I don’t review Australian books because I am a coward and a dunce. It’s as simple as that. To me, reviewing an Australian book feels like stumbling into a Mexican standoff wearing a suicide vest: things are going to get messy, fast, and I’m wearing my nice shirt. As someone who lives in Perth, the only way I could set off a literary feud that’d make future cocktail parties, writers’ festivals or divorce hearings unbearably awkward would be by accidentally running over Tim Winton’s toes in the parking lot of South Fremantle IGA. Still, OzLit, as it is, is a small community, where each ripple is chronically mistaken for a gnarly wave, and everyone has a fear of drowning (here’s me stepping on Winton’s toes anyway, dang!).
For those of us doggy-paddling in this lukewarm kiddy-pool, the big question surrounding the Ross Fitzgerald scandal/controversy/affair is: How could he have gotten away with it? I think you could offer up a slew of cogent, coherent, and comprehensive theories about trends in criticism and publishing and culture in general that skirt around yet artfully avoid the depressingly simple answer squatting at the core of the matter: no one (really) cares.
Those of us in the trenches don’t like to admit this, but capital-L Literature is an increasingly niche interest for an increasingly niche sort of person. Literary criticism is a niche within that niche, then Australian literary criticism of Australian literature is an interest on par with roadkill taxidermy and Digimon Gunpla kits. When we—as OzLit aficionados and afflicted—talk about the problems facing it and our existence at large, we are talking as participants in a sparsely attended group therapy session, held in the bomb-shelter below the basement of an abandoned rec centre.
For the Fitzgeralds, who relay the goings-on in said basement to the world above for a living, it is easy to pass off said goings-on in whatever way you please, and claim them as your own. The disconnect between the OzLit ‘community’ and the surface-dwellers is such that work like Fitzgerald’s will largely go unnoticed and unremarked upon, until one of us CHUDs poke our heads out and cotton onto the con.
What is a critic, anyway, in the age of content.
We live in a time where the role of the critic has been greatly diminished. Critics, for the most part, exist somewhere between publicists and cheerleaders these days. A decade plus of this form of criticism has dismantled the relationship between critic, text, artist, and audience to the point where criticism—as in true hardcore nitty-gritty thoughtful criticism—is disconnected from each, all but homeless, existing in a void.
This has fostered an insularity within every pocket of the arts, where it can feel like everyone is in each other’s pocket. This insularity is especially heightened in regards to books, however, whose industry and community have almost always felt like they all shared the same sinking sub.
There’s a particular difficulty in Australian literature because if author and critic aren’t peers in an immediate or parasocial sense, they are both stragglers in the blasted hellscape that is Australian publishing. OzLit can veer wildly between Mad Max survivalism and a fallout bunker cult commune, so it’s difficult to apply a critical gaze to one another’s work without feeling like you’re kicking over someone’s ration bowl, or elevating them to petty warlord status.
While we oscillate between cannibalising one another or marauding as a pack of praise-starved supermutants, the reality of the irradiated wastes we scavenge for grant funding and scant residuals remains unchanging. Australian commercial publishing continues to brand itself as boldly uninventive, throwing millions in the direction of middle-brow dreck with the shelf-life of a banana with Progeria syndrome. Meanwhile, our small press continues to gamble its life savings on masterpieces that rarely make it beyond our little bandit camp—these publishers battling trends, cuts and surrender like one of those Japanese soldiers marooned in the jungle of an isolated island archipelago, convinced they’re still fighting a war that’s long since over.
Critics can function like arbitrators between these two camps, pulling one up while putting the other in its place. But the truth is that commercial publishing breeds commercial critics, just as esoteric publishing breeds esoteric ones, and between the two poles of banal PR content and alienating academic theory is a widening nowhere-zone where the bored and put-off are, understandably, pitching their tents.
It’s alienation, it’s boredom, it’s the banal bastardy of sweet bugger-all.
So it goes that someone like Fitzgerald could thrive in a publication like The Australian, with its millions of readers, while they’d probably be hunted down like a wild hog for pulling that trick in a smaller literary journal (like this one). It speaks to how disengaged the broader public are with what we get up to over here, and how disengaged we are with that disengagement. It also speaks to the contempt more powerful industry insiders, arbiters and hustlers have for both groups. Those who brandish this contempt like a cudgel that can either crown an author or bash their brains in operate amongst us as hucksters and standover-men, the Paulie Walnuts of the book world (book bookies!?), selling stolen goods to an unsuspecting Joe Public one day, while threatening to burn down the family business the next.
The whole thing seems a tad, well, silly.
Which blows, tbh. Because what we’ve been told is small-stakes shits ‘n’ giggles in a biz packed with laughable turds is kinda, actually, high stakes. We are talking about an existential lurch away from critical thought and culture and stories that is super-fuelled by an apparently unshakable malaise—which is nuts, because OzLit is shaking that bastard like crazy right now. The weirdo in the corner that is capital-L Australian Literature is currently in its BDE era, and it has champions, challengers, and yeah, chumps (hello), that are rabid with passion for it and its potential. Is it (artistically) thriving in a self-made goon cave that’s a tad off-putting to the daywalkers beyond its walls? Sure, but it’s thriving nonetheless. It just needs to be brought into the light by someone who, idk, is maybe the book reviewer for the national broadsheet. There’s many champing at the bit to do just that. It’s time we let them.
The problem we have is an ossified class of literary rusted-ons who have essentially coasted on clout and capital floated to them in a halcyon past that this generation of OzLit scrappers could only ever dream of. A generation managed to carve out little turfdoms that allowed them to act as self-appointed King Solomons of taste and text, their throne cushioned by the inflated value of the critic in the pre-internet/content age. These people have stuck around, in spite of themselves and the rest of us. Why would you cling to a role you seem totally disengaged and disinterested from if not for an addiction to the high you get off your own farts? It’s ironic to cling to a role once perceived as powerful and valuable in a way that deflates both that power and value, but so it goes in an industry that’s now separated from online hustle culture only by a lack of subscriptions to black market boner pills.
It’s maddening because if you know where, how, and why to look, Australia has some of the most exciting literary criticism going at the moment. There are those who (unlike me) are bold and smart enough to don the suicide vest and step into the Mexican standoff. I look out for Ursula Robinson-Shaw’s reviews with the same excitement I had opening a booster pack of Pokémon cards as a child, while simultaneously being certain that if she ever turned her critical gaze on my work I’d climb into a homemade submarine and begin my search for Harold Holt in the Mariana Trench. Hers, and others, is the kind of electrifying lit-crit that makes you want to chomp into a book like it’s an opioid-laced LCM bar: the spark of wanting, addiction and crunchiness that general run-of-the-mill middle-brow criticism has traded off for goopy carpet-flavoured porridge.
For those of us practicing ‘alternative’ literature (this is the title publishers and co. give literary books that are funny funny, not ‘humour section’ funny, or books with a king’s feast of em dashes), critics like Ursula are the only people going to bat for us, even when said bat is coming down on our skulls. I think of Emmett Stinson, whose work has led me to look into the rockpools of buried or overlooked Australian oddities, and what that kind of excavation works means in an industry—and culture—that buries its past and its freakshows deep in its litter box.
Back before The Great Middling brought about by the reductive brain-deadening cancer spread by social media, aka ‘The Discourse,’ the spectrum-adjacent (I’m autistic so I have licence to say this), navel-gazing, hyper-specialised geek critic was an oracle who beckoned you over to gaze into their navel with them, and feel excited about it. This type of critic, who the rusted-ons have all but smothered-out with their molasses flood of mediocrity, are a vital part of the ecosystem of any artistic medium, but particularly books. A book cannot be consumed as conveniently as a film, song, or art show; to read is to labour and collaborate with the author if you want the full worth/meaning/fun of a text. So the passionate, obsessive, surgical critic is a vital guide, middleman and bodyguard in a world where time and energy is sucked from our souls and marrow at a rate of knots.
This is why seeing a critic wasting your time is a betrayal. This is why author, reader, and yeah, real critics deserve better. This is why OzLit can feel like a bukkake party for the terminally flaccid. This is why things need to change.
For me, the value of good literary criticism in OzLit is in its ability to bring the obscure, overlooked and original to the fore—be that to praise them or wrap their knuckles. I see an industry stumbling half-mad through bankruptcy and irrelevance, led by people as sure of its identity and purpose as they are of their father’s love. It is as exhausting as it is frustrating, especially when you know there’s those out there with the C-4 strapped to their chests, guns locked and loaded, ready, willing, and able to kick the doors down and get the job done.
Patrick Marlborough is a writer, critic, comedian, and musician based in Walyalup Western Australia, who spends all their time talking to their bad dog, Buckley.
IMAGE: Sir Edward John Poynter, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1890) (detail), collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, public domain, accessed via the Google Art Project.