When I was still doing my job, I noticed I had begun to explain myself. ‘I’m literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald … I run our coverage of books: commission book reviews, interview authors, report on the publishing industry.’ My title didn’t always draw blank looks from people I met outside the book world, but I was unconsciously taking pre-emptive action to avoid embarrassment. Strangers frequently told me they were keen readers of the Saturday books pages and envied my job, which they imagined as being paid to read books. I still played an important and beloved role in our culture, but I could also see that I was endangered, like newspapers themselves. As my colleagues increasingly had ‘digital’ and ‘social media’, ‘engagement’ and ‘audience’ in their job descriptions, literary editor—the title and the role—had begun to sound anachronistic.
I was the Herald’s literary editor for 12 of the past 22 years, from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2008 until early 2017. The job had my passionate devotion during the most volatile period in living memory for newspapers and for book publishing. Like all journalists, I have experienced the internet-led revolution in the media and, for those of us trained in the old world of print journalism, a tsunami of negative effects. As my employers at Fairfax Media accepted in the past decade that the old business model was doomed, they panicked. With revenues from advertising and subscriptions on a steep slide, they put their faith in the proliferating digital forms of publishing, and began to shed journalists and photographers in the belief that technology could replace human intelligence, judgement and creativity.
That is an oversimplified summary of a well-documented and widespread tragedy. Of course there are exciting aspects to the new media but, by and large, they will create opportunities for younger journalists who can master more mature versions of the digital tools we have now. I survived longer than most of my generation the centrifugal force of the redundancy rounds that became an annual event at Fairfax. But even those of us who stayed were worn down by multilayered anxiety: we mourned our colleagues and our traditions, we were uncertain about the future, and we absorbed an ever-heavier load of work while feeling unappreciated.
Devastated by the exodus in the first rounds of staff cuts, I began to half-consider putting up my hand. I remember my mother some time before her death in 2011 pleading with me to keep my job, and despite twinges of disillusionment I reminded myself every day that I held a privileged and still satisfying position. Again and again I mentally stepped to the brink and retreated as the newsroom shrank, budgets were cut, subediting was outsourced to Brisbane and New Zealand, and the quality of our journalism suffered from speed, inexperience, exhaustion, and a series of flawed production systems and editorial staff restructures.
As the cuts went deeper, the long-guarded independence of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age collapsed. Eventually the merger reached the sacred Canberra gallery, but first targeted were the features sections: where once each paper had its own editors for topics such as travel, food and entertainment, painful dismissals led to appointments of ‘national’ editors who produced shared content for both newspapers and their websites.
Books came up for discussion at the same time as a subject that could be covered nationally. Why not, argued our bosses, since the same books are published and read all over Australia? My counterpart at the Age, Jason Steger (with the less Dickensian title of books editor), and I were outraged. Both long-time, old-school Fairfax editors, we mounted a counter-argument that Sydney and Melbourne readers—of books and news-papers—had different interests and tastes; that there were local authors, books, issues and events that were relevant in one or other market; and that both of us were busy enough to justify two jobs.
We also tried to defend the position, once taken for granted, that it was important for Australian culture to have diverse critical voices; given that criticism is subjective, and that mainstream media outlets for reviews were contracting as more books were published, each author should ideally receive more than one opinion from us, or at least a book dismissed by one editor might be chosen by the other. What if the two papers published a single negative review—could that ruin a career?
Our editors graciously agreed to keep us both, but we were ordered to commission a single set of reviews, features and news stories. Steger and I worked well together, consulting on many decisions, usually accepting
each other’s judgements, backing each other so that one could write a news story, interview an author, host an event, meet with a publisher, while the other fed the production pipeline. We benefited from having two pairs of hands to sort the hundred-odd books that arrived in both our offices every week, two complementary brains to choose the dozen or so we could cover. But with all the cooperative goodwill, we both missed our autonomy and the personal mark we had put on our pages.
By 2016, as management announced a plan (later postponed indefinitely) to shut the weekday print papers at some near-future date, the emphasis swung to producing content packaged with video, animated graphics and podcasts for iPads and mobile phones. The Saturday Herald and Age were the exception, because weekend readers still liked to linger over print newspapers, and Spectrum, the arts and lifestyle section that contained the books pages, still brought in a significant percentage of the diminishing ad revenue. Of course this pleased us but it also caused technical problems: Spectrum has separate editors in Sydney and Melbourne, and runs some shared but mostly separate stories because the arts scenes are quite different. Advertisers are mostly state-based, so the space allocated to the books pages (and all the arts) could vary each week and between papers, forcing us to change layouts, drop or cut reviews, creating headaches for our reduced team and disappointment for readers, authors and publishers.
Spectrum was in the tabloid format before the rest of the Saturday paper converted from broadsheet in 2014, and has been incrementally shrinking in size from 50 pages or more to 40 and then 32 pages last year. Books are allocated five or six pages, compared with the seven to eight we had a year earlier, or the norm of eight or an occasional ten that Steger and I remember (and the Weekend Australian, supported by the Murdoch empire, still gives to books in its Review section). This equates to four or five book reviews and eight mini-reviews, plus an author interview and a column. The hard choices we had always made thus became heartbreakingly impossible.
Like all section editors, Steger and I now had to make up for the loss of page designers and subeditors by doing much of our own production work: sourcing images, writing headlines and captions, coding stories for publication, and trying to head off a proliferation of mistakes from our scattered, ever-changing, small team. There was no longer space for poems, bestseller lists or the Undercover column that I had written for about 15 years. Readers often told me, and still do, how much they missed my behind-the-scenes view of the book world; I missed it too. But with fewer staff writers and a limited budget for contributors, Steger and I were both writing more news and features. (Senior arts reporter Linda Morris became my right hand in Sydney, covering many stories.) Since the separate position of literary editor for the Sun-Herald was abolished several years earlier, I also produced a weekly books page (down from two pages) for the Sun-Herald and Sunday Age.
We were asked, like everyone else, to think innovatively about how to present information, but no-one really knew what they wanted and already we were thinly stretched, answering to a multitude of editors. Book-related stories and reviews hardly rated in the new metrics-driven digital world where ‘hits’ and reader engagement, measured in minutes or seconds, were the only measures of value apart from Walkley Awards. (When readers did find our stories buried behind the celebrity news on the entertainment homepage, they spent above-average time on them.)
Despite the journalists’ hard work and some impressive reporting, the print papers became emaciated, the website alarmist, gossipy and, with round-the-clock demand for fresh content, often rushed and second-hand. We entered a spiral of disengagement: we gave readers less, so they were less loyal; senior editors were distracted by keeping up with change and keeping their own jobs; book publishers and bookshops had never been big spenders on advertising, believing editorial coverage to be more effective, but now—with their own revenue problems—they disappeared from Spectrum.
Through all this I still loved the core of my job—the crisp books that came in every day, promising an infinite range of stories and ideas to be disseminated through the paper, the writers I interviewed, the reviewers I commissioned, the publicists and publishers who shared their enthusiasm and industry secrets, the readers who turned to us for enrichment, the festivals that brought together communities united by words. I also loved the teamwork of putting out a newspaper with my multi-skilled colleagues, even though we felt like survivors of a war that was still being fought around us, with the daily threat of landmines and a nuclear wipe-out looming.
In 2016 there were a further 80-odd redundancies across the company and, with the staff already cut to the bone, for the first time about 30 were forced. By then drudgery and gloom were overtaking my creativity and commitment. After 35 years as a full-time journalist in the ‘golden years’ of print, I was thinking about other things I wanted to do. Steger and I knew that if one of us should leave our job, either by jumping or being pushed, we would not be replaced; whoever was left standing would take on full responsibility for books—a prospect that brought some benefits but also a crushing load and a sense of loss. We whinged to each other, as everyone did, but we kept going for our constituency and ourselves.
Like the Survivor contestant who is most exhausted by hunger, insect bites and team politics, I was the one who couldn’t take it anymore. My editor-in-chief had told me years earlier, when we discussed our uneasiness about the future, that I could take redundancy any time I liked without waiting for the nerve-racking formality of an official round. Having that escape clause had made it easier to stay, even though it also signalled that I was expendable, like most older, well-paid staffers.
On the night of 31 January I walked out of the Pyrmont building for the last time to the sound of a few hands and rulers hitting desks, a version of the metallic ‘banging out’ that had farewelled generations of retiring printers and had become a funereal drumbeat in our newsroom. My departure was one of many endings for Fairfax journalism, but for me, and for Australian culture, and for the newspaper’s history if anyone cares to look back, it carried more meaning. I was the Sydney Morning Herald’s last
Three months later on 3 May—World Press Freedom Day—Fairfax management dropped another bomb on my former colleagues. This redundancy round was even more severe than expected: in order to save $30 million about 125 journalists, or a quarter of the staff, would go. There was a rush to the door as badly timed news of a hedge-fund takeover bid, which didn’t eventuate, added to the desperation. Among the specific cuts were digital and video producers, who had so recently been the avant-garde, and most of the arts journalists. The few remaining arts reporters now pump out news stories across all art forms, with gaps filled by freelancers.
An estimated 3000-plus journalists have disappeared from the Australian media in the past decade, many of them from Fairfax. But chief executive Greg Hywood made his priorities clear in May when he told a Senate inquiry into the future of journalism, ‘Of our changes of the last five years, only 10 to 15 per cent have impacted our frontline reporting capability.’
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, while my friends at Fairfax were in shock, I was in conversation with Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review section. I also spoke to her offstage about changes to the Times’ coverage of books. Her story was about expansion and put the elimination of my job into even sharper relief. ‘You’re making me very envious,’ I told her.
Paul explained that last year, in response to the rise of digital publishing, the Times editors decided to consolidate the three arms of its books coverage under her supervision: the Sunday Book Review; the three staff critics whose reviews ran in the daily newspaper; and the publishing reporter attached to the business desk. Adding to the large team that already included commissioning editors and fact checkers, the reshuffle created new jobs, some filled by existing Times staff, some by highly qualified recruits. Many sounded unimaginably specialised: editorial director of books, digital writer on books, editor for visual coverage of illustrated books, and another ‘covering nonfiction, graphic novels and comics, and overseeing the book desk’s video coverage’.
Instead of the old ratio of 85 per cent book reviews plus profiles, news, features and bestseller lists, the intention was to cover books in a greater variety of ways, including a Q&A with authors, and columns that suggest books related to news events or give readers personal recommendations. There were job losses as well, with fewer subeditors and editors having to absorb production duties. One contentious aim was to avoid the duplication of reviews that often occurred when the daily critics selected their own books. Chief book critic Michiko Kakutani made international news when she retired in mid-2017 after 34 years of reviewing and was replaced by Parul Sehgal, a younger woman with strong credentials. The Times is not immune to industry pressures but what struck me most were these words from Paul:
Dean Baquet [the New York Times executive editor] and others on the masthead are big believers in books coverage and we know from our audience research and from hearing from readers that books are an area of great interest to our readers. They consider the Times to be the authority on books coverage. To some extent that’s because of what’s happened to the competition: we’re the last freestanding book review section in the country. The Washington Post folded Book World into Outlook, its opinion section, in 2008. For eight years we’ve had zero competition in the arena of a full book review.
The Times has made a strategic decision that books are part of our core journalistic mission. They’re not an extra, it’s not a frill that you add on, it’s not the fun stuff on the side. The Times really believes that books and ideas are central to the way in which we cover the world, and therefore an area we want to dedicate our resources to. While there’s an enormous amount of great books coverage out there, there isn’t a lot that I think comes to it with the authority and thoroughness and journalistic standards of the New York Times. There are many websites and book bloggers and a lot of reader reviews and input on social media and all that is great but we offer the authority you get from professional critics.
At that point I said to Paul, ‘I’ll go away and cry now.’
Some would say that even the New York Times has compromised its purist approach to the more populist demands of today’s audiences. That’s true to some extent, as all surviving newspapers have, yet it displays the same high-minded principles. There’s no point directly comparing the global New York Times with the Sydney Morning Herald, but the Herald is our country’s oldest mainstream voice on literary culture and should, like the Times, remain its most influential.
The difference is partly financial and, as always in Australia, limited by market size, but it’s also a question of corporate will and pride. Thinking about the changes that have happened during my career, I looked back at how the Herald has covered books in its 186-year history to see if we could say books were ‘a core part of our journalistic mission’.
• • •
In the early years the Sydney Morning Herald (started in 1831 as The Sydney Herald) was all business. By the 1860s the shipping news still had priority among the classified advertising on page one, but an occasional unsigned book review had started to appear among the police reports, municipal news and railway timetables. Some were syndicated from foreign publications such as the Daily News or the Atheneum and almost all were of British or American books.
That began to change from the 1890s when Angus & Robertson became the champion of Australian authors such as Banjo Paterson and Miles Franklin. In 1898 the publisher ran a large advertisement for The Snowy River Series by Paterson, Henry Lawson, Bancroft Boake and Edward Dyson, boasting that more than 30 000 copies of the series had sold. Large ads for A&R’s Sydney Book Club (‘Librarians to His Excellency’) and Dymocks Bargains in Books, offering ‘thousands of popular novels’ and a ‘splendid inducement offer’, show that newspaper readers were also book lovers.
The Second World War finally brought news to the Herald’s front page. By then the paper had a dedicated literary editor, Leon Gellert, a Gallipoli veteran and admired war poet who was an editor of Art in Australia and Home when John Fairfax bought the magazines and shut them down. In 1942 Gellert moved to the Herald as editor of its Saturday magazine and book pages, and remained literary editor after losing control of the feature pages in 1945. (‘He cannot initiate important changes,’ reported an executive.) We know about Gellert’s career largely from an elegant short biography by former Herald journalist and author Gavin Souter, who wrote the official history Company of Heralds. Souter thought fondly of Gellert after the literary editor published a sonnet by the young journalist; not surprisingly Gellert regularly ran poems in the pages, including 16 of his own.
Gellert’s most memorable creation was the Sydney Morning Herald literary competition. The inaugural prize in 1946 went to a poem by Rosemary Dobson and to Ruth Park’s novel The Harp in the South, set in the Surry Hills slums, and helped launch Park’s career. Gellert wrote a chatty review column called ‘Something Personal’ from 1947 and kept the title of literary editor until his retirement from Fairfax in 1961. But S.J. Baker, the subeditor on the books page and an expert on Australian slang, commissioned most book reviews.
However, as David Marr wrote in his biography of Patrick White, it was John Douglas Pringle, the Herald’s editor, who sent White’s The Tree of Man to the poet A.D. Hope and on 16 June 1956 published his infamous dismissal of the novel as ‘hardly a novel’ and ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’. ‘No shaft of criticism ever wounded White so deeply,’ wrote Marr, a reminder of the critic’s power and responsibility. Hardly a biography of an Australian author of the last century appears without noting the impact of Herald reviews.
Despite Pringle’s title, the Oxford-educated Scottish editor had oversight only of leaders (the paper’s official opinion pieces) and letters, while the news editor directed news coverage. More erudite than most editors, Pringle had time to absorb the local culture and took an active interest in the books pages. In 1958, between his two stints as editor, he published a book, Australian Accent, which disparaged many aspects of Australian society and politics, but had an admiring chapter on its poets, especially the influential A.D. Hope, James McAuley and Harold Stewart.
Books were given a full page then two under Pringle, allowing up to a dozen reviews and attention—but no favouritism—to Australian books. ‘Current Australian fiction is a litter of near-novelettes, lifting a gentle mew in praise of this wondrous, glorious land of opportunity, the land of great-hearted pioneers,’ wrote Kylie Tennant in a scathing review of novels by Miles Franklin (under the name Brent of Bin Bin), Neville Shute and Dorothy M. Catts that ran a week before the White review.
Among Pringle’s legacy after his retirement in 1970 were the refined cartoons of Molnar and Emeric, his own thoughtful book reviews, and the lively writing of women he had hired such as Lilian Roxon and Helen Frizell. Frizell wrote a news column, reviewed films and then, as she said in a 2004 interview, ‘the literary editor had a stroke and I happened to be standing in for him, so I did that until you had, you know, had to do everything except economics and mathematics’. By then Guy Harriott was editor, ‘a good man in quite a lot of ways but he was not a literary man’, Souter told me.
The literary editor’s job has often been filled in a haphazard way by a literate journalist between—or as well as—other assignments, or as a pre-retirement job. Journalist Harry Kippax edited the books pages in 1965–68 while also establishing his 30-year run as a theatre critic. The foreign correspondent and author Margaret Jones was literary editor in the 1970s between postings to London and Beijing, and again before her retirement in the late 1980s.
But after Frizell retired in 1980, a new era began for the Sydney Morning Herald and for the books pages when Vic Carroll, already a distinguished Fairfax editor, was appointed editor-in-chief. He put in place a dynamic pair of women: his wife, Valerie Lawson, revitalised the weekend features section, renamed The Good Weekend (and then Spectrum when Lawson launched the current Good Weekend magazine in 1984); and Michele Field, an American academic at the University of Queensland, who took over the books pages.
Australian literature was growing beyond the annual dozen or so local novels of the 1970s, with the rise of the Australia Council and small publishers such as McPhee Gribble. Field had lived with the writer Frank Moorhouse and came with a network of writers and reviewers. Field remembers ‘it was partly Vic’s personal support which gave me clout’, and although her budget was tight she was able to host a table of reviewers for an all-afternoon lunch at a Greek restaurant every Friday. ‘I think it built a sort of loyalty to the SMH as an intellectual cabinet,’ she said. ‘Dick Hall copied the idea at EJ’s [restaurant], and I sometimes mention this “Australian way” of working when I am speaking in the UK.’
Field asked me to review some books (but not to lunch) when I was a young Herald journalist also writing features for Lawson in the early 1980s; both editors were generous mentors. An English literature graduate, I was suddenly in the deep end assessing writers such as Elizabeth Jolley, Fay Weldon, Cynthia Ozick and Michel Tournier.
In January 1996 I would return from working for the Australian in New York to become the Herald’s literary editor—from one ideal job to another. Once again there was an editor-in-chief, John Alexander, with excellent instincts and money to spend, creating another exciting time to be on the staff if you were among his favoured. A competitive man, he might have been keen to get me back to the Herald; the Australian’s intellectual editor-in-chief, Paul Kelly, countered with an offer to edit a planned monthly review section, but that was a year away. (Perhaps I was saved from the self-regarding scorn of critic Peter Craven, who would write later that the twice short-lived literary review ‘suffered in its first phase from the kind of painting by numbers which results when journalists attempt to imitate a prestige product they would never have initiated themselves’.)
As New York correspondent I had interviewed authors, written a column for the book pages edited part-time by Barry Oakley, and taken an evening course in book publishing at New York University. Literary editor hadn’t been my ambition but it perfectly brought together my skills and interests.
My predecessor, Ian Hicks, had also held the position twice, first appointed by editor Max Prisk in the late 1980s to ‘look at books as news as well as reviews’, he told me, and again by Alexander in the mid-1990s. He had the chutzpah to give a book by the proprietor, Conrad Black, a critical review. Although he had been chief of staff, night editor and assistant editor in his 35-year career at the Herald, he says now, ‘Literary editor is the best job in Australian journalism. You had the ability to pluck a book out of obscurity and make it known.’
A sign of how times have changed is the review Hicks remembers with most pleasure. Fra Angelico at San Marco by William Hood was an expensive art book published by Yale University Press. The distributors had brought in 50 copies, but after Hicks commissioned a ‘fantastic review’ from art critic Elizabeth Cross they sold out and ordered another 5000. It’s hard to imagine the Fairfax papers would review a niche book like that now, or that they would influence sales to such an extent. When I last asked an independent publisher, Scribe’s Henry Rosenbloom, if he still saw a rise in sales after a good review anywhere, he gave a flat ‘no’.
Interestingly, Field also said her greatest challenge ‘was to review foreign titles which the Australian publisher’s office had decided not to import because they thought they were too sophisticated for “us”. I was always pleased to hear when some indented titles sold well—and possibly, over time, changed the publishers’ assessment of “unsaleable”.’
From Hicks I inherited three, and sometimes four, broadsheet books pages, more than ever before, in a Saturday paper obese with classified ads and making a net million dollars a week; retired academic Andrew Riemer, who would remain our chief book reviewer for 20 years; and community engagement through events we sponsored. I added my own touches, such as the Herald awards for Best Young Australian Novelists, which have run for 20 years. In those days I had an office and a subeditor who wrote clever headlines, and some reviewers still mailed in copy typed on paper. Even then I worked 20/7.
Most reviews are a blur but I remember one of the books on my desk the day I started was a lush-covered debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure by English writer John Lanchester, about a gourmand murderer. Choosing the right reviewer is always an enjoyable challenge and I immediately thought of the great cook Gay Bilson. She jumped at the chance, produced a glorious review and later wrote her own books. Lanchester’s novel won awards and he became an important author.
I was both relieved and slightly miffed that Angela Bennie’s 2006 anthology of searing arts reviews, Creme de la Phlegm, contained nothing from my pages. I took no pleasure in harsh reviews but I knew we sometimes had to run them for integrity and truth; I don’t recall the bad ones, though I’m sure the authors will never forget. Imprinted in my memory are an author profile, written by an investigative reporter that caused the subject to threaten me with murder and one teasing review of an author who later retaliated with a damning review of one of my books.
After 18 months, Alexander persuaded me with wine and one of his killer arm-squeezes to juggle a second job, as a deputy editor of the paper, and after he was sacked (partly for overspending) I reluctantly let go of the books pages to follow the ‘ambitious’ path. In 2000 Greg Hywood became the only editor-in-chief ever to do away with dedicated books pages by remodelling Spectrum into an essay section with the odd scattered book review. That mistake went with him. A rapid series of in-house literary editors brought different strengths: Angela Bennie, Malcolm Knox, Catherine Keenan and Matthew Buchanan. Knox, already a respected novelist, wisely spent much of his time on a Walkley Award–winning exposé of the fake Jordanian memoirist Norma Khouri. I was happy to resume the job in 2008, not knowing that the internet, aided by the GFC, was about to eat my baby.
I come to the end of this essay in a less despondent mood than when I began. Look-ing back over the decades I see that while book reviews were always a given, demanded by the Herald readership, they were always subject to erratic decisions and rarely given more space than they are now. I was lucky to be there during two wealthy periods, but even when the Saturday paper had a record 240 pages, news and features were squeezed between page after page of ads.
Yes, I was the last literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and it is embarrassing for a major newspaper to lose such an important cultural role. But coverage of books continues, albeit with a Melbourne slant, under the intelligent editorship of Jason Steger. Shona Martyn, a journalist who spent the past 20 years as a book publisher, recently became editor of Spectrum in Sydney, and her deputy, Melanie Kembrey, has a BA in Australian and English literature. They will undoubtedly pay attention to books, as will others at the Herald and the Age, in traditional and new ways.
Books have thrived when the Herald’s top editors cared most. Who knows, perhaps fortunes will change again and a future Herald editor, deciding books are core to the journalistic mission, will appoint another editor to oversee them. I can dream. Meanwhile, among other work, I have begun to review books for the Australian and the New York Times.
Angela Bennie, Creme de la Phlegm, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006.
Peter Craven, ‘The Death of the ALR’, The Drum (ABC), 11 October 2011.
Helen Kenny (Frizell), interview, UNSW Canberra, Australians at War Film Archive no. 1702, 29 March 2004.
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Random House Australia, Sydney, 1991.
John Douglas Pringle, Australian Accent, Chatto & Windus, London, 1965.
Gavin Souter, A Torrent of Words, Brindabella Press, Canberra, 1996.