James Ley
James Ley

On The Conversation recently, professor of writing at UTS John Dale and Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose exchanged verbal blows over the state of literary criticism in Australia. Dale neatly summarised their respective positions in a third piece, with these two representative quotes:

Dale: "There are exceptions of course, reviewers who understand the complexities of constructing and analysing fiction and non-fiction. It is generally acknowledged, however, that the standard of book reviewing in Australia is poor. Certainly there is no antipodean James Wood."

Rose: "What an insult to the countless fine critics in this country who produce artful, learned, responsible critiques. What an underestimation of the intellectual goodwill that sustains our literary culture."

Even more recently in The Australian, author Sonya Harnett lobbed this grenade into the literary salon: "You don't spend two years of your life on something to have it reviewed by someone who is not particularly professional — a professional shouldn't be reviewed by a non-professional."

In his original article on The Conversation, Rose supported his argument by naming a number of exemplary Australian critics including Geordie Williamson, James Bradley, Delia Falconer and the winner of this year's $15,000 Pascall Prize for Criticism, James Ley.

Ley, who edits the online journal The Sydney Review of Books and who will be a guest at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival (August 21-31), recently published a collection of essays devoted to six great literary critics of the past.

As its back-cover blurb says, The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood "considers how these representative critics have constructed their public personae, the kinds of arguments they have used, and their core principles and philosophies".

I've always admired Samuel Johnson's classical constructions and William Hazlitt's pugilistic performances while cherry-picking from the writings of Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling, and reading as much criticism by the only living critic in the collection, James Wood, as I can lay my hands on. But it hadn't occurred to me to think of them as "symbols" and as men who have "with varying degrees of self-consciousness . . . built themselves a rhetorical platform and presented themselves as public targets".

"All the figures in the book were chosen because they had strong personas," Ley says. "All set themselves up in certain ways to become focal points, around which arguments could coalesce. That's why they're important critics. They clarify certain arguments by taking a stand. And in doing that they embody certain arguments; they become symbolic figures. Arnold is the classic case: he's almost purely symbolic now; nobody actually reads him."

This is interesting and valid as the core business of the collection as a whole. But I found Ley's opinions on the state of reviewing today equally interesting.

"One of the things I tried to say in the introduction is we can't take certain boundaries for granted anymore," he says. "(The proliferation of 'citizen reviewing') doesn't eliminate the need for criticism. What it does do is make it harder for individual voices, and for criticism that is perhaps a bit more reflective and complex, to cut through. I don't think it changes the substance of what a good piece of critical writing can and should do. It just changes the environment. It raises the stakes."

Ley is an incisive, perspicacious and tough-minded critic with one eye on the gallery and the other on the academy. As he wrote last year, "The reason so much of the present glut of literary commentary is unworthy of the name criticism is that it takes the form of assertion rather than analysis. It shrinks the expansive notion of judgment to mere personal evaluation."

"My view is criticism is to do with the intellectual engagement with the work," he tells me. "A lot of what passes for reviewing takes the form of 'Here's this book, here's what it's about, I liked it/I didn't like it'. Nothing wrong with that. But there's no particular reason why anybody should care whether or not you liked something.

"In that sense criticism has to be working on a slightly different level. Explicate some of the book's themes in an intelligent and accessible way. So we've now got a multitude of voices, which is fine and good, but a lot of the substance of what's being said isn't of any particular interest."

What do you think? Drop me a line at william.yeoman@wanews.com.au and we'll publish some of your responses.

For more book reviews and author profiles, visit thewest.com.au/books.

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