I’m looking and I’m dreaming for the first time… The art of the good review

Jessie Tu’s debut novel was published recently: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.  There was a splash of press as Tu tried desperately to convince everybody that she was edgy and had something to say.  In one interview, she complained that she had started studying law but gave it up because she was too edgy (law students are famously not edgy) and had something to say (law students are famously reserved in their opinions).  But it had been written with the support of an Australia Council grant, so we all had to take a moment to applaud how our taxpayer dollars were supporting the edgiest and most full-of-things-to-say upcoming authors who were definitely going to shake the establishment.

Two months later, Tu has returned to centre stage with a review of another debut novel: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey.  And the review is… bad.

It’s one thing to go up to the biggest, meanest kid on campus and challenge her to a duel; it’s entirely another to go up to the new kid and slap them in their innocent and overwhelmed face as hard as you can.  Tu has invented a new genre: the new kid going full tilt at a newer kid.  Nobody besides complete sickos wants to see that.

Arts criticism in Australia has been in a bad way for about a decade now.  There aren’t enough paid gigs for critics, so we get enthusiastic amateurs and celebrity hot takers.  As a result, it is difficult for arts critics in Australia to progress the culture and artform of criticism.  There aren’t enough interlocutors.  The interlocutors we’ve got are overwhelmingly old and white.  Conservative critics aren’t engaging constructively with progressives and radicals.  And the majority of the really good arts criticism is done by academics, many of whom are losing their income during the pandemic.  And then we have all the well-known problems of literary festivals.

Very simply, we’re cutting into the bone of arts criticism infrastructure.

What is often not articulated is why anybody should care.  What does it matter if somebody enjoys a shitty, trashy book without having somebody write some criticism about it first?  Is any enjoyment lost because somebody was able to watch a problematic movie they like without a middle class chatterer tut-tutting at them?  Maybe video games really are art?

Arts criticism forms two functions.  First — and easily the most dominant function over the past few decades — it is advertising.  The reviewer’s job is to convince people to go see the movie/play/opera, listen to the album, or read the book.  The literary economy demands everybody consume everything, otherwise nobody will make any profit.  And freak me sideways if this isn’t the most boring aspect of reviewing.  The reviewer is reduced to nothing but a proxy of taste: if you like the same sorts of movies that I like, you will like this movie.  Three stars.

The second function — but much more difficult and so rarely seen in the wild — is to connect the audience (or potential audience) to the literary context needed to get something more out of the experience.  At no other time in history have we had as much access to movies from around the world as we do now, and yet audiences are thoroughly ill-equipped to navigate the offerings or how to get the most out of the movie.  The critic is an informed guide to readers, explaining the history and links to other literature.  If you liked watching Black Panther, you will probably enjoy watching these other African-American movies.  If you liked watching Mulan, here are these way better wuxia films.  If you liked this James Bond movie, here are a bunch of old spy movies that it drew upon.  The critic opens up the experience for audiences and shows the pathways to other great experiences.

As well as these two functions, there is the art of writing criticism.  There are reviews that are pure literature in themselves, such as the famed London Review of Books piece by Michael Hoffman criticising Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.  It is here that we see that arts criticism is not merely the domain of those who cannot produce art themselves, but is instead an opportunity to stretch and flex how we can use art to interrogate art itself.

All this is an extended prologue to the key point: if you’re going to go hard on a debut novellist, then your review had better be so brilliantly insightful that everybody applauds you for your contribution to arts criticism.

And Tu’s review… is bad.

You cannot read her review and get any sense of what the book is about, who might enjoy the book, or where the book is placed in the ecosystem of literature.  It might be a genuinely awful book, but we have no way of knowing because Tu is going off on a woke frolick about something to do with how bad marriage is… or something.  We got the picture from earlier interviews: Tu refuses to read books from white men.  That’s entirely a valid lifestyle choice and I wish her well, but perhaps she’s not going to be the best choice of reviewer for a debut novel by Ewa Ramsey who is practically cooker-cutter Anglo-Australian writer.  Let Tu rip into whatever nonsense Tim Winton is sludging out these days; at least then we can feel good when she lands a hit or shout words of encouragement when she falls off her horse.  But to go after a debut novellist, you either have to write a masterpiece of a review or you look like a petty jerk.

Fundamentally, the problem is that there is not a lot of good infrastructure for arts critics.  Tu is not a good critic, had a poor choice of book to review, and was not able to sit among a few different voices giving different perspectives about Ramsey’s novel.

Not all of this criticism is on Tu.  Her novel might be really amazing.  If she were reviewing debut novels from other Asian-Australian writers, she might have had some really good insights worth reading.  But her review of Ramsey’s book is shitty and shit.  Again, we should be looking at ways to improve arts criticism in Australia so this problem doesn’t keep repeating.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

3 thoughts on “I’m looking and I’m dreaming for the first time… The art of the good review”

  1. OMG but you know, the NYT is filled to the brim of book reviews by authors who essentially pan their colleague’s novels in order to boost their own books. I have totally given up on reading NYT book reviews because of it. Frankly, I find them both dishonest and disingenuous. Sounds like this is what happened here. Another author saying “no, don’t read this… read at MY book instead.”

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