Critical Danger: Book Reviewing, Prizes, and Australia’s Literary Consensus-Culture

Is Australia’s literary culture too nice? Too clubbish? Is our critical culture based too much on who you know, and not enough on what you know? Writer and lecturer Emmett Stinson argues that it is – and calls for more ‘partisans, contrarians and heretics’.

Jacob Silverman recently wrote an article for Slate attacking the ‘epidemic’ of ‘cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm’ in US book reviewing. For Silverman, criticism increasingly mimics the ‘literary Twitter- or blogospheres, [where] you’ll be positively besieged by amiability’. He calls them out for ‘creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page’. The causes of this new sincerity are entirely self-interested: writers and publishers use social media for advertising and networking, and book reviewers face pressures to function as de facto publicists and ‘recommendation machines’ rather than critics.

To some degree, this situation is not so much new as it is newly open to public scrutiny. Social media makes visible the invidious networks of back-scratching and bootlicking that have always characterised the uneasy relationship between the publishing industry and literary journalism. Authors and publishers have always used indirect means to influence a book’s reception by ‘cultivating’ reviewers. I know many publishers who insist that taking certain book editors out to expensive lunches still results in better coverage.

But some critics have also misunderstood Silverman’s article as valorising negative reviews, which misses the point. Reviews can be nasty without being intelligent or critical. I’ve seen many haranguing reviews that simply misread the book in question. Worse, many negative reviews serve as a pretence for exorcising the reviewer’s personal literary demons. Nor are we really lacking for negative reviews – but we tend not to notice them because they are overwhelmingly directed at newer and less-established authors, which actually brings me to my larger point.

In the Australian context what I object to is not so much this spate of ‘niceness’ that Silverman identifies; sincerity is nothing more or less than a rhetorical method for convincing people of things, and its characteristic manoeuvre lies in the need to mask the awareness of its objectives even from itself. What worries me is not this enthusiasm, as such, but what it signifies: a set of self-invested and uncritical attitudes that result in a consensus-culture where certain authors, who have become the literary equivalent of sacred cows, are placed beyond reproach. This is already apparent in the shortlists for our literary awards, which resemble the output of some centralised shortlist-generating algorithm.

In 2012, the 42 possible shortlist spots for fiction across the Miles Franklin, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the Western Premier’s Awards, the Age Book of the Year Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, and the Victorian Premier’s Awards have been occupied by only 18 writers, who very much resemble the ‘usual suspects’. Aside from the obligatory nods to Peter Carey, Gail Jones, and Elliott Perlman there was enormous consistency across the lists: Anna Funder was nominated five times, Gillian Mears four times, and Janette Turner Hospital and Frank Moorhouse three times, as well as two nominations each for Kate Grenville and Alex Miller. Only a few nominated authors have not won major national or state-based awards already, like Wayne Macauley, Deborah Forster, Tony Birch, and, technically speaking, Geraldine Brooks (who has won a Pulitzer, of course).

What’s notable about these lists is what is missing: the only debut author was Favel Parrett, and virtually all of the titles were published either by large publishers or very well-established independent publishers. Authors of ‘genre’ works and collections of short stories were once again largely excluded. It is particularly depressing that, after all of the scrutiny placed on the gender imbalance of literary prizes last year (resulting in the establishment of the Stella Prize), these lists seem not only safe but downright staid. And more to the point, why do we want so many literary prizes in Australia that all basically look the same?

Some may want to argue that these authors make the shortlists because they are the best writers in Australia, but such a position doesn’t square with history, which shows that literary awards rarely stand the test of time. What do Carl Spitteler, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Roger Martin du Gard, and Frans Eemil Sillanpää have in common? They all won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The list of authors who didn’t win the Nobel Prize is more impressive: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, and Virginia Woolf are among the eligible authors never honoured by the Swedish Academy. In a rare consensus, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award both went to William Faulkner’s novel A Fable, now considered a minor work by a great author – but the year 1955 also saw the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (my favourite book). History suggests that betting against the consensus has the better odds.

But, rather than suffering from tall-poppy syndrome, Australia’s contemporary cultural cringe seems to manifest in a repression of any critique and a consensus of unquestioning support for Australia’s ‘best’ writers; literary darlings like Cate Kennedy and Nam Le are universally praised, and rare criticisms of their work are met with opprobrium. When big names like Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis come to visit, the universal response is unbridled excitement – as if we were still little more than a bunch of unwashed colonials lucky to receive these great authors from overseas. Among authors and industry types another less honourable thought circulates: think of all the networking opportunities! That these things are left unsaid is inevitable; as the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has noted, ‘A milieu … is always also an alliance for the sake of jointly ignoring matters of fact that are obvious to those who are foreign to the milieu.’ But the problem with this literary consensus-culture is that it produces an anaemic and self-congratulatory provincialism as stifling as any cultural cringe.

The consensus-culture relegates books to the status of museum pieces: everyone agrees they are great, but they just sit there on an abstract plane removed from our daily lives, from our personal beliefs, or any value judgments about what matters or should matter. The consensus-culture signifies a notion of literature played out only in and among institutions – universities, prize committees, literary festivals – for whom actual readers are always only ‘stakeholders’ to be appeased. In the consensus-culture, the views of readers, writers and communities don’t really matter because literature is something that is handed down to us from above, mediated by a network of cultural elites and ‘literary insiders’ who have already made all of the important decisions about a book’s value. But a vital literary culture is not marked by the possession of a canon of universally acknowledged classics or by fiat through a UN designation. Australian literature should be embattled, passionately fought over, and contested because those – and not a tepid consensus governed by cultural elites – are the hallmarks of vitality and egalitarianism. Australian literature doesn’t need saving or preserving – what it needs are partisans, contrarians and heretics.

Portrait of Emmett Stinson

Emmett Stinson is a lecturer in publishing and communications at the University of Melbourne and president of SPUNC, Australia’s only advocacy group for small presses.