CRITICISM - CRITICS PRACTISING
Book Review, July 1997, pp.
Geraldine Pascal was a
Sydney journalist with a passion for good living. In her memory, the
Pascall prize has been awarded each years since 1990 for “critical
writing”, which the judges have equated with reviews in mass print
media. Contributions to television are yet to be recognised.
A 450-word review of a
current movie can present demands as great as those for an essay on the oeuvre
of a Gillian Armstrong. The new film must be considered for its
intrinsic worth as well as for its contribution to the medium,
discriminations which must be made in a rush, overnight even.
Critics are chastised
for injuring the arts whenever we do not plagarise handouts form PR
agents. Promotional budgets for a Hollywood blockbuster can exceed
annual expenditure by the Australian Film Finance Corporation. The
suggestion that a newspaper reviewer should rally around the marketing
department ignores the fact that, by the time the arts get to us, they
have been hyped. Critics therefore have a duty to cut through the bumpf,
as they have done with the travesty and tragedy of the Helfgott tour.
Critical standards are
undermined when reviews are displaced by interviews and profiles, which
happens most often on radio and television. Matters are at their worst
in electronic media when supposed reviewers are themselves interviewed
instead of working form a script.
The Pascall is not a
prize in the sense of being linked to a single piece of work but goes to
a longer term achievement. This perspective lessens the danger of a
critic writing to win gold rather than to do justice to the work under
The oddity of
prize-gathering appears in the biographical note on Marion Halligan who
has been “nominated for most of the major literary prizes in
Australia”. How does that achievement differ from failure to take out
any of the big ones?
In the 1890s, a drama
critic for the Bulletin submitted reviews in rhyming verse. Not until a review can
manager that feat will it be time to reconsider the virtue of prizes for
other than boy scouts and stud rams.
Six of the eight
Pascall winners have come from Sydney, one from Canberra and one from
Perth, though the latter has now moved east. This Sydney bias is
stronger than any alleged against the Australia Council. Will that
imbalance lessen now that the Award is decided by the previous
That three winners were
academics highlights a dilemma: is it worse that academics take the fees
out of the mouths of freelancers, or that university staff confine their
judgements to learned journals? One solution is for university staff to
write only for the periodicals that cannot afford to pay, thereby
letting the money go to the untenured writers while the ideas are
available for indigent editors. That arrangement is not an ideal
solution since it can crowd out beginners.
All the contributors to
Critical Perspectives are
aware that the art forms about which they write have traditions in this
society. None gives any sign that their own area of reviewing also has a
tradition here. Yet, criticism of the several arts has had distinguished
practitioners since the nineteenth century with James Green and Nettie
In addition, the
essayists do not see how reviewing has contributed to the practices on
which they comment. Alan Saunders gives no indication that restaurant
reviewing played any part in the creation of an Australian cuisine. Gourmet,
One Continuous Picnic, Cheap
Eats and Leo Schofield are not on the menu.
McCallum does not see himself in a line of even recent theatre critics
from “Brek” and Katherine Brisbane, let alone from any of the
reviewers from last century, such as J. B. Neild.
Sandra Hall begins with
a sketch of her tracking the rebirth of Australian cinema since the late
1960s but passes over even other Sydney reviewers such as Sylvia Lawson,
Meaghan Morris and P P McGuinness.
Despite their lack of
historical awareness, all the Pascall essayists imply that creators
should know the Australian tradition of their genre. If that rule is
essential for artists, why does it not apply to their commentators?
The critics have not
turned their talents back on their own efforts. They comment on
criticism as if they were not part of the processes they are analysing.
A comparison between a review of Fidelio
which Roger Covell prepared around 1960, when be began at the Sydney
Morning Herald, and one of his recent efforts on that opera might
have helped us – and him – to understand his place in our culture of
After the lineages of
reviewing in Australia have been traced, it should be easier to discern
whether we have a national style or tone. Is there a combativeness
linking Robert Hughes on the visual arts of the 1960s with James Smith
on theatre in the 1860s? Are such traits more prevalent here than
overseas, and more noticeable now in Sydney than a century ago in
Melbourne? One concern often voiced about the arts in Australia is that
gangs of creators and performers go in for back-scratching or
back-stabbing. Which is closer to the truth?
opens her “Foreword” to Critical
Perspectives with the claim that she “found the accounts in these
essays as revelatory as I might have as a beginner.” I don’t believe