I was dismayed by the quality and tenor of Don Anderson’s review of Howard Jacobson’s memoir, Mother’s Boy (ABR, July 2022).
Jacobson offers a deeply personal exploration of how Jewish identity, as it is refracted through his relationship with his parents (and a series of wives), has shaped him as a novelist. All Anderson can muster in response is a bit of glib wordplay. Indeed, the reviewer seems more interested in displaying his reading than in reading the book at hand. To dedicate a paragraph to Joyce Cary, a writer Anderson concedes Jacobson ‘does not mention and would appear not to have known’, is bizarre, especially in a review that barely scratches the surface of Jacobson’s wonderful book.
It can be hard to draw a line between literary enthusiasm and critical narcissism. I am sure I have been guilty of the latter myself. But it seems that there is something more troubling at play behind Anderson’s allusiveness. Even as he denies it, the review reads as a rearguard action fought on behalf of the ‘eclectic sceptics’ against arrivistes like Jacobson and Sam Goldberg, who attempted to introduce Leavisism to the University of Sydney’s English department. The kicker for me was the conclusion. For a piece that claims a synoptic purview on the teaching of English at university, surely Anderson knows that no such body as the HRC exists. Nor would he need to apply to the imaginary funder for a grant to write a paper on the ‘anti-Semitism of academic appointments’. One need look no further than the binary he imposes: between the genteel guardians of culture in all its variety and eclecticism and ambitious interlopers with names like Goldberg, Felperin, and Jacobson.
Marc Mierowsky, Thornbury, Vic.
The second paragraph of Peter Craven’s review of Geraldine Brooks’s novel Horse (ABR, July 2022) begins, ‘And Brooks is as bright as a button.’ This infantilising praise sets the tone for this review, a flagrantly gendered piece of criticism that I wish ABR had never published. Craven hems Brooks in with a phalanx of literary men including Twain, Dickens, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Joyce. He characterises her as a ‘senior journalist’ using her facility with facts to spin charming tales, but failing to emulate great literary men.
Most bios of Brooks will mention her former career as a reporter; Craven uses this fact to seek to put her in her place. Tellingly, he takes pleasure in a scene from the novel in which contemporary characters, a scientist and an art historian, clash: ‘There is a formidable confrontation between them when she derides that great critic John Berger and her boyfriend wipes the floor with her.’ Craven does acknowledge Brooks’s achievements as a novelist, then remarks that ‘[g]reat novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, as have middlebrow ones’. In this context, shelving Brooks as middlebrow is an abjectly feminising move, gendering that is reinforced by the complete absence of any other women writers from his discussion. Craven surmises that no masterpiece ‘that simply soars alone like a steeple’ (a steeple, really?), citing David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, ‘could possibly win’ the Pulitzer. Don’t be mistaken, Craven contends: Brooks’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize for March does not signify as much as her training as a ‘rookie journalist’ with a thing for the horses. Brooks deserved a more respectful and sophisticated review than this from ABR.
Lisa Fletcher, Kingston Beach, Tas.
As an American living in Australia, I too have been painfully aware that the credibility of Western nations was compromised by the illegal invasion of Iraq. I am glad to see Ben Saul’s article ‘The Law of the Jungle: Western Hypocrisy over the Russian Invasion of Ukraine’ (ABR, July 2022). Some readers of ABR may also be interested in these reports from Ukrainian writers.
David Mason (online comment)
Throwing out baby
Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s review of Thomas Piketty’s A Brief History of Equality is a strange one (ABR, July 2022). She pays but scant attention to Piketty’s book. Rather, she uses it as a springboard to dive into a pool of her own concerns about colonialism, race, and gender. Little is mentioned of Piketty’s analysis beyond r>g. There is no serious discussion, let alone evaluation, of his suggestions as to how economic, fiscal, and social reforms might rein in inequality worldwide or, more ambitiously, reduce it. Piketty has blind spots, but he deserves a more substantive critique than this. To dismiss Piketty so superficially, with such palpable distaste, is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Tim Lenehan (online comment)