Australian Book Review

January/February 2018

The Australian Book Review has entered its fortieth year. I’ve been a subscriber for the last ten of those – since I was getting to the end of my M.Litt and was looking for a way to stay plugged in to Australian writing – but this will be my last year. Lisa at ANZLitLovers has been telling me for ages that she feels that ABR has drifted away from Aust.Lit and out into the wider world, which is much better covered by other publications, and now at last I agree with her.

For most of those ten years and no doubt for the thirty prior the ABR has done its job. A wide range of new Australian books have been reviewed by leading writers and experts in their field – and I think here in particular of regular contributor Neil Blewett, a senior minister in the Hawke and Keating governments – there are annual poetry, short story and essay competitions, visual arts editions and so on. And of course there is a website, which I don’t usually look at.

Once upon a time I would go straight to Letters to the Editor where there would nearly always be at least one author complaining bitterly about their review and the reviewer, always given right of reply, biting back. This has been less the case over the past two or three years and in this issue there are no letters at all as far as I can see.

As for new releases, over the years I have been introduced to some marvellous novels that I would otherwise have missed but again, less so in the past couple of years, partly of course because I follow lit.bloggers who post two, three four times a week and keep us all pretty well up to date.

Let us look more closely at the Jan-Feb 2018 issue pictured above. It begins with half a dozen pages of bits and pieces, ads and self-promotion, rather like an old newspaper beginning with the classifieds. The first review, the ‘Review of the Month’ is of Alexis Wright’s Tracker – her 650pp collage/biog. of Tracker Tilmouth – by Michael Winkler. It’s a cracker and ends –

Wright’s brace of ineffable, awkward, uncanny novels (Carpentaria, The Swan Book) will be unravelled and enjoyed by readers when other contemporary fiction is forgotten. Tracker, a book performed by a folk ensemble rather than a solo virtuoso, adds to her enduring non-fiction oeuvre that captures the unique ground-level realpolitik of Aboriginal Australia.

Then we have reviews of The Cold War: A World History by a Norwegian professor at Harvard; The Pivot of Power on Australian prime ministers 1949-2016; Chris Masters on Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan (not my cup of tea!); A New Literary History of China (reviewed by Nicholas Jose); David Malouf and the Poetic; and the next highlight, although it’s not Australian, Brenda Niall on Claire Tomalin’s memoir, A Life of My Own. Our own Michelle Scott Tucker and Nathan Hobby have distinguished careers in front of them if they follow Tomalin’s path: “Tomalin was forty when she wrote her first book, a life of Mary Wollstonecraft, in which she had an almost unexplored field.” Though her subsequent biographies on “Shelley, Austen, Pepys, Hardy and Dickens” might prove a tough act to follow!

After that were reviews of (tv journalist) Mike Willesee’s memoir; something about a French restaurant in America; Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown’s diary; yet another David Attenborough; a novel about a character out of Henry James (reviewed by Brenda Niall); something, something a character out of King Lear. I’m barely even reading the headings at this point; The Best Australian Stories 2017 edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke; All My Goodbyes from Argentina; a few pages of fill – Australian publishers pick their favourite book of 2017.

By now we’re at the middle, I can see the staples, and a review of (Victorian Governor) La Trobe which makes me hopeful; but we go right back to Hilary Spurling on Anthony Powell (who?); the “Right’s stealth plan for America”; Richard Nixon: The Life !!!!; a book on philosopher Derek Parfit, edited by Peter Singer; a biography of Czeslaw Milosz; a few pages of poetry; it just goes on and on, occasional Australian novels, the story of a cricket photographer; a few pages on The Arts. The ABR is a magazine entirely without direction.

I sometimes muse while I work – truck driving is a great job for musing – about an Australian lit.mag of my own. Our own really, as the AWW Gen 1 page demonstrated, with 14 articles by nine contributors in little more than a week. Of course this is at least partly a solution looking for a problem. There isn’t a lot wrong with our current model of writing what interests us and following and interacting with bloggers with similar interests. And all though we sometimes deny it, we also tend to write and therefore read, in order to interest others, to keep our readerships happy.

I get great joy from my participation in this corner of the blogosphere, but it, so far anyway, has shortfalls in two areas:

Reading top flight Australian authors on other top flight Australian authors – which the ABR at least sometimes fills; and

Discussion of Australian literary theory – which the ABR ignores.

I could probably deal with the latter by subscribing to one or more journals, google suggests the Australian Literary Studies Journal (here). For the former there is apparently the Australian, but the Murdoch press is so virulently anti-worker that I refuse to have anything to do with it. My own local paper the West Australian which I sometimes still buy on Saturdays, reviews only page turners.

Of course, I don’t have time to collate a magazine and anyway it wouldn’t make sense unless it somehow achieved a readership way beyond the few thousand who follow Whispering Gums and ANZLitLovers, envy-inducing as that is. I don’t know what ABR’s readership is, it doesn’t appear in Gary Morgan’s annual readership survey, but 30,000 maybe? That was the readership of Truck & Bus Magazine in its heyday. Soap World, whatever that is, has a readership of 40,000 and Readers Digest (Australia) 436,000, so if I ever retire that’s what I’ll aim for.


Update: Miles Franklin page

Review by Emma, Book Around the Corner of My Brilliant Career  here

Update: Australian Women Writers Gen 1 page

Reviews by Lisa, ANZLitLovers of:
Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 here
Bronwen Hickman, Mary Gaunt: Independent Colonial Woman here

Sue, Whispering Gums posted three consecutive ‘Monday Musings’ on early Australian women writers:
Literary Culture in Colonial Australia, 22 Jan 2018 here
Reading Aloud in Colonial Australia, 29 Jan 2018 here
Women Academics on Colonial Women Writers, 5 Feb 2018 here

22 thoughts on “Australian Book Review

  1. Thanks for the links, Bill. A shame about ABR. It would be interesting to know why they’ve been making this change and what impact it’s had on readership. You’d have to think they’ve done some market research? But I think it’s a shame to dilute the Aussie content.


  2. *chuckle* O dear, my name will be mud with the literati now!
    But yes, you are so right. They’re not an *Australian* Book Review unless you count providing paying opportunities for Australian reviewers to review US and UK books, and the space that’s filled with those and with reviews of the Sydney Arts Scene (what’s all that about, in a *Book* Review journal?) is excluding reviews of OzLit, of which there is far too little. Far too little. So yes, I gave up my subs and I don’t miss it.
    There’s not much in The Oz either, (which is only in our house on Saturdays, and then only for the Review) and while there is a case to be made for it to review O/S books, sometimes it’s dominated by books from the US and the UK (often weighty political tomes) and I’m sure if I could be bothered keeping a record, there are some prominent new Oz releases that don’t get reviewed at all or only scantily.
    This week, however, is pretty good. There are three books about ocean issues (2 x Oz, one from the US); The Only Story by Julian Barnes (UK); *another one* of Sean Prescott’s The Town, this time much longer; 4 x Oz novels squashed into the equivalent of 2 columns (Soon by Lois Murphy, Rural Liberties by Neal Drinan; The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe and The Last Long Drop by Mike Safe.) There’s a poem, and Stephen Romei’s column which is sometimes interesting but not this week. There’s a review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, there’s one of Christopher Lawrence’s Symphony of Seduction, more than half of which is about Miriam Cosic’s experience of music and not about the book at all. Mark Dapin reviews Sydney Noir by Michael Duffy and Nick Hordern and then there are two more books from overseas.
    Now, while I appreciate the nice things you’ve said about my little blog, the fact is that Australia needs a stable of professional reviewers, not only with professional expertise but also, more crucially, more pens at the ready because there is a limit to how many books one person can read in good time.
    I suspect that what underlies the paucity of reviews of Australian books is snobbery and a fear of being thought provincial. Some years ago I was invited as part of the rent-a-crowd for the Vic Premier’s Awards and – expecting to have a lively conversation about the judges’ choices – I was startled to find that at my table of 12, I was not only the only one who had read all of the shortlisted fiction, but also the only one who’d read any Australian fiction that year. And a *very* prominent person in the paid-organiser City of Lit stable told me at the Miles Franklin awards one year that he never read OzLit because it wasn’t any good. How would he know?
    So we have a problem. The space for paid reviewers has largely collapsed, leaving the field to amateurs. The Stella crowd carry on with their stats about the lack of reviews for women writers without seeming to grasp that print reviews are increasingly irrelevant, that’s not where it’s at any more. The model is broken…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t mean to make your name mud! Though what Peter Rose is up to I can’t imagine. Perhaps the patrons – and the advertisers, and the Arts Commission – are paying all the bills and what you and I think doesn’t matter. But the fact remains that as you say Oz Lit is not being taken seriously and the attitude of the ABR doesn’t help.


      • You know you’ve not obscure! Sister in law M has just given me the programme for Perth Writers Week headlined by Kim Scott and Helen Garner: Can we write in Aust and is it worth it? How sad that the question even has to be asked.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was a print journalist for 20 years and only escaped a few years ago. I suspect the changes will largely come down to resources: magazines are run on shoestring budgets with fewer and fewer staff. Their content may, in fact, be dictated by the advertising in it. It seems to me that most of the great literary fiction coming out of Oz these days is by independent presses and they won’t have the money to advertise. Once upon a time advertising and editorial were kept completely separate to avoid interference in content, but all the rules went out the window when print advertising dried up. I also suspect they don’t pay reviewers very well… and sometimes you simply get what you pay for…monkeys, peanuts… you get my drift


    • Want we want and we got throughout the C20th were big budget newspapers and magazines, which we now discover were paid for by advertising (and yes I was involved in getting companies to “take” pages in student and other mag.s, so I knew they weren’t free). And clearly as the resources of these newspapers and magazines drop off, so does their readership. So how do we get back to the big budget, well-resource model? It would seem to me that one answer might be to change the copyright laws so that Google and Facebook have to pay the producer for their content. A second answer, which investigative reporter Michael West is attempting, is to start from scratch and to rebuild income sources – advertisers and subscribers – from the ground up. I think it’s going to be a long journey.


      • We will never get back to that big well resourced model. The market is now too diverse, too thinly spread out and, thanks to the internet, everyone wants things for free and won’t pay for it. I realised that in 2006, when the magazine I worked for started to lose revenue. Back then we would produce 144 page issues EVERY week. Today the mag is lucky to be half that size and the circulation is dwindling in the low 20s (it was 75K a week when I was on it). Mind you, it took me 10 years to escape and I lost my job twice. But I do think it is wishful thinking to expect print media to go back to those days. The boom (the 1990s) is long over.


      • I could be happy with all digital newspapers and magazines but how are we to pay the writers and photographers and film makers while Google and Facebook hoover up all the income on the back of other peoples content? I hope someone brighter than me is thinking up a way!


  4. Such changes in print media in the last decade or so… I’m sure it will find its feet again, find a way to deliver that satisfies its audience. I think of magazines such as Frankie which have carved a very nice niche for themselves. When it comes to reading about books, you’d think you’d have a willing audience (half the battle is won, after all!) but I do think that blogs (and to a lesser extent, podcasts) have filled my need for the latest bookish news. I do love to read reviews written by authors and will continue to seek those wherever they may be published but as it currently stands, my favourite bookish print publication is the Readings Monthly. Yes, they have a commercial interest (!) but the newspaper also has great, engaging reviews.


      • Ha! I think WordPress are winning the blogging race 🙂

        Readings mails you a monthly newspaper free-of-charge. Yes, you can just as easily read the bulk of it in their website/ blog but it’s not as satisfying as sitting down with the newspaper and a pen and circling all the books you want.


      • WordPress seem to be the most popular, but things change so quickly. I got into computing when IBM were king, Microsoft were an IBM subcontractor and we rented individual landlines from Telstra to link everything up. Right now we put a lot of trust in WordPress being there forever.
        Meanwhile, it sounds like that Readings mag is a big part of your TBR problem!


  5. I’ve found ABR to be very good, but I haven’t been reading it as long as you have to compare. Like you, I would like to see more Australian books reviewed, but am happy for a proportion to be international. Some very fine reviewers in its pages, and I appreciate the space it gives to biographers. Claire Tomalin (my favourite biographer) is an inspiration!


    • Brenda Niall on Claire Tomalin would be top-flight wherever it appeared. A couple of articles were genuinely World Lit, but the bulk of the remainder were second rate US and Aust Lit. I mean, the Cold War and Richard Nixon for heavens sake!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It would drive me insane to have a book review magazine that allowed authors to write in and complain about reviews of their books. I’ve read so much about how damaging it is for authors to jump into conversations about them that don’t include them. If someone writes a terrible review, chances are that another reader will jump in and defend the book, which has more merit than the author trying to do the same thing. I’m surprised the magazine doesn’t begin with a letter from the editor that explains the direction of the magazine. The American Book Review has a theme for each magazine. Several books that fit the theme are reviewed, someone writes a critical essay about the theme, and the the rest of the magazine is all book reviews of various works.


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