Brio, style and close reading: a collection of essays celebrates a remarkable publication

Critic Swallows Book collects 22 diverse essays from the Sydney Review of Books (SRB) to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Established in 2013, the SRB is devoted to long form criticism and is an open access, online-only publication.

Catriona Menzies-Pike, who edited the SRB from 2015 to 2023, (and is the editor of this collection) argues this has contributed to the SRB’s unique character, allowing for more experimentation with the subjects and forms of reviewing.

Review: Critic Swallows Book: Ten Years of the Sydney Review of Books – ed Catriona Menzies-Pike (Giramondo)

Short form reviews are a vital part of the promotional life cycle of books. The place of longer review essays is less clear. They often emerge months after their subjects are first published. They may be best enjoyed after audiences have already read the book, or even serve as a substitute for reading it at all. The greater space and freedom the SRB allows its reviewers encourages diverse, thoughtful readings and this anniversary volume features a wide range of writing.

The collection begins and ends with powerful pieces of cultural criticism by Aboriginal writers. Yankunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann’s essay from 2016 demonstrates how the abuse, imprisonment and denial of history and identity suffered by Australia’s Indigenous people can be understood as a campaign of terrorism.

Read more:
Ali Cobby Eckermann’s She is the Earth is unlike any other book in Australian literature

Paola Balla’s brief meditation on the environmental impact of colonialism was written during the bushfires of early 2020. It closes the collection with a haunting coda that wrestles with the prospect of a different kind of erasure.

The SRB’s excellent series of writings on place are represented by the late Ross Gibson’s Flowcharts and Suneeta Peres da Costa’s A Home in Ananda and the World. These essays touch upon the colonial and more contemporary histories of the Sydney suburbs of Alexandria and Annandale respectively. They also reflect on the authors’ personal connections and associations within those spaces.

Ben Etherington’s series of Critic Watch features, which examine issues and trends in Australian literary criticism, have been a consistent highlight of the SRB. The collection includes his 2020 essay The Living and the Undead, which compares the public responses to the passing of poet Les Murray and writer Mudrooroo (born Colin Johnson), who died within months of each other in 2019.

Etherington argues that the generally warm and celebratory memorialisation of Murray – and even some of the more critical assessments of his legacy – reaffirm both his position in the national canon, and the literary personality that he cultivated. His work and character are now fixed in public memory.

He compares this with the absence of almost any notice of Mudrooroo’s passing. Once a writer of considerable fame and influence, Mudrooroo is now principally remembered for the controversy surrounding his disputed claim to Aboriginal descent. Etherington explores how this reduces Mudrooroo’s diverse writing to the subject of historical study. Murray’s “living” corpus can still be appreciated and contested on its own terms, but Mudrooroo’s work has been rendered strangely “undead”.

A head shot of poet Les Murray against the backdrop of a landscape painting.

The late Les Murray pictured in 2002.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Read more:
In his last poems, Les Murray offers a gentle, gracious bow of farewell, and just a few barbs

The remaining essays focus on the core business of the SRB: reviewing books. The chosen authors often use the form of the review essay to explore their subjects within in broader cultural and literary contexts. They also tend to reflect on unexpected associations evoked by the text, or upon the experience of reading itself, in ways that give each critical piece a very personal voice.

For example, the 2016 essay Expert Textpert by James Ley (now an editor at The Conversation but not involved with this article), moves from an extended anecdote about the author being belligerently challenged to explain the “use” of literature as a young man, to a consideration of three books about reading and criticism. Ley’s memory of an aggravating encounter is used to illustrate the difficulty of making a case for the value of serious and thoughtful reading in a “flattened” contemporary world that is increasingly focused on immediate benefits.

Other critics in the collection showcase the wide range of approaches that can be taken to the task of reviewing. In Verisimilitude, Melinda Harvey discusses Rachel Cusk’s writings by replicating the technique of Cusk’s Outline trilogy of novels. Harvey’s essay is delivered through a series of remembered conversations, which tease out recurrent themes and resonances in Cusk’s work.

Other highlights, for me, were Jeanine Leane’s rigorous reading of Evelyn Araluen’s 2021 poetry collection DropBear, Tom Clark’s exploration of JRR Tolkien’s extended afterlife and Oliver Reeson’s review of Yves Rees’ 2021 memoir All About Yves: notes from a transition. It was also nice to see Ivor Indyk’s 2013 essay on Murray Bail included as a reminder of high standard of writing and criticism established in the first few months of the SRB.

Read more:
Friday essay: 30 years after Mabo, what do Australia’s battler stories – and their evasions – say about who we are?

It is worth mentioning Menzies-Pike’s own essay in this collection, from which it takes its title. She offers a strikingly critical assessment of Trent Dalton’s literary bestsellers Boy Swallows Universe (2018) and All Our Shimmering Skies (2020). To quote Philip Roth’s memorable characterisation of a negative review in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), it would make “Macduff’s assault on Macbeth look almost lackadaisical”.

Menzies-Pike takes issue with Dalton’s overwrought prose style and what she sees as a heavy reliance on crude contrasts and mawkish sentimentality in his narratives. However, she also questions why his novels have not been more extensively examined by critics. She concludes their sheer popularity and sales mean their literary quality has been taken as “self-evident” in many quarters.

Menzies-Pike notes the value of criticism is it can assert values other than those simply “decreed by the market”. The fear of being accused of snobbery or elitism may deter serious interrogations of Dalton’s novel. However, this means important questions of representation in the work of one of Australia’s most successful literary novelists go unchallenged. The essay is argued with such brio and clarity even some fans of Dalton’s work may enjoy it.

The cover of Critic Swallows Book


Critic Swallows Book is not the first edited collection to emerge from the SRB. The Australian Face (2017) focused on Australian literature. Second City (2021) collected writings on western Sydney. Open Secrets(2022) took writing and cultural labour as its unifying subject.

While not meant to be a “best of” compilation of the now thousands of essays published on the SRB, its 22 entries are extremely well chosen. Taken together they ably illustrate the breadth and quality of writing that makes the SRB a remarkable publication.

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