Don Anderson taught American, Australian, Irish, and English Literature at the University of Sydney from 1965 to 2000. Since 1982 he has written for ABR more than sixty times. His reviews and essays have also appeared in The Age Monthly Review, The Bulletin, Weekend Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Southerly, Meanjin, Quadrant, The National Times, Westerly, Island, and The Independent Monthly. His critical writings are collected in Hot Copy (1986), Real Opinions (1992), and Text & Sex (1995).
What makes a fine critic?
If we believe T.S. Eliot, ‘There is no method but to be very intelligent.’ Of which one might observe, to invoke an old philosophical distinction, that it is surely necessary but hardly sufficient. Gore Vidal, writing of Italo Calvino, insisted on admiration and description, encouraging his reader to read Calvino (‘the critic’s single aim’).
Which critics most impress you?
Alphabetically: Roland Barthes, Geoff Dyer, William H. Gass, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Hughes, Clive James, Samuel Johnson, Hugh Kenner, Frank Kermode, Meaghan Morris, Camille Paglia, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Geordie Williamson, Edmund Wilson, James Wood.
Do you accept most books on offer or are you selective?
These days, highly selective. If an editor thinks an author may interest me, I will respect their judgement, especially if the editor be Stephen Romei or Peter Rose, though I confess that I once, to my never-ending embarrassment, said ‘No’ to Jennifer Byrne, though I plead now, as I did then, being too busy.
What do you look for from an editor?
Critical leadership. Critical judgement. The editor’s principal responsibility, however, is to ensure that a critic’s copy is not sub-edited as mine once was (not in this publication) to change the title of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Celsius 233. I jest not.
Do you ever receive feedback from readers or authors?
Not often, for which, to judge from an Outraged Reader’s response to my review of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), I should be eternally grateful. Actually, it wasn’t so much a review of the novel as a column about the critical reception of the cultural phenomenon known as American Psycho. I began: ‘Look, someone has to say it. American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis’s shrink-wrapped, warning-emblazoned, succès de scandale is … a deeply moral and thoroughly responsible novel.’ I proceeded through 1,000 words to this: ‘How can [people] deny Ellis’s right to the satire of excess when his Wall Street werewolf patronises a Manhattan restaurant called “Chernobyl”. That’s no joke!’ One reader not only missed the joke, but refused to permit it. She phoned early on a Sunday morning (no echoes of Wallace Stevens!), abusing me for encouraging rape and rapists, murder and murderers. I babbled of green fields.
What do you think of negative reviews?
To be discouraged, though I have suffered them and, very occasionally, prosecuted them. As our aunties used to tell us, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ Gore Vidal would doubtless disagree, as would John Updike. I am nothing if not critical, which is Iago via Robert Hughes. But it depends upon what is meant by ‘critical’.
How do you feel about reviewing people you know?
Also to be discouraged, though I must again plead guilty, yet, in my own defence, would point out that when I set out reviewing, more than a half a century ago, the pool of literary talent was much smaller than it is now, and everyone knew everyone else, even if they hadn’t slept with them. But times have changed, for the better. In the launch copy of my second collection of critical writings, Real Opinions, I find a card, the face of which features a Jill Krementz snap of Kurt Vonnegut reading galley proofs, the verso of which bears a message from the late Helen Daniel thanking me for an advance copy of my book. She writes: ‘I won’t review it because I make the odd appearance in it.’ That’s a scrupulosity much to be admired, much to be aspired to.
What’s a critic’s primary responsibility?
To write well, to think well, and in the immortal words of G.A. Wilkes, to be an ‘eclectic sceptic’. Samuel Beckett had a different take on things. In Waiting for Godot: ‘ESTRAGON That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other. / VLADIMIR Moron! / E. Vermin! / V. Abortion! / E. Morpion! / V. Sewer-rat! / E. Curate! / V. Cretin! / E. (with finality) Crritic!’