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Posts from the ‘Media’ Category

Literary Bloodsport Part 2: The Lure of the Hatchet Job

hatchetEarlier today I linked to Louis Nowra’s devastating and very funny review of Bob Ellis’ And So It Went: Night Thoughts In A Year Of Change. As my post probably made clear, I’m no fan of Ellis myself, so Nowra was really preaching to the converted, but it got me wondering what other people think about this sort of literary bloodsport. As spectator sports go literary hatchet jobs are up there with cage-fighting, but are they actually a good thing?

For what it’s worth, I think the brutal review is usually a young person’s vice. In my early days as a reviewer I wrote more than one review I still wake in the night feeling sick about (Victor Kelleher and Justin D’Ath, wherever you are, I’m sorry). And I’m not alone in this view. Martin Amis, who in his early years as a writer carved out a career as one of the most terrifying literary hitmen of all time, has observed, “[e]njoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember”.

I’m aware, as I write this, that this question blurs into a related one, about what constitutes good reviewing, and what exactly constitutes the right balance between emphasizing the positive and pointing out the faults in a given book, but I don’t think that’s quite what I’m talking about here. There’s a difference between stringent criticism and even a really bad review, and the deliberate attempt to destroy a book or a reputation people such as Dale Peck have made into an art form. And I think there’s also a difference between the deliberately mean-spirited criticism of someone like Lionel Shriver and the energy and excitement that makes a really good hatchet job sing.

My own feelings on the matter are complicated. If nothing else the world is a livelier and more exciting place for a bit of biff. And like any writer I’ve got a few contemporaries I think are frauds or shits (not many, I hasten to say, but definitely a few) and seeing them get a dose always gives me a nasty little thrill. And a really considered hatchet job, like Nowra’s of Ellis, Brian Dillon’s of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, or John Banville’s of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (or indeed almost anything by Dale Peck) is a thing of beauty in its own right. But as a writer I’m also aware of just how awful it is to be on the receiving end of bad reviews (or indeed really nasty blog comments), and not just because I know how hard it is to write any book, good or bad, but because I know how incredibly exposed and vulnerable you make yourself by putting yourself and your work out in the world, and how hard it is for those who don’t do it to relate to that vulnerability.

Perhaps in this context it’s worth returning to Amis. His line about how hard people try and how long they remember is justly famous, but what’s less well-known is what comes after it. “Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age,” he says, before going on to ask why this spectacle seems so undignified, and answering his own question with the observation that it’s because it’s mutton dressed as lamb. But it’s what he says next that’s really important, when he says that looking back, “I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Mailer, Roth, Ballard”.

What Amis is really talking about is the essentially Oedipal anxiety of influence every writer feels. But he is also drawing our attention to the need for the new to make space for itself. And as he rightly discerns, much of his brilliant, incendiary early criticism (and indeed that of Julian Barnes) was about killing the old lions so they could take over the pride.

I think it’s fair to say that slightly uneasy need to make space for oneself is what drives a lot of really brutal reviewing, especially by younger critics. Certainly one detects more than a touch of the disillusioned disciple in James Wood’s attacks upon the late John Updike. But unlike really brutal reviews of younger writers, which can destroy careers (or even, I suspect, lives) these sorts of reviews serve an important function. There’s a real tendency for established writers to become unassailable, their books lauded no matter what their flaws. One example might be the rise and rise of Peter Carey’s international reputation since the publication of True History of the Kelly Gang, a rise which seems to have been in inverse proportion to the rapidly declining quality of the books themselves. But it’s even more pronounced in the case of writers such as Delillo, who occupy the literary stratosphere. In their case it can be difficult to find ways of saying their new work is not up to scratch, and not just because of the weight of their reputation. Instead a sort of feedback loop begins to exist, a circular argument which declares that the new Delillo (for instance) must be good because Delillo has become one of our models of great writing, and his writing is, therefore, necessarily, great writing.

In this context the hatchet job is important because it helps break that loop, and demand we step back, look again, and ask ourselves what we’re really seeing. And that process isn’t always destructive, not just because the body of work behind such writers is usually robust enough to withstand that sort of assessment, but because a more nuanced eye is likely to reveal things our earlier assumptions were obscuring.

But enough about me. What do others out there think?

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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.

Dispatches from the future?

punch1Two signs of the changing mediascape went live today. The first is News Ltd’s new online venture The Punch, which is being headed by ex-Daily Telegraph editor, David Penberthy. Obviously it’s early days, but the site aims rapid-response news and opinion, with an emphasis upon debate and conversation (you can read Penberthy’s launch post here).

Thus far the venture’s mostly been notable for its efforts to secure contributors prepared to work for free, which given the thing’s being backed by News Ltd, who presumably have a business plan which involves monetizing the whole thing as quickly as possible, seems a bit cheeky, to say the least (Guy Rundle has a few things to say on this point in today’s Crikey!).

That said, it’s an interesting venture, not least because of the choice of Penberthy as Editor. Whatever you think of Penberthy’s politics or his whole man-of-the-people schtick, the guy’s smart, he can write and when he’s not trying too hard he’s bloody funny. And while I’m constitutionally suspicious of the sort of issue-by-issue championing of “common sense” papers like the Tele trade in, it’s manifestly clear he’s got a genuine gift for that curious combination of democratic levelling and ratbaggery that distinguishes the best tabloid journalism (this is the guy who sent a muzzle to Germaine Greer, after all).

More interestingly though, his time at the Tele was notable for his determination to open the paper up to its readers. As Editor he exposed himself to readers through regular liveblogging, and during the last Federal election campaign he sought and – more importantly – responded to feedback from readers about the campaign and his paper’s coverage of it. And more broadly, he oversaw the expansion of the Tele’s online presence and its energetic culture of discussion and debate (a culture which strays into uncomfortably racist territory from time to time, but which is notable for its energy nonetheless).

So, how does The Punch look? I’ve not had time to dig too deep, but it’s definitely an intriguing creation. The first thing is to say that I’m not keen on the blog-based layout, since it makes the process of checking out new content pretty labour-intensive. And it seems a pity a site which wants “to encourage a civil and illuminating standard of debate” begins by declaring “[i]t’s not a fancy, la-di-dah site aimed at people with three university degrees” (though even as I type that I can’t believe I’m allowing myself to rise to that particular bait). Oh, and there’s so much content just keeping up with what’s new looks like a full-time job. But all that said, it’s energetic and full of potential, and perhaps most importantly, it represents a genuine attempt on the part of News Ltd to try and rethink what they might be doing in the online environment. Maybe they could put some money into one aimed at us la-di-dah types next.

Meanwhile, Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research has announced it is establishing The Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, a not-for-profit foundation intended to explore new models for investigative journalism:

“The foundation will support investigative, interactive journalism while exploring ways of making good journalism sustainable in the new media age.

“It will fund worthy journalism projects initiated by either members of the public or practising journalists, and is likely to incorporate approaches from similar projects overseas, such as

“Projects will be assessed on their capacity to serve the public interest, with priority given to issues that are under-reported by the traditional media (read more).”

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A quick mea culpa

In my post yesterday about the new look Meanjin and the Meanjin blog I omitted to mention the excellent work Jeff Sparrow and his team have been doing at Overland. It wasn’t a deliberate omission, but it was pretty remiss of me, not least because Overland began exploring the possibilities of the online environment more than a decade ago with Overland Express. That said, are there other sites I’ve forgotten? If there are please let me know.

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Meanjin: signal from noise?

MeanjinAfter the acrimony surrounding the absorption of Meanjin into MUP, and the departure of former editor Ian Britain, one could have been forgiven for thinking Sophie Cunningham had accepted a poisoned chalice when she took over as editor last year. I’m not sure anyone would think that now: despite a mildly controversial redesign the magazine seems to have gone from strength to strength under her editorship, a process which is clearly visible in the Winter issue (2/2008) which was launched at Sydney Writers’ Festival last week and features Ross Gibson’s quietly brilliant piece on William Dawes and Patyegarang, Katherine Wilson on the hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle and an interview with Christos Tsiolkas.

I’m obviously not an unbiased reader – I’ve known Sophie for a long time, and she’s published a couple of pieces by me in the new-look magazine – but what I find exciting about her version of Meanjin is its determination to drag the literary magazine into the 21st century. In doing that she’s obviously drawn inspiration from American magazines like McSweeney’s which have embraced the possibilities of advances in publishing technology to create magazines which reflect the omnivorousness of their interests in their physical form, and which are prepared to explore the possibilities opened up by zines and graphic forms such as comics. But she’s also clearly put a lot of effort into trying to reimagine the sort of writing one might find in a magazine such as Meanjin by including more life writing and memoir and commissioning pieces on television and broader questions about digital copyright and new media.

All of which brings us to the Meanjin blog, Spike, which has been going from strength to strength over recent weeks. Although News Ltd are about to launch some kind of new media venture under the stewardship of former Daily Telegraph Editor, David Penberthy, Australian media has handled the transition to digital strikingly badly. In contrast to newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times, which have devoted considerable time and energy to developing digital incarnations that embrace the possibilities of the medium by incorporating high-quality blogging and high levels of interactivity, the online versions of our newspapers are largely content to simply replicate their print versions online, albeit in a stripped back and dumbed down form.

This contrast is particularly acute in the context of the cultural pages of Australian newspapers and magazines, through which you can almost hear the tumbleweed blowing. Rather than using the cost pressures upon the print versions of these sections as an excuse to build more sophisticated online presences, Australian newspapers have been progressively scaling back their cultural content online.

Nor – although it must be said this is largely a matter of economics – have our literary magazines embraced the possibilities of digital publishing. There are some notable exceptions out in the blogosphere, where outfits like Larvatus Prodeo have found niches and occupied them with varying degrees of success. And in a slightly more formal context Inside Story is doing some good work, and The Monthly has set up its subscription-based Slow TV. But in general it’s fair to say that most of what’s out there is being done on the sniff of an oily rag by individual bloggers.

That alone would be reason to make Spike – which is already drawing on a pretty wide pool of contributors and producing the sort of steady stream of good material that makes individual bloggers like myself feel exhausted every time we look at it – stand out from the crowd. But what’s more interesting about it is the fact that rather than devoting their resources to reproducing the content from the print version of the magazine online, Meanjin has decided to create a separate entity which complements and extends the print version of the magazine by providing content specifically created for an online environment.

All of which makes the redesign of the physical magazine, and its preparedness to rethink how the medium might affect the message seem less about simply taking design cues from elsewhere and more about a really serious strategy to find a model which might contain good writing across a variety of media (a project that’s also visible in Sophie and the magazine’s enthusiastic and highly successful embrace of the possibilities of Twitter).

In and of itself the successful implementation of such a strategy would be interesting, but I suspect the current convulsions in the media landscape give it increasing urgency. As the newspapers stumble dinosaur-like towards their inevitable oblivion, the question of where the Australian cultural and literary conversation will occur is sharpening, and I’d have to say that at this point the forums aren’t exactly thick on the ground. I can name a slew of American sites such as The Second Pass, Salon, BookForum or The Millions, all of which offer access to writing about books and ideas of a very high standard, and which, to a greater or lesser degree, embrace the possibilities of the internet as a medium. By contrast, there are almost no Australian sites offering anything of the sort, nor – at least without considerable private or institutional backing – does it seem likely there will be any time soon.

I suspect some people will accuse me of cultural nationalism, but they’d be mistaken. All I’m saying is that it’s vital small countries, and in particular anglophone small countries with a long history as importers of culture, possess forums in which ideas and issues be discussed in context. Because without them we’ll be condemned to listening to other people’s conversations, without ever being able to have our own.

All of which makes the Meanjin experiment as important as it is interesting. Because while Meanjin isn’t going to be The Sydney Morning Herald of the future, I do think in it, and in Spike, it’s possible to see a model which suggests it is possible to mark out space for the Australian cultural conversation online without being either stuffy or parochial. And that’s something that really, really matters.

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The Second Pass


Image by Richard Eriksson

A while back, I was musing about the future of the book review in an online world, and whether as the print forums for reviewing folded, we would see the rise of new, online forums. What I missed then was the launch of The Second Pass, a new and extremely impressive online book review which attempts to merge the best of the old with some of the new. As its editor, John Williams, explains in his Editor’s Note:

“There are many very good literary blogs out there (several of them can be found on our Links page). But most of these feature writing by one person (and perhaps an occasional guest), and, understandably, aren’t always updated daily, blogs being a full-time job for very few people. My occasional byline will be just one of many in the reviews sections: Circulating, which will review newly released titles; and The Backlist, which will focus on older, sometimes unfairly neglected books.

“The Blog will be updated several times every weekday. It will include, among other features, links to noteworthy reviews published elsewhere, great opening sentences, book covers both lovely and horrific, excerpts from books we admire, “anti-blurbs,” and roundups of what’s happening on other blogs.”

Meanwhile, for those of you after yet more writing about books, Critical Mass’ Rigoberto Gonzalez offers a list of eight blogs about books and writing he thinks are indispensable. Some, such as Maud Newton’s, are likely to be familiar, others, such as Ron Silliman’s, may be less so, but they’re all worth a look. And closer to home, Meanjin now has a blog.

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The future begins now: first Caprica reviews

capricaAlthough I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive, the first reviews of the DVD-release version of the Battlestar Galactica spin-off/prequel, Caprica, have begun to pop up around the traps.

Created by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, the driving forces behind the revisioned Battlestar Galactica, Caprica looks like being a very different creature from its parent, even as it explores similar – and similarly troubling – territory. Set 60 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, and starring the man with the charisma bypass, Eric Stoltz and Polly Walker, who lit up the screen as Rome’s scheming Atia, it focuses on the creation of the first Cylons (or the first non-Final Five, Earth that wasn’t Earth Cylons, but we won’t go there) and the lives of two families, the Greystones and the Adamas. Like the troubled Ian McShane vehicle, Kings (which has already been shifted to Saturday nights in the US, usually the prelude to a show being taken round the back and put out of its misery) it depicts a science fictional version of contemporary America, a place of almost unbridled wealth and decadence riven by religious extremism and the perils of technology. These are of course questions explored with great power and suggestiveness in Battlestar Galactica, but as the trailer below suggests, Caprica has ambitions to be more than a simple companion piece to its parent series, even as it draws on its aesthetic and mythology.

I’m sure more reviews will appear in coming days, but thus far the word is broadly positive, if not actually ecstatic. Wired’s Underwire gives it a 8 out of 10, suggesting it’s a little on the slow side but praising its intelligence and preparedness to tackle difficult issues. Wired‘s Geekdad is similarly positive, saying that while “it’s not the kind of action-packed, thrilling, anyone-really-could-die-at-any-moment kind of show Battlestar Galactica fans have been, well, fanatic about these past four seasons,” it is “a very good drama, with good science fiction thrown in”. Slashfilm goes further, saying it asks “some deep questions about the morality of creating artificial life,” adding that while “[i]t’s rare for a sci-fi show to attempt drama with very little action . . . it manages stay compelling without much reliance on ’splosions”. And io9’s resident smart cookie, Annalee Newitz, thinks it “works incredibly well, despite a few hiccups, helped along by some brilliant worldbuilding and terrific acting from stars Esai Morales and Eric Stoltz”.

Perhaps almost as interesting as the release itself is its nature. The version just released is not a pilot, but a special DVD-only movie release, complete with R-rating. And while the series itself is already in production, and is currently scheduled to screen in 2010, the version available now will not be seen on television. Instead the producers will reshape the television pilot (and presumably the series) on the basis of responses to the DVD version. Whether you see its release as a cynical cashing in on the gaping hole left in many fans’ lives by the end of Battlestar Galactica or an interesting use of the different delivery technologies is proably a matter of perspective.

Caprica is available from Amazon.

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Meditations in an Emergency: Some thoughts about Mad Men

mad-menWith two series already in the can in the US and a third well into production, AMC’s multi-award winning Mad Men finally makes it to Australian free-to-air tonight. And, to celebrate, the hype machine has been running hard for several weeks (I hope regular visitors are taking note of my restraint in not going on about the pathetic and disrespectful attitude of Australian networks towards their viewers, but I feel like a broken record on that score).

The most recent – and substantial – addition to the promotional material filling the newspapers is a long piece by Clive James in The Australian Magazine (and which is, I suspect, a repurposing of a piece he wrote for the TLS a while back). Sadly it isn’t online, but if you can lay your hands on the hard copy it’s well worth a look.

James’ piece is constructed around two points. The first is a desire to deconstruct the sociologial significance of “quality” (or what I’d call the “new”) television in general, and Mad Men in particular. James rightly points to the manner in which these shows have been embraced by audiences traditionally averse to what they perceive as the downmarket pleasures of television (and particularly American television).

It’s a point that’s been made before but it’s a valid one (that said, please, please check out Stuff White People Like’s take on The Wire and Mad Men). As James rightly observes, at least part of the appeal of shows such as Mad Men and The Sopranos is the reassuring sense that they are written and produced with the cognoscenti in mind, a feeling that is only reinforced by the fact that much of their success has been driven by DVD sales, which in Australia and the UK at least, suggest one is seeking one’s pleasures away from the great unwashed.

I think it would be naive to think television networks didn’t factor these sorts of considerations into the structuring of their programming. But James wants to tie this argument to a second argument about Mad Men in particular, which is that there is something essentially dishonest about the show itself. Like a number of other commentators in the UK, perhaps most notably Mark Greif, he believes the show trades in a sort of inverted nostalgia, in which contemporary vanities are flattered by the show’s careful airbrushing of the past:

“The media world we live in now has generated mad men, and it’s a high end product, with a sure sense the smart audience would rather find it than be hit over the head with it. Even when they are hit over the head with it by an adroit international campaign of promotion they are still convinced that they are finding it all by themselves. But what they are finding is another illusion, though a remarkable nuanced and fascinating one. The illusion is of a past where even the smartest people weren’t quite as smart as us. There is much talk in the press about how the secret of the show’s appeal lies in nostalgia – nostalgia for a time when a man was a man, a woman shaped like an hourglass had no ambition but to stay home and cook, and everyone smoked like a train, with not thought of ever hitting the buffers. But the show does better than that. It doesn’t make the mistake of presenting life on the avenue as a fairground. Indeed it’s a prison, and young Peggy will have to fight her way out.

“But nobody will think their way out, and the awkward truth is that a lot of them, in reality, were already thinking. They just hadn’t figured out what to do next, mainly because they were involved in a paradox: it was the wealth they produced that would give them the freedom to question their lives. Stuck with the same paradox, we revel in the opportunity to look back and patronise the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now.

Mad Men is a marketing campaign: what it sells is a sense of superiority, and it sells it brilliantly.”

While I suspect there’s something to be made of the markedly different responses the show elicits on opposite sides of the Atlantic, what’s interesting in James’ argument – and indeed in Greif’s – is the notion that Mad Men fails because it declines to do justice to the vigour and intelligence of the world it ostensibly inhabits. Both argue that its historical account of one of advertising’s most innovative periods is shortchanged by what James describes as its “lingering emphasis upon character”, a failing both also see as intrinsic to its appeal to elite tastes.

The problem with this analysis is that it fundamentally misunderstands the show. Mad Men is not a show about advertising any more than The Sopranos is a show about gangsters. One only has to watch the almost photo-realistic recreation of the fashion, architecture and even cinematography of the period to be reminded of the show’s fascination with surfaces, their ambiguity and, ultimately, their deceptiveness. Not for nothing, I suspect, does the show’s portrait of the 1960s often more closely resemble a film set of the period than the period itself. The stillness of the show, its refusal to spell out meanings, even its oddly static storylines all speak to its fascination with the mystery its characters’ inner lives offer not just to each other, but to themselves.

The mistake, it seems to me, is thinking that the drinking and smoking and sexual anxieties the show depicts in are its true point, when in fact the true point is the fragility of the world the characters inhabit. They might be the Masters of the Universe, but the universe they rule is one the viewer knows is about to be swept away. Not for nothing does the series move in fits and starts forward in time, jumping from 1960 in the first season to 1962 in the second, and on again in the third (this time to 1965 if reports from the set are to be believed) revealing each time the deepening cracks in the facade of the world it inhabits. Seen from this perspective there’s something of the memento mori in the way the characters live, oblivious of what lies just around the corner.

Indeed if the show is nostalgic at all, it’s nostalgic in a quite different way to the one James and Greif accuse it of being. Clive James may remember the early 1960s, but Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, who was born in 1965 does not, except in the way any of us who were born in the 1960s remember it, which is through the medium of our parents, and our memories of early childhood, childhoods that were lived against the backdrop of precisely the upheavals the action of Mad Men prefigures.

It’s usual, of course, to see the shadow of John Cheever and Richard Yates hanging over Mad Men, but I wonder whether it doesn’t owe more to novels such as Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. For in some powerful sense it is less about what we see and more about what we know is coming, and about trying to make sense, from the vantage point of the children who grew up in its aftermath, of the dislocation and confusion the 1960s and 1970s engendered.

The children of the 1960s – X-ers – are often accused of being judgemental, even priggish. But whether we are or not, I don’t think there’s anything priggish about Mad Men, nor even what Mark Grief acidly describes as the “whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good” that lies beneath the “Now We Know Better”. Instead there is a ruefulness, a sense of loss. As we watch the world begin to come apart at the seams, we cannot help but anticipate the damage these characters will do to one another in the years to come.

Admittedly this is less evident in the early episodes, which are rather too insistent in their foregrounding of the sexual politics (it’s actually the racial politics, which are largely unspoken, which are more disturbing, presumably precisely because they are pointed out to us less deliberately), and in the constant drinking and smoking. But it is very obvious by the final episodes of the second season, in which Don vanishes to California, and into a sort of Paul Bowlesian fantasy of freedom, and in the deeply uncertain tone of the season’s wonderful finale, ‘Meditations in an Emergency’, which plays out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mad Men begins Thursday 16 April at 8:30pm on SBS.

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Australian Literary Review out today

06555829001Just a reminder that The Australian Literary Review is available free in today’s issue of The Australian. Selected reviews, excerpts etc are available over at the ALR website, but since you can have the hard copy for nix by buying the paper, why not buy the real thing? Highlights include a review of David Malouf’s stunning new novel, Ransom by Alberto Manguel, a review of Duncan Wu’s study of Hazlitt, William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man, by James Ley (not online) and a piece on the graphic novel by Cefn Ridout (also not online). For more information check out the ALR website, or ALR editor Stephen Romei’s blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws.

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Ron Charles on book reviewing

The Washington Post’s Short Stack blog alerted me to this footage of Ron Charles accepting the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Book Reviewing at the National Book Critics’ Circle Awards earlier this month. Aside from serving as a textbook example of how to accept an award, Charles has some salutary things to say about the changing role of the critic in an age of ubiquitous opinion.

More information on Charles and the Nona Balakian Citation is available on Critical Mass, and the Washington Post’s Book World helpfully provides a digest of his reviews and articles for those interested in exploring his writing. And if you want a reason beyond his speech to warm to him, there’s always this wonderful piece about why Pottermania isn’t necessarily a sign of the health of our literary culture.

And then there’s the video:

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Newspapers? A Public Good? Really?

Front page of the New York Times on Armistice ...
Image via Wikipedia

I promise I’m going to post or write about some of these questions in more detail soon, but anything I’d want to say about the ongoing crisis in the mainstream media would be prefaced by the observation that we need to examine our preconceptions before we begin. Whatever people such as myself like to think, newspapers are not a given if they can’t turn a profit, and since journalism in its current form is a product of the economic structures that support it, changes in those structures are likely to alter the nature of journalism, and we need to bear that in mind when we lament the fading of forms such as investigative journalism. In that context this piece by Margaret Simons asking whether newspapers really are the public good we think they are is well worth a read.

Newspapers? A Public Good? Really?

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