Critics: Be nice, or get the knives out?


Recently I discovered a new website–one that, as a diehard fan of the printed word, has me salivating. It’s the Sydney Review of Books and it may be the reason why Not Much Gets Done in my little corner of the world for the next few weeks.

My attention was drawn to the Brain Feign in particular, mostly because at the moment I am reading All That I Am, the book Ben Etherington takes the hatchet to in this article. I have been reading the novel for some time now; last year it was on the bus to or from work, and more recently I’ve tried to fit it in where I can. (I try very hard to make time for reading; this is much easier on some days than others.) It’s not a difficult book by any means, and yet I am not drawn to it–it hasn’t grabbed me in the way that, to give two recent examples, 1Q84 or HHhH did. I am not going to suggest that Ben Etherington has given me permission to abandon the book, but his article makes some very interesting points about the nature of criticism in Australia at the moment.

His chief argument is that Anna Funder has received a pretty cruisy time in the review pages for her first novel (and second book). Many of the reviews published of All That I Am seem to come from a position of adoration–fuelled in some cases by cosy interviews with the author, so that quotes from her appear alongside the commentary on her novel. Etherington mounts an informed and reasonably forensic critique of the novel and his reasoning is difficult to fault. When I shared his article on Facebook yesterday I noted two things–I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to finish the book (I probably will) and I wasn’t sure where his article left the Miles Franklin award, which Funder won for this novel. This has been controversial in some areas, as the book is only tangentially connected to Australia. Very quickly, if you haven’t read it, the narrative is split between two characters, Ruth and Toller, who are both reflecting on their role in trying to warn people about what was happening in Germany immediately after the election of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Ruth, her husband Hans and cousin Dora end up in London exile; Toller is reflecting on his role from exile in New York. (Ruth’s memories are coming from her old age in a Bondi nursing home, hence the rather flimsy Australian connection). I won’t go into Etherington’s reasons for not liking the book–you can read them in his article and I probably wouldn’t do them justice. Suffice to say, he doesn’t like the book–and not one adverse review of it has appeared in the media here.

Etherington’s wider arguments go to the role of criticism in our literary culture. One might reasonably ask–have we become Too Nice? Possibly. Arguably, and this is my phrase, we have developed a Cult of Corroboration in recent years; we are prepared simply to go with the flow rather than entertain any notion of being provocative. In retrospect, a review of Funder’s book before it won the Miles Franklin which highlighted the flaws that Etherington identifies would have been provocative. For some reason, genuine critique of this book has been off-limits, and I have no idea why–it’s clearly not perfect, if there is such a thing as the perfect novel. I won’t for a moment suggest that anyone has gone easy on Anna Funder because she’s a woman, and an attractive one at that. Rather, if had I to offer a reason, I would offer two: All That I Am treads very similar territory to Funder’s first non-fiction book, Stasiland, which I have not read; and secondly, it might be possible that people are squeamish about criticising a book about Nazi Germany, perhaps the single biggest Evil Trope of the twentieth century.

As someone with ambitions to win one one day, I am more concerned about the Miles Franklin Award. Literary awards are controversial; I think Patrick White referred to the Franklin in the 1970s as a chook raffle. I will state that Funder’s novel is well written–the language is beautiful and the characters are interesting, and certainly considerable gravity in the situation they are in; the stakes are very high indeed, and this keeps one turning the pages. But as I stated, it is only notionally connected with Australia and on one level really has nothing to with the country at all; and, as I’ve explained, it has not been subjected (until now) to any meaningful critical rigour.  So, in all honesty, I am not sure why it won. Controversy can be healthy, and debates should be had about whether a book should be eligible for the most prestigious literary award in the country if it only just meets the criteria, and if everyone who has read it has been Awfully Jolly Nice about it.

However, I don’t think Australian literature–yes folks, there is such a thing, I checked–is served very well by this. We need critical rigour: I would be happier to hear a range of views about a book I wanted to read–or even about my own books–rather than uniformly positive or negative ones. Integrity should not be a dirty word in the review pages of our country’s literary journals.


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