December 2004 Archives

Noisy Reading

In today's issue of The Age, in the "Health & Wellbeing" section, there's a list titled "Ten Ways to Put a Smile on Your Face". At number 5 is "Read a book in complete silence." So that's the problem: the muttering noise I make as I move my lips when I read is making me unhappy. There had to be some reason. My life is now complete.

Australian Book Review, No. 267


I hadn't specifically intended to write an introductory note to this weblog but the most recent issue of The Australian Book Review, Dec 2004-Jan 2005, No. 267, contains a lead essay by editor Peter Rose which raises a number of interesting questions, so you get one almost by default.

Originally delivered as the 2004 Barry Andrews Lecture at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Academy, Rose's essay, titled "The Sound and the Fury: Uneasy Times for Hacks and Critics" addresses the general subject of reviewing and literary criticism: the type, the length and the purpose. Let me state at the outset that I don't consider myself a critic. I don't even consider myself a reviewer, just a lazy reader with some opinions who thinks he knows what he likes. I have no trouble in reading long critiques, short reviews, or hack jobs, so long as the piece is entertaining and gives me an idea of whether or not I should seek out the publication. And that last is the real point. I want to know if the reviewer liked the thing or not. Rose on the other hand states: "It all goes, I suppose, to the question as to where our greatest responsibility lies as critics. Is it to the reader, the author, posterity, one's literary editor, 'the market', one's nationality, the broader culture?" And having stated the question answers it with: "Well, I believe that our ultimate responsibility is to the work itself - the novel, the slim volume, the memoir, the play, the film - not to its hopeful maker, intended audience or national honour." Which confuses me somewhat.

The two most important parties in any reading experience (Rose includes plays and film here but I'm trying to simplify things a bit) are the authorial team (the writer, the editor, the publishers) and the reader. If the reader is to enjoy (assume this includes learn from, adore, or any other appropriate verb) then the authorial team has to get its act working properly. If that happens then it should find an appreciative readership - it may not, but it should. So the authorial team shouldn't, in my view, aim for a specific market. (If they get the package right the market will follow.)

The reviewer, however, has to. They need to place the work into a reasonable context - the general fiction landscape, the work's genre, the author's past work, and so on. I have severe limitations when it comes to reviewing - I read fiction for enjoyment in the first instance, if I learn something in the process then all the better, but it is not something I set out to achieve. Non-fiction tends to run the other way, with the proviso that if I don't enjoy it then I won't learn anything.

Rose continues later to add a bit of context to his previous statement when he says that the fundamental responsibility of a critic is " do justice to a book and to assess its contribution to our collective literature..." Which probably explains my confusion. That is something I cannot do as I don't have the knowledge or skills. All I can do is to assess whether or not it's worth spending your beer money to buy the work. That'll have to do.

You can get a bit of an idea of what sort of work is included in the current issue of the ABR on the web page. The page devoted to number 267 prints the Rose essay mentioned above, plus another 6 reviews out of the 33 included in the printed version. So it's a bit like other literary review journals out there on the web in that it provides a taster, an appetizer if you will. And let me tell you, it's a very comprehensive meal being offered in this magazine. There are reviews in the categories of Politics (3 reviews/5 books), Anthology (3/4), Journals (1/3), Garden History (1/2), Food (1/2), Memoir (5/6), Art (2/2), Fiction (5/9), Poetry (2/3), Music (1/2), Cultural Studies (2/2), Philosophy (1/1), History (2/2), Military History (1/1), True Crime (1/1), Children's Picture Books (1/3) and Young Adult Fiction (1/3). If you add to this 2 poems (by Clive James and John Slavin), Letters, National News, a Commentary piece, and Best Books and Best Children's Books selections, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who wasn't covered by at least one section here.

The fact that all items under review are "Australian" only adds to the feeling that this is a good piece of work. The reviewing is uneven, of course. I get the feeling in about half the pieces that the reviewer didn't know what to think, or, at least, they write like they don't. But that harks back to my preferred form of review rather than the intent of this magazine, so you can take that statement under advisement. I like this magazine. It covers the Australian literary scene pretty well. I would like more fiction reviews, but, as Rose states in his essay, they cover as much as they can, which amounts to about half the Australian fiction output each year. Better than all the newspapers in Australia put together I suspect.

Currently Reading


 Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
The second book in the "First Law" series. Epic fantasy written to honour the honour and explore the standard fantasy tropes, as well as to poke ore than a little fun at them at the same time. A big book, but still a page-turner.



 How it Feels by Brendan Cowell
A debut novel from a multi-talented author/actor/director. A coming-of-age novel which might well be semi-autobiographical.


Recently Read


 Monster Blood Tattoo: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
The third book in the MBT series. Will we finally find out who Rossamund really is? And will we be sad to leave this fully-realised fantasy world? I suspect the answer will be "yes" to both.



 Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn by Marshall Browne
Browne's first novel in a new series, this time featuring a Japanese detective, Inspector Aoki. This novel finds the inspector investigating an old murder in a snowed-in remote Japanese retreat.



 The City & The City by China MiĆ©ville
MiƩville's Hugo Award winning novel of two cities inhabiting the same physical location. A murder mystery with hints of classic sf/fantasy memes, from Dick to Borges, but in a European setting.

 Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
The 13th Jack Reacher novel. Suicide bombers on the New York subway and international terrorism mixed with hard-boiled action makes for an interesting brew.



 The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Heroic fantasy in the modern style. A fantasy that is laced through with noirish elements, and excellent characterisations. First book of The First Law trilogy.

 Where Have You Been? by Wendy James
What happens when a sister returns after being missing, presumed dead, for twenty years? James enhances her reputation as one of Australia's rising literary novelists.

 Wyatt by Garry Disher
Disher's anti-hero is back after an absence of ten years with a gritty, fast, noirish struggle for survival. All the best aspects of Disher's work are on display here.



 Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
A Young Adult steampunk novel set at the start of an alternate history First World War. Fast-paced, intriguing and totally captivating.



 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Dick's novel of the near future when the difference between human and android is barely discernible. One of the great all-time sf titles.



 American Journeys by Don Watson
Watson journeys into the heart of America, by train and car. There he discovers the best, and the worst, of humanity and society.



 Ghostlines by Nick Gadd
2009 Best First Novel at the Ned Kelly Awards. Murder in the art world involving political intrigue and business corruption in Melbourne.


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This page is an archive of entries from December 2004 listed from newest to oldest.

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