Late in 1998, the Times Literary Supplement, as was its wont, sent Randolph 'Mick' Stow a book for review. It was Xavier Herbert: A Biography (1998) by Francis de Groen, and Stow accepted the commission with enthusiasm. 'What a ghastly, embarrassing old pillock,' he wrote to his lifelong friend Bill Grono. 'Well, you'll soon read my opinion of him.' Stow's review tells a personal story of an encounter with Herbert at a 1963 supper party in Perth, and concludes that he liked Herbert even less by the end of the book than he did when he began it.
This story, recounted with a biographer's relish by Suzanne Falkiner near the end of her massive and admirable book, brings up questions about the reviewing of a literary biography. This task should be relatively straightforward: it should consider what research the biographer has done, what truths she or he has uncovered, what quality of analysis is brought to the assembled facts, how good the writing is, what contribution the book makes to literary scholarship, and whether it is, as we say in the reviewing trade, a Good Read.