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
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