Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

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