirsch and Laura Miller are good contemporary critics, and I think Andrew O’Hagan’s cultural criticism is always excellent. There are music critics I like, as well, particularly Alex Ross, Jon Savage and Jim DeRogatis, though of course when it comes to rock criticism you can’t go past the doyen Lester Bangs: fearless, passionate, brilliant, slightly crazed and completely hilarious.