I look forward to Australian Book Review every month, and the first article I turn to is the last one: the Open Page column in which a writer answers a set series of questions, starting with: Why do you write? The one to which I pay particular attention is: What do you think of the state of criticism? The typical response is equivocal, which seems fair enough. However, some are, well, critical, such as Tim Flannery in this month’s issue: “It seems to have all but died in this country. Criticism requires a skilful editorial eye, and time on behalf of the critic. Buying time requires money. If you look at The New York Review of Books, you will see the difference between a thoughtful 4000-word engagement with a book, and an 800-word ramble. But who in Australia, except the author, would read 4000 words on a new novel today?’’ I reject “all but died” and I think there’s a skill in doing an 800-word book review, but I agree on the potential merits of longer pieces, and of course we do run them here. I also think Flannery is one of our finest essayists. So I offer a solution: Dear Tim, the next time I ask you to review a book for me, please say yes and tell the NYRB you are spoken for. You will have more than 800 words, I promise.
Another aspect of the critical culture I rarely see mentioned is the role of the critic-mediator, the writer who as well as writing books, or book reviews (or often both), acts as a conduit between authors and the reading public. Off the page, not all authors are good (or willing) communicators, and this is where the professional interviewer-critic-writer can play an important role. Sydney novelist Charlotte Wood does just this with her excellent Writers Room interviews (read them at www.charlottewood.com.au). New York-based John Freeman, a terrific critic and a lovely man, is another fine exponent of this art. A former editor of Granta and author of the interviewbased How to Read a Novelist, Freeman has a new project, a biannual literary anthology of new writing, fiction and nonfiction, called Freeman’s. The first issue, published next week by Text, takes as its theme ‘‘Arrival”, which Freeman explains in a characteristically humorous and insightful introduction that starts with the memory of a rocky childhood plane trip with his mother. Anticipating questions about the need for yet another literary journal, he writes: “It would be traditional for me ... to explain why Freeman’s needs to exist: to gripe or complain, to slight fellow travellers, to declare an aesthetic manifesto, or to apologise for bringing more. I won’t do that. Any true reader wants more — more life, more experiences, more risk than one’s life can contain.’’ It’s testament to the respect in which Freeman is held that the inaugural issue includes new stories by Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Lydia Davis, Louise Erdrich, Dave Eggers and Etgar Keret. The next contributor to ABR’s Open Page column will be the comeback kid, 77-year-old Sydney author Elizabeth Harrower, whose emergence from a long literary silence continues next week with the publication of A Few Days in the Country, a collection of short stories, one of which is extracted on these pages. On November 4, Harrower will make her first public appearance in 40 years, at Barry O’Keefe Library in Sydney’s Mosman, where she will be in conversation with her publisher, Michael Heyward of Text. Inquiries: Mosman Library Service (02 9978 4091) or Pages and Pages bookstore (02 9969 9736 or book online via pagesandpages.com.au). Quote of the week: “Oh God, oh wow. It is so surreal. I think I am going to wake up, or fall into a barrage of tears.’’ Marlon James, who this week became the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize, for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.