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The literature review

By Jay Thompson - posted Monday, 24 August 2009

I am a book reviewer, and have been for more than ten years. Reviewers play an absolutely crucial role in literary culture, but you would not know this if you believed the stereotypes.

There are three interrelated stereotypes of the book reviewer. The first is the writer who is incapable of producing their own “original” prose. Those who can’t, teach; those who can’t write their own books, review other people’s books.

The second stereotype is that of the literary snob. This literary snob lives in a trendy inner-city suburb, wears a lot of black, and is contemptuous of writing which might be considered “low-brow”. They prefer Milan Kundera to Michael Crichton, Jeanette Winterson to Jackie Collins.


The third stereotype is that of the academic who uses “texts” (books are always “texts” for these people) to support a particular intellectual or political agenda. For these reviewers, Othello is simply propaganda for racism and sexism. The academic reviewer can discredit Shakespeare’s play and flaunt their grasp of postcolonial and feminist theories.

Stereotypes often have some basis in fact. I am currently completing a PhD at a sandstone university. I live in a “trendy” suburb in Melbourne’s inner-north and own several items of darkly-coloured clothing. However, I have no truck with abstract notions of “high” and “low” literature and culture. My reviews have appeared everywhere from Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper to Australian Book Review and the online journal Colloquy (PDF 63KB). I have reviewed scholarly non-fiction and popular fiction.

Equally, I suspect the “high”/”low” dichotomy in literature is becoming increasingly irrelevant to many readers. Literary studies scholars are writing books about the pleasures that can be found in the work of authors such as Michael Crichton and Jackie Collins. Catching the tram to work, I find my fellow passengers - not all of whom would be academics or postgraduates - reading titles by Alain de Botton, Catharine Lumby, Peter Singer. These theorists are just as likely to feature in the syllabi for humanities courses at university as they are to be profiled in The Weekend Australian. Indeed, Lumby and Singer are senior academics.

Through my studies, I have been exposed to a wide range of theories. These theories can certainly help to provide unique insights on a particular text. Yet it is reductive to read a particular text only in terms of whether it valorises or degrades (say) women or members of marginalised racial groups. Othello, for example, is extremely appropriate for postcolonial and/or feminist analysis. However, it is insufficient to argue that Shakespeare’s play is only about the oppression of women or black men.

In my reviews, I try to emphasise the literary or textual qualities of a particular book. What genre/s does this book fit into? How does the prose make me feel as a reader? Is this prose appropriate for the particular book, and why? What are the key messages and/or arguments of the book? These are tasks that I learned from my best literature teachers, and I aim to pass them on to my readers.

I am not an overly harsh reviewer, but nor am I one who mindlessly heaps praise on a particular text. If you want to attack a book for the sheer hell of it, then you might be better suited to the role of a radio “shock jock”. Equally, if you want to endlessly sing the praises of a text, without being at all critical, you could have a promising future in public relations.


Then there is the stereotype of the reviewer as a writer who cannot produce their own “original” prose. That stereotype is simply untrue. In any given edition of Australian Book Review or Australian Literary Review, prolific Australian authors will dissect the writing of others. As well as book reviewing, I am completing a doctoral thesis and have published articles in outlets such as On Line Opinion and Screen Education. I have written on topics ranging from Australian literature and political culture to the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

So why am I writing this article about book reviewing? To answer this question, I point to the importance of a vibrant literary culture. This is a culture which respects the power of words, sentences, ideas. We endorse this vibrant literary culture when we attend a writer’s festival or switch on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. We endorse this vibrant literary culture when we argue for the importance of teaching literature in high schools and universities. And here, I refer not only to “canonical” literature by white men - i.e. Shakespeare - but also the work of contemporary authors from a range of cultural backgrounds. Imagine the classroom debates that could be stirred by the prose of prominent Australian writers such as Christos Tsiolkas, Larissa Behrendt or Melissa Lucashenko. Behrendt’s novel Home (2004) has, in fact, been studied by students undertaking the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).

Book reviewing - good book reviewing - enhances one’s reading experience. Reviewers describe how a particular novel or work of non-fiction are written, how these books make them feel, and the different ways these books can be read. Reviewers regard books as important and not as faceless “texts” that can be either lauded or looked down upon.

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About the Author

Jay Daniel Thompson recently completed a PhD in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His thesis focused on representations of sex and power in Australian literature during the "culture wars"’ of the 1990s.

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