Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2009

Creme de la Phlegm, Unforgettable Australian Reviews (2007), by Angela Bennie

Creme de la PhlegmI picked up Crème de la Phlegm, Unforgettable Australian Reviews at the library because I thought it might contain reviews of books I’d read (and it does) but it was the introductory essay and the previews of each decade that made this such a worthwhile book to read.  It’s a very interesting, well-researched introduction, ranging across time and media, and placing Australian arts criticism in an international context.  Vituperative reviews are not exclusive to the country that specialises in cutting down tall poppies; they do it in the US and UK too, though I shall not give the worst of them ‘air’ by naming them.

Perhaps Mark Davis in Gangland had a point about baby-boomer elites excluding the younger generation, though Peter Craven doesn’t think so.  We do tend to see the same old reviewers reviewing each other’s books but perhaps that’s inevitable in the small literary scene we have here in Australia.  The names are so very familiar: Morag Fraser, Peter Steele, Peter Craven, Les Murray, Drusilla Modjeska, Amanda Lohrey, Robert Dessaix, Imre Salusinszky, Helen Garner, Helen Elliott, Barry Oakley, Luke Slattery, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Robert Manne and Simon Leys.  Davis’s accusation is that they represent a cosy, sycophantic clique writing glowing reviews of each other’s books.  I heard Delia Falconer on Radio National’s BookShow the other day discussing this very issue, and she said that she was influenced by her own experience of how hard it is to write a book, and that she wouldn’t want to discourage other writers  – so she would be more likely to send the book back than to write a bad review about it.  Well, fair enough, but where does that leave the hapless consumer who wants value for her $32.99 when a Big Name writes something that’s dross?  (And they do, sometimes, especially when they are So Notable that no one dares edit them.)

Bennie suggests that there’s a general tendency to be dismissive about reviews: if they are positive they are labelled mediocre, complacent, banal and clichéd; or if the review is negative, we say that the reviewer is jealous, keen to rein in ambition and to cut down tall poppies.  She cites John Docker, in Australian Cultural Elites:  ‘Assisted by a passive, grovelling middle-class readership, it [this culture] both creates writers as canonical and then tries to shield their texts from critique and challenge. (p9).  (Memo to self: try not to grovel in company of much-loved authors, it looks bad.)

What matters, according to Bennie, is that criticism should ‘judge well.’  She cites a number of harsh reviews which demonstrate that the reviewer didn’t know anything about the theory behind the work  – notably A.D. Hope’s excoriation of modernism in Patrick White’s Tree of Man, labelling it ‘illiterate verbal sludge’, which must have amused the author when he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Paul Haefleger’s dismissal of Sidney Nolan.  You can’t , for instance, pretend to be an critic of the visual arts today if you don’t know anything about post-modernism – after all, the artist has probably studied post-modernism at tertiary level and it’s to be expected that they’d be influenced by it.  But some of our reviewers pander to shock-jock attitudes and simply write scornful stuff instead of trying to educate their readership about new ideas.  If you’re going to be a critic, Bennie says, you ought to be informed about the media you review.

Does this mean that someone like me can’t blog about High Modernism in Voss, or try to interpret James Joyce’s Ulysses because I know next to nothing about it?  I don’t think so.  I’m not a professional critic, and I’m not being paid to write my reviews.  I’m only a general, if experienced, reader of literary fiction, and I claim a small patch of cyberspace – somewhere between academic analysis and gee-i-loved-this-book gushing – to share my journeys through challenging books like this with as many people who care to read my blog.  I don’t subscribe to the view that popularity = worthwhile, but my modest share of  cyber-hits will stop coming if what I write is judged as complete rubbish, eh?

I wonder, however,  if Bennie might be setting the bar too high for professional critics – for how can we sustain the standard she suggests here in Australia?  There are too few media spaces for publication of literary criticism here anyway: which newspaper or magazine is going to pay for a cluster of critics* with the kind of expertise Bennie is recommending?  People with a Masters in Lit Theory at the very least, with a broad grasp of local and international trends in literary fiction, extremely well read AND able to write in an engaging way?  People who can ‘translate ‘the strange, new or experimental for the presumed reader rather than merely convey an impression or do a hatchet job?  This takes time and column space, mostly not available in the Australian media.  And can such people make a living from the investment of education, time and money that’s needed to sustain this standard?

I read reviews in The Australian, The Age, The Australian Book Review, and online.  Some are excellent, and some are rather ordinary.  I have been indebted to some in the ABR that have ‘educated’ me about books that I found difficult and I’m very grateful to these reviewers because most of them don’t make their living from writing reviews and so the time they put in to writing good ones is generous, in my opinion.  Bennie, in her decade-by-decade analysis of how arts criticism has adapted over the years, says that in general, literary criticism is in decline.  Constraints of space, pandering to popular taste, dumbing-down: it’s all downhill from here, and at a time when more and more books are being published.

I think the best thing about Crème de la Phlegm is that it has brought this issue out into the open, and that can only encourage editors to raise the bar a bit!

*My own suggestion for a collective noun to represent a critical mass of critics that is numerous enough to forestall accusations of cliquishness.

Author: Angela Bennie
Title: Crème de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews
Publisher: Melbourne University Publishing, 2007
ISBN: 9780522852417, hbk., 448 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Lisa:

    A very good response to the issues that the book explores — I would add that there is nothing wrong with setting the bar high — there is no reason that non-professional critics can’t write as well or be as knowledgeable as the pros, with the added bonus that being outside of the high profile “fame” community enhances critical independence and credibility.

    If nothing else, the web creates opportunities for serious critical conversation — evaluations shared via a dialogue. The days of the snooty mandarins — famous writers back-scratching like crazy while dictating what should and should not be read — are drawing to an end.

    Bill Marx


    • Well, yes, Bill, I agree with all of that – but the trouble is: who pays for the time that the reviewer puts in? In my own small way I review lots of books when I journal them on my blog, and that’s ok, I’m doing it as a hobby and I have a real job that pays the electricity bill and the car rego. But the expertise – and lack of it – in these reviews of mine reflects the fact that I’m not investing a huge amount of time in them, and I’m not expecting a dividend on time spent in educating myself about them. There are other non-professional people out there blogging reviews too, and some of them are really really good, and some of them are truly independent too – that’s a good thing, and so is the interactive nature of Web 2.0 which allows for the serious critical conversation you describe. (Non-professionals, of course, aren’t under any obligation to disclose any conflict of interest and don’t subscribe to a code of ethics, so we can only take them at face value and hope that the book reviewed isn’t a freebie from a friendly publisher LOL)
      But if, as a reading community, we want reviews of a really high standard, then what Bennie is saying is that there is a place for the very well-educated, informed and open-minded reviewer writing serious, (usually long) and carefully thought out reviews. If we take the long reviews in the ABR as a benchmark, there’s a serious investment of time and continuing self-education behind the words on the page. Those reviewers spend hours reading, thinking, discussing and exploring literary criticism. They have post-graduate qualifications, and they keep up with the latest trends in literary styles. They have a serious educated background in literary fiction or the field of expertise in a non-fiction text…
      Well, I think that there’s a monetary value to be placed on this investment, otherwise the potential reviewer will find some more rewarding way to spend their time. (I speak from experience here – I used to self-publish teaching materials for the very small LOTE Indonesian market, and when you-know-who brought in the GST, the amount of work and effort involved just wasn’t worth the money I got back. I stopped doing it. )
      There’s a view out there in the marketplace, especially amongst younger people, that everything on the net ought to be free, as if the intrinsic pleasure of making an art work (or a review) ought to be enough. If you take music, if musicians have to have paid work in some other field in order to pay the mortgage (e.g. school teaching) they don’t have enough time to put in 4-5 hours practice a day (minimum for a professional musician) nor enough time for creating new compositions. If we really value art in any form, we should be willing to pay (one way or another) for the creators of it to make a decent living.
      It’s a difficult issue, and one we are going to have to resolve as online citizen journalism displaces professional journalism.


  2. […] the Uninitiated I might have enjoyed the book; even if I still didn’t like it, I could have ‘judged well’ as Angela Bennie recommends.   I have left my ‘review’ as it stands – with this mea culpa attached – but I […]


  3. […] Roger McDonald is a recent convert to blogging and you can find his thoughts here.  (And yes, I have tried to be mindful of his thoughts about ‘a good review’, but then, that’s my routine practice ever since I read Angela Bennie’s marvellous book, Crème  de la Phlegm). […]


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