Skip to content

Literary bloodsport

Louis Nowra

Louis Nowra

If you haven’t seen it, make sure you check out Louis Nowra’s review of Bob Ellis’ latest, And So It Went: Night Thoughts In A Year Of Change, in yesterday’s ALR. Nowra’s criticism can be a bit up and down (though whose isn’t?) but this piece is pure gold, systematically, stylishly and very wittily dismantling not just the book, but Ellis himself, his immense self-importance, the disconnect between his supposed values and his personal behaviour, and perhaps most tellingly, the disproportionate relationship between his reputation and his actual achievements as a writer and public figure.

What will be most interesting though, is what Ellis decides to do about the piece. Ellis is, of course, the man who cost Random House more than a quarter of a million dollars by making untrue and extremely unsavoury claims about Tanya Costello, wife of the former Treasurer, Peter Costello. Whether that was an appropriate outcome or not is a matter for another time (you’d probably be unsurprised to learn that despite the recent changes I think Australia’s defamation laws still need further reform, and that large payouts are a totally inappropriate remedy) but what’s most notable about the case is that Ellis himself is not only utterly unrepentant about his actions, but has actually repeated the smear in at least one public forum I’ve attended (thereby exposing the organization involved to potential legal action, an act of gross irresponsibility in and of itself).

I’m not sure the Nowra piece is actually defamatory, and I’ve no doubt News Ltd’s lawyers have picked over it pretty carefully (which raises the amusing question of what, if anything, was taken out) but it comes pretty close, which means Ellis could, at least in principle, sue Nowra and News Ltd. Would he do it? Obviously I don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to assume anything, but I’d have to say that ironic as such an outcome might be, it wouldn’t seem entirely out of character, not least because Ellis so often seems to exist in a parallel universe in which all roads lead, inevitably, to Bob.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. As if by magic, this just appeared in my inbox:

    June 4, 2009
  2. Wow. That really is a great review, much more substantial and interesting than the kind of pirouetting hatchet job that Ellis himself might have produced, except that I’ve never seen Nowra do that.

    I’ve been a fan of Nowra’s ever since I read Inner Voices in the 1980s and a skeptic about Ellis ever since I read the Wililamson v. Ellis stoush in Days of Wine and Rage, having followed some of it as it unfolded in the Nation Review, and this review has reinforced, yet again, both opinions.

    I think Ellis’s reputation dates from those 1970s days, when he was part of the Nation Review phenomenon (with Leunig and Patrick Cook and Mungo McCallum and all the other luminaries and models for those of us still in our teens), and has endured because of the capacity for hyper-writerly sentences of the kind that Nowra talks about. I’ve got friends who talk fondly about him as though that had all happened yesterday.

    June 4, 2009
  3. For someone who’s claiming to be sick, but has produced two posts of their own and a comment here, you’re not doing badly, Kerryn.

    But I’m interested by what you say about people talking about Ellis in the 1970s as if it was yesterday. I’ve always been aware of the way the people who were close to Patrick White speak about him as if he’d just stepped out of the room, and always, always refer to him as “Patrick”, as if he were someone not just alive, but who you both know well.

    June 4, 2009
  4. Stephen Romei has posted a long response to Louis Nowra’s review by Bob Ellis on the ALR website which declares, amongst other things, that he would never sue Nowra. For those who want to read it, it’s at,25197,25542115-25132,00.html#end

    June 4, 2009
  5. Its an unpleasant review, one that makes me revise my opinion, not of Ellis, but of Nowra.

    Its hardly news to point out that Ellis is a buffoon. That is is whole persona. His best character is always himself, a sort of provincial Ubu Roi, casting about hopelessly, ingesting the world.

    Its true, as Pavlov’s Cat says, that he is a figure from another time, and i was one of those teenagers who read him, and about him, in Nation Review. It all seems rather dated now, but given what became of Australian political culture, maybe not such a bad time after all.

    But this for some is Ellis’ unforgivable crime: he is a writer of and about political culture. He is a constant reminder that Australia only ever had one great political culture — that of the Australian Labor Party.

    For all his flaws — flaws Ellis himself constantly magnifies like a broken beer bottle — Ellis evokes a whole ethos. Its something no Tory writer has ever succeeded in doing in Australia.

    Having failed to understand what Ellis has actually achieved, one concludes reluctantly that Nowra has failed to mark the passage of his own achievement as a writer relative to it. Its a missed opportunity for a writer to understand something of himself relative to someone so palpably different. He cut Ellis down to size by making himself smaller still.

    June 4, 2009
  6. “But this for some is Ellis’ unforgivable crime: he is a writer of and about political culture.”

    To me at least, Ken, that is actually his main redeeming feature.

    June 5, 2009
  7. “Its hardly news to point out that Ellis is a buffoon. That is the whole persona.”
    Indeed! I don’t understand Louis Nowra’s motivation here. It feels personal — clearly not the young writer fighting to make room for himself, then what? Spite?

    June 5, 2009
  8. Jeremy Rice #

    Links led me from your blog to James Wolcott’s ‘hatchet job’ in The New Republic on Jonathon Franzen’s book of essays. I admit I didn’t enjoy The Corrections at all and resented its success so I was looking forward to Wolcott’s venom. And Wolcott’s piece is much better than Nowra’s – it’s an extremely detailed analysis of what Franzen has written. Nowra’s review, except for the poetry, is all assertion. Also, Wolcott places Franzen’s work in context. He explains a bit about why it has been so successful. The interesting point about Ellis, the one Nowra should have but fails to address, is why he has a public profile? Why do his books keep getting published, why is he invited onto Q&A?

    June 5, 2009
  9. They’re all good questions. And I know Wolcott’s work, but I can’t seem to track down the review of Franzen’s memoir (a book I also thought deeply problematic (though I remain an admirer of The Corrections and Franzen’s non-fiction in general) you mention (the TNR site keeps telling me it’s not there). Do you have a link to it?

    June 8, 2009
  10. Jeremy Rice #

    This is the Wolcott review, reproduced on Powell’s Books:

    June 8, 2009
  11. Jeremy Rice #

    I googled “Dale Peck” after reading your second Literary bloodsport post and read this NY Times article:

    The Takedown Artist
    By James Atlas
    Published: Sunday, October 26, 2003

    The article mentions Wolcott:

    “[Peck’s] angry tone fit the tone of the New Republic’s back pages, from which the leonine-maned Wieseltier presides over a stable of famously hotheaded critics. Every few months he’ll let one go for the jugular: Wood on Don DeLillo, Helen Vendler on David Denby, James Wolcott on Jonathan Franzen.”

    And, not liking The Corrections, I googled for the review, found at Powell’s Books online:

    June 8, 2009
  12. Adam G #

    Well, what an interesting thread.

    I once reviewed a Louis Nowra play (was it ‘Summer of the Aliens’?) and if memory serves said he often “writes with a brick dipped in ink”. I don’t rescind that after reading his article, although it seems the brick is now covered in Bob Ellis’ blood. And matted, disheveled, 70-year old hair.

    The thing that is most interesting from my current (Caifornian) point of view is how little the rest of the world cares about either of them. So squabble on, lads.

    Jonathan Franzen, on the other hand, is a lion; ‘The Corrections’ is genius. And if you disagree, I’ll hit you with a brick.

    June 11, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s