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Good books can die from neglect: interview with James Ley

February 06

The Sydney Review of Books launched their pilot website last month and we spoke to editor James Ley.

Meanjin: How did the project come about?

James Ley: It is an initiative of the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, prompted by the belief that Australia both needs and deserves a mainstream literary publication devoted to long-form critical writing.

M: Are you concerned by the thinning space in mainstream media for book reviews? Do you think this is a problem for Australia?

JL: Yes and yes. The phenomenon of shrinking newspaper books pages is one of the chief motivations for founding the Sydney Review of Books. When I started writing book reviews for the newspapers back in the late-1990s, I can remember that there was some complaining then about shrinking space and limited opportunities. That now seems like a lost golden age. We are facing the effects of a long-term trend that is working against the possibility of professional criticism.

I think this is a problem for the literary culture generally, because the primary purpose of criticism, in my view, is to think about and articulate the meaning of the work under consideration. This is distinct from the critic’s subjective views about a work’s merit, though these are not unimportant and are entangled with the more objective questions. For all the grumbling about the presumptions of critics—often from writers who have been on the wrong end of an unfavourable review—it is the quality of the critical discussion around a book that determines whether or not it lives, in the sense that it is the job of criticism to consider its intellectual and aesthetic dimensions and make its potential significance explicit. It is possible for a book to reach an audience without criticism, but for books to endure, for them to matter, for them to be understood as part of an ongoing cultural conversation and a larger meaningful entity called literature, they need the process of public interrogation and elaboration that only a genuine, engaged, knowledgeable, reflective criticism can provide. Consider the fates of Moby-Dick and The Man Who Loved Children: both masterpieces, yet both languished in obscurity until they received the intelligent critical responses they deserved. Good books can die from neglect.

M: The Sydney Review of Books aims to fill a gap in Australian reviews of books, what do you think of the suggestion that this already happening online through goodreads, Amazon reviews, or personal book bloggers?

JL: Was anyone surprised by the revelations last year that Amazon’s reader-reviews are often the work of sock-puppets? All of those things serve their purpose and are fine in their way, but frankly I don’t think they fill the gap. I don’t even think they belong to the same genre, really. The plurality of voices is all well and good, but what’s lacking is any sense of intellectual ambition, any expansive sense of the critic’s responsibilities. There may be some exceptions among book bloggers, but most of what passes for critical commentary on those sites is pretty shallow stuff.

Australia’s literary culture is in a bit of paradoxical state at present. There is a lot of interest in books and writing, a lot of activity and discussion, a lot of boosterism and puffery, but very little of the discussion about books is what I would consider serious criticism, by which I mean writing that attempts to analyse in some detail the meaning of individual works, both in themselves and in relation to the wider culture. Part of the problem is structural. The venues just don’t exist. There is only so much a person can say in, say, a 600 or 800 word review. For serious critical writing to thrive, critics need to be given the time and the space that might allow them to respond to books in considered ways, and there needs to be a solid editorial process backing it up. That’s what we hope to provide.

M: How will you differ from the Australian Book Review (ABR)?

JL: ABR, which I think has thrived under Peter Rose’s editorship, runs a mixture of short reviews and longer pieces across a very broad range of subjects. Our focus is primarily on long-form literary criticism. We are not in a position to cover as many titles as ABR, so we will have to be a little more selective, but we hope to offer in-depth responses to those titles we do feature. I would hope that we are seen as a complementary rather than a rival publication.

M: What are the advantages of being online only? Do you intend to use social media to engage with both authors and readers?

JL: The main advantage of being an online publication is that it solves the problem of distribution. It also means that our production costs are relatively low, so we can direct the bulk of our resources to paying our writers. And, yes, we do have a facebook page and a twitter account for readers who would like to engage with us via those media.

M: What are you reading at the moment?

JL: Over the holidays I managed to knock over The Yips by the inimitable Nicola Barker, Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, and A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, but I am currently juggling J.M. Coetzee’s forthcoming novel The Childhood of Jesus and Satantango by Lazlo Krasznahorkai, with the attractive Maira Kalman-illustrated edition of Robert Walser’s Microscripts that I received for Christmas beckoning from the bedside table.

Find the Sydney Review of Books at



by Dorothy Johnston
10 Feb 13 at 16:50

An excellent interview, and an excellent initiative!



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