Tuesday, September 15, 2009

... and a bad bad review ...

There are four kinds of book review. There's the good good review, which is both favourable about its subject and skilfully, knowledgeably written on the basis of a careful, thorough reading of the book in question. There's the good bad review, which is well executed in all respects but unfavourable. There's the bad good review, which is favourable but a bad example of the book review genre.

(There are many ways of badly writing a review: not reading the book properly, making opinionated and magisterial assertions instead of properly arguing your case, getting your facts wrong because you haven't actually read the book, pushing your own pet writers and ideas at the expense of the book you're supposed to be reviewing, blowing your own trumpet about your own achievements, not distinguishing between your personal opinions and the actual facts, making wildly offensive statements, and so on and so forth.)

And finally there's the bad bad review, which is ... Well, you know.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a forum at the University of Sydney on the subject of book reviewing. Allotted a generous amount of time for my talk, I needed to come up with an infinitely expandable structure for it, something with a strong backbone that I could sketch out and then amplify here and there, both at the keyboard and then again, if called for, on my feet.

In the end, I came up with a way of doing it that meant I had a single central line of argument and organising principle: the text of the talk was a heavily annotated list of the people and entities to whom/which I believe a book reviewer has a responsibility. It was a list whose length surprised even me (for over the decades I have given these matters a great deal of thought), as I thought about just how many people and things I have at the back of my mind, or even halfway to the front, whenever I review a book. The list looked something like this:

1) To the readers of the review, to

(i) describe the book accurately,
(ii) tell the truth as you see it, and
(iii) provide entertainment and useful information.

2) To the potential readers of the book (some overlap there, obvs),

(i) not to mislead them about its contents, and
(ii) to save them $30+ if that's what you think.

3) To the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of the book,

(i) to read the book carefully and comment on it thoughtfully,
(ii) not to misrepresent it, and
(iii) not to say anything that will actually make them want to slash their wrists.

4) To the literary editor who saw fit to commission the review from you, to

(i) justify her or his faith in your (suit)ability and expertise,
(ii) write to the word length you were given,
(iii) provide clean copy in the requested format (e.g. not phone it in, say) and
(iv) provide said copy on or before the deadline you were given.

5) To the publication for which you are writing,

(i) to pay attention to its house style,
(ii) to fit in with its general editorial approach and standard of writing,
(iii) not to write anything that will either require extensive and expensive legalling, or, in the absence of said legalling, get the publication sued, and
(ii) not to compromise, or indeed trash, its reputation.

6) To the people who are paying you to do a decent job of work, to be worthy of your hire.

7) To the literary culture in particular and indeed to the culture in general, to make a worthy contribution to it and not demean or devalue it by adding junk rather than good useful stuff.

8) To yourself,

(i) to maintain your standards, not just professional but also moral (say, turning down editorial requests to review books by friends, rivals, enemies or old lovers),
(ii) to refuse to say anything you don't mean, and
(iii) not to make yourself look like a wanker or a dickhead, or both. 'Both' is possible but not attractive.

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

Monday, September 07, 2009

And a new art form emerges: the YouTube trailer/preview of the novel

Sent off my review of Andrew McGahan's new novel Wonders of a Godless World this morning to Australian Book Review, in whose October issue it will appear. One is not supposed to talk in advance about novels whose embargo dates are still three weeks away, so I'm not going to -- but do watch this strangely beautiful little animation, which appears to have been done by the same person who did the cover, one James Gulliver Hancock (check out the weight-lifting lorikeet).

When I found this the other day I thought it was a one-off, but a quick Google confirms that these book trailers are everywhere.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

New books: Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath

In tomorrow's Australian Literary Review I have a piece reviewing four new (or, in one case, newish) Australian novels. They only have two things in common really -- they're all intensely region-specific, and they're all by women. Of the four, it's Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath that I confidently expect to turn up regularly in the longlists and shortlists of next year's literary awards.

Kennedy is an experienced and much-admired writer of short stories but this is her first novel, and of course inevitably someone has asked her about what far too many people see as the 'advance' from the short story to the novel, as if, in moving from the former to the latter, one had succeeded in one's OWLs and was now tackling one's NEWTs. Kennedy's answer to this, as quoted in the detailed, engaging interview that the SMH's Susan Wyndham published last weekend, appearing also in her Undercover blog, is maybe the best riposte to this short-story v. novel thing that I've ever seen in the whole thirtysomething years I've been being annoyed by it:

"I heard someone once say, 'You must feel different now that you've moved to the big pool from the toddler pool,' " she says of her change of form. "I quite bridled at this because I don't think the short story is a toddler pool. In a way it is more like the beautiful diving pool - it's not the shallow pool, it's the smaller pool that takes a lot of practice to do the one entry perfectly."

'The beautiful diving pool' -- how Katherine Mansfield would have loved that. And Chekhov, Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Alice Munro and who-all else.

The novel is reviewed in the new issue of Australian Book Review by Jo Case, who kind of likes it but says it's hard to get carried away by the plot because you're too aware of the structure. I can't agree with this. What I kept thinking was that the structure was intensely cinematic and was carrying me around the circuits of feeling among the characters while at the same time moving them and the action forwards. Topspin, as it were.

There are three main characters: the dizty leftover hippie Sandy, 45, henna'd devotee of decaf and hand-turned coffee mugs, still bravely making jewellery and selling it at a market stall in between massages and earnest conversations; Sandy's former partner Rich, a restless, rootless middle-aged man with a ponytail, a string of dead-end jobs and a long-held but never-realised ambition to be a successful professional photographer; and their daughter Sophie, fifteen, sullen, watchful, clever, tagged 'emo goth', whose father scarpered when she was a baby and therefore knows her not at all.

Both Sandy and Rich, even now, live in the faded glory of the high point of their lives: participation in the Franklin River Blockade 25 years earlier, a story to which Sophie has been subjected over and over while, she thinks bitterly, other kids got the Three Bears. (There's a stern message here for Boomers endlessly reliving their illusory glory days, though frankly all the Boomers I know, including me, are all too aware that the glory days were actually not all that glorious and are firmly focused on the present: on our financial survival in interesting times, on the longueurs and woes of our young adult children and our aged parents, and on our own increasingly unreliable and wonky bodies as bits and parts of them play up and wear out one by inexorable one. Types like Rich and Sandy are by no means unknown, but they're not typical, either.)

Anyway, the plot gets into second gear on Sophie's fifteenth birthday, when Rich rings her to wish her a happy birthday and suggests that he take her on a Tasmanian wilderness hike and bonding exercise on Cradle Mountain. Off they go to catch their plane to Hobart: third gear. But then things start to go wrong. Vroom.

From this point the narrative alternates between scenes of Rich and Sophie on the hiker trail and scenes of Sandy first at Mandala Holistic Wellness Centre and then, very worried after Rich and Sophie turn out not to be on their scheduled return flight, back at her own house surrounded by well-meaning alternative-living friends who keep trying to give her back rubs, read her tarot cards and help her think positive thoughts. Running in tandem with these changes of scene and the increasing tension and suspense they generate is the increasing subtlety with which everyone has begun to see everyone else: all three have been seeing each other in the light of cliché and caricature, and Kennedy manages very expertly the small shifts by which the characters begin to see each other as human beings with unexpected or hitherto unnoticed strengths and complexities.

In some ways Kennedy is working the same territory as Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap: contemporary domestic realism focusing on parenting and on conflicting cultural values. But there's less cultural diversity, fewer characters, less sex, more social history, and a better plot.