THE LETTER /// RECENTLY /// YOU SHOULD READ THIS /// NEXT TIME
Three of my favourite tiny letters are written by Ellena Savage, Ruby Tandoh and Anne Helen Petersen. Not only are they compelling writers (one, two, three), but I feel like I am reading the very personal and intimate story written by women who had meditated on thoughts and wanted to share them. Ruby tells me (and four million other people) that she is "tired, and I need to know that this whole thing - Do What You Want, Eat Up, all those bloody tweets - haven't been in vain." In a letter titled 'but.why write', Ellena says "because your own shadowy pink matter enfolded in bone is unlike anybody else’s. Because this singularity of self is not atomised, but networked endlessly, the repeated singularities tethered to one another in the unfolding diversity of the world." Anne Helen got me interested in country music, by explaining "it's about describing the way you feel — your emotional and psychological posture towards others. It's pride, but it's quiet rage that others misunderstand you; it's sadness at your small and large failures at a man, but without the commitment to be better. It's resentment apathy. And it's deeply Trumpian."
I enjoy reading these letters because they appear, at least on a surface level, to have unrefined yet strong ideas. I know they are performative: private thoughts, publicly disseminated. I know they have been edited and scrupulously re-written. But they are in-progress, parts of thoughts, incomplete ideas and notes (Savage's descriptor for her tiny letter is 'notes for future projects'). The benefit of being 'in-progress' is that you can express a type of weary defeatism, self-doubt, that is usually reserved for thoughts-and-or-works-in-progress when you are in progress of evolving an opinion. When I edit other people's writing for publication, I never hesitate to remove a sentence when it carries with it the author's self-doubt, to reassure them that they can be confident – as though a half-hearted commitment to their opinion will excuse them from having to justify it later. If they want to question themselves, they can write a piece on self-doubt. I want them to be confident.
Re: fallibility. The origin of this idea escapes me, and I can't recall where I've read it, but someone did say that literary criticism is at its best when it resembles a form of literature itself. When it is a joy to read. But how often do self-doubt and self-questioning in critical essays make compelling reads? Do you want to empathise with a critic? Lit criticism rarely comes off as well-written when the critic doubts their own opinion. Lit criticism is as much a self-regarding act as it is a performative one.
"Running" a tiny letter or any email newsletter on literature or regularly writing about literary criticism isn't a revolutionary act, it's not even novel, and I'm also wondering what the point of it is especially with the looming threat of the platform vanishing – but it is right for me. I prefer to mull things over, sit on ideas for days, weeks, months at a time. Using a paper journal doesn't meet my requisites, and it also doesn't have the element of writing "for" an audience (although, reflections about interior life and writing have usually found their home at Twitter). In fact, this is the place I would like to be doubtful, open, honest about my desire to become a literary critic – in public.
How does one become a book critic in Australia? It is, very obviously, not just a matter of writing a book review. Part of it is reputation. That reputation takes years to build, and it takes a practical work. You must make sure you "network", and, of course, read and write, and read, and read, and then you must email editors, pitch, finesse those pitches, write those essays, email publicists, ask for ARCs, and maybe even go to events—oh, and if you're a freelancer doing this, expect it to guarantee literally no income, no stability, and if you work full-time, then what are you even doing – to evolve into someone who has enough to say about something, and then, secondly, say something worthwhile about literature in this country. You need time to do that. You need to have your time doing that valued. We have limited pages and spreads in our newspapers; we fight for the space in newspapers. Also, to quote Ruth Franklin: "the place of women in the literary world is still as urgent an issue as it has ever been."
Isn't it also ambitious for a woman to declare, quite formally, "I want to be a literary critic"? I do want to be a form of Alison Croggon, or Angela Meyer, or maybe Cynthia Ozick or Hilton Als, Catriona Menzies-Pike, or Emmett Stinson, or Ruth Franklin. There is a calibre to aspire to, but there's also a breadth, a vividity that each critic brings to the landscape. The moment I turned – that is, the moment I realised that I wanted to work in this undervalued, limited and extremely insular field – was upon reading Dr Natalie Kon-yu's piece in Overland Journal. She wrote, "anyone who argues that good work will always be published and valued is not paying attention to the way in which our literary culture dismisses, maligns, or limits the work of anyone deemed to be other to the white male writer." Since then I have become a self-proclaimed fanatic in the cause of literature and books. I am keen to examine my own reading baggage, how my literary upbringing can limit rather than exclusively define my tastes. I am also eager to put this to others – how aware are you, of your reading habits, of your literary history and your literary involvement?
I bring plenty of baggage to my critical work; I have tastes, or as Rita Felski calls them, ‘aesthetic attachments’, formed long ago, and repeatedly tried and tested.
— Joanna Di Mattia, in Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, and the ethics of criticism
Re: the results of the 2016 Stella Count. Across all publications that were counted in 2016, 52% of book reviews in Australia were written by women, which is the same ratio as in 2015. Women reviewed more books than men in eight of the twelve publications. The exceptions to this were:
the Weekend Australian (32% of book reviews were written by women) – (of the seventeen reviewers who reviewed ten or more books at the Weekend Australian in 2016, only four (or 24%) were women)
Australian Book Review (38%)
the Age/SMH (46%), and
the Sydney Review of Books (44%).
It should be noted that these four publications hold 59% of the total reviewing field. In less eloquent terms, this is fucked.
I read a lot. For those of you who know me, I am not known to be modest but this is not a brag: it's how I choose to spend most of my time. Reading does involve reading books, but it also involves email newsletters, online and print literary journals, sometimes it is also about listening to podcasts, or going to events and book launches, watching broadcasts. It is natural, then, to feel like I want to carve out space in the mainstream literary world, for myself, as well as for anybody who does not feel like they belong to the hegemonic circle at this present time.
Thanks for signing up, and thanks for reading. Next week's tiny letter will be less testimonial, more interrogative.
A review of Peach by Emma Glass in The Australian. [🔒] CW: assault
A remixed-review piece on Lullaby by Leila Slimani and Peach by Emma Glass in Meanjin this week, with notes on #MeToo, silence and domesticity.
A review of The Cage by Lloyd Jones in March's The Big Issue, The Comedy Edition. Support your local vendor(s).
YOU SHOULD READ THIS
If you haven't yet gotten a copy of The Lifted Brow Issue #36, please do – but also, be aware you can read the interview between Khalid Warsame and Teju Cole both in print as well as online, republished by Lithub: "In a way we’re dealing with the abolition of memory, aren’t we?"
A piece by Bec Varcoe on Patricia Lockwood's PriestDaddy (Kill Your Darlings), touches on relatability and empathy as a religious practice: "I see a nun driving a Toyota Camry, and a monk with an iPhone, and I wonder if I will ever be one or the other – or will I always be in the middle, laughing at obscene jokes while wearing a crucifix and trying to remove offensive words from my vocabulary?"
An interview with Don Mee Choi on translation (Asian American Writers' Workshop): "I’m hooked on Kim [Hyeoon]'s seemingly benign, apolitical cooking poems that she wrote during the dictatorship and her cutesy word plays on gender-role expectations (“Double p—How Creepy,” for instance). If you’re not already, you’ll soon be a junkie of Kim’s adorable, often bloody, rat, cat, pig, hole allegories of patriarchy, dictatorship, neoliberal economy, and neocolonial domination."
And, lastly, a piece by Jill Lepore on my personal hero, writer and activist Rachel Carson, 'The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson' (New Yorker): "The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight."