Unfortunately, Book Reviews Actually Matter

person holding white and brown newspaper

Debating the utility and function of book reviews—especially the reviews in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian—is a near constant presence in the contemporary Australian publishing field. These debates typically centre around three distinct themes: reviewers should not review the books that their friends wrote; who is the reviewer writing for (is it the readers, the author, the book itself?); and is it a problem that white reviewers dominate the book review pages of the country’s most prominent publications. And while some of these discussions are more important than others, whatever the debate de jour the conversation will inevitably arrive at the same juncture: either the conversation is meaningless because reviews don’t really matter, or the conversation is very meaningful because reviews are very important.

I am here to say that, unfortunately, reviews are pretty important. In this blog post I draw upon both scholarly investigations and public cultural discourse to demonstrate the role of reviews in the contemporary publishing industry and the ways in which the current structure of the major reviewing publications perpetuates a system of white male dominance.

Book Reviews, Literary Reception and Notions of Prestige

Book reviews in the culture section of major newspapers and literary magazines have been a consistent presence in the Australian literary sphere for more than a century. Criticism and review of newly release fiction and non-fiction titles are an efficient publicity tool and make a considerable contribution to the discussion of books among readers both within and beyond the field of cultural production. The decline in print media’s dominance over the last decade has not contributed to a similar decline in the influence or power of book reviews.

In Gender and Prestige in Literature, I explore the ways in which the contemporary book review—often published in the culture section of the weekend newspaper and literary magazines—is part of a network of institutions that seek to identify books and authors that are deemed worthy of public discussion and consideration. Active in this network are the major consecratory agents such as literary festivals and literary prizes, as well as other book promotion activities such as interviews with authors on radio and television.

The survey I conducted of book reviewing, literary festivals and literary prizes in Australia over a 50-year period that increasingly there is an overlap between these three institutions; the increasing interplay between consecratory institutions can likely be attributed to the growth in the number of festivals and awards in the Australian literary sphere over the latter part of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

Appearing at literary festivals and being shortlisted and winning literary awards are two major publicity opportunities for authors and publishers. Both festivals and prizes are associated with an increase in book sales and can help to expand the audience constituencies for authors and their titles. But beyond publicity, there is a level of prestige attached to speaking on the festival stage and the formal recognition from prize judges, prestige that is an essential element of literary career longevity. My research has found that for the majority of authors—particularly where emerging authors are concerned—book reviews in newspapers and magazines act as a hurdle that must be cleared in order to attract attention from literary festival programmers and literary award judging panels. Rarely do authors end up on the festival stage or in a prize shortlist without first being reviewed in a publication such as The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald orthe Australian Book Review.

Book Reviews and the White Literary Status Quo

Considering the (often overlooked) influence of book reviewing as an institution in the contemporary Australian literary field can begin to illuminate the ways in which the elevation of white voices as reviewers and critics ripples out to elevate white voices field-wide. Displacing the power of white writers, white publishers, white editors and white critics is only possible if those who hold the power are willing to undertake this displacement.

On 4 May 2020, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age announced the selection of five emerging critics— Bec Kavanagh, Jack Callil, Chloe Wolifson, Tiarney Miekus and Cassie Tongue—who would produce “critical writing across literature, visual arts and theatre in 2020”. Five white critics. The decision by the Nine mastheads was met with criticism and, in mid-June, Kavanaugh and Callil tendered their resignation and encouraged Nine to replace them with non-white critics. Jessie Tu and Declan Fry are now the emerging critics for The Age and the Herald for 2020. And while the right outcome of this (very white) kerfuffle was eventually reached, I would argue that it should never have happened in the first place. Kavanaugh and Callil stepping aside was the right move, but the change that the Australian literary field needs to undertake won’t come from individual action alone, but with a systematic transformation.

Perhaps poet Omar Sakr said it best with his tweet:

All eyes are on you now @theage / @smh. This ought to make you reflect on your processes, and not just reflect, but proactively change to ensure this outcome is not replicated again.

The question then becomes, has Jason Steger (literary editor at The Age and the Herald) reflected on his process when it comes to the glaring whiteness of the papers’ book review section? Possibly not. A quick survey of the 15 reviews that have been published in the Nine mastheads in the first 16 days of October shows that 12 of the reviewers are white. That’s 80%. Jessie Tu, Declan Fry and Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen were the only critics of colour in this sample.

The Upshot of the Dominance of White Critics

In my research into the relationship between gender and the structures of power in the Australian publishing industry, I studied who was writing book reviews and who was being reviewed in The Australian, The Age and Australian Book Review across half a century. What emerged from this study is that men consistently review books by men and women review books by men and women. Moreover, there has been very little change in this pattern since the mid-twentieth century. And while this data does not provide any detail about the reviewing pattern off critics of colour in the contemporary literary field, it does tell us that male critics (overwhelmingly white male critics who consistently make up the majority of critics in Australia) rarely review books by people who don’t look like them.

Speaking with NITV about the whiteness of published Australian arts criticism, Jinghua Qian illuminated the importance of a diversity of voices and perspectives:

The lack of diversity in the media makes them [non-white creators] believe complex cultural, political, aesthetic and social discussions are being flattened. Diversity is about different ways of understanding history, it’s about having appreciation and expertise around varied narrative structures. It’s not just about having different looking people in the room, but the critical lens they bring to their work.

And while white critics and white cultural commentators and white academics spend hours on twitter debating whether or not reviews actually matter, they are overlooking the fact that they do matter and that the current state of literary criticism published in the most widely read publications fails to reflect the industry and the readers.

Alexandra Dane is a Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Her scholarly monograph Gender and Prestige in Literature: Contemporary Australian Book Culture was published in 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan. 

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