Whether in Britain or in Australia, book reviewing has always been a staple not only of freelance journalists, but of novelists and poets needing to supplement their incomes. Elizabeth Webby points out that in the colonial period in Australia, ‘few authors were able to make a living from [creative] writing and these few depended heavily on journalism’. Book reviewing was a significant part of that work.
Among the prime enablers of reviewing and literary journalism are the literary editors of newspapers and magazines. Often they have had literary careers of their own, as columnists and controversialists as well as commissioners of reviews and articles. Before he became editor (1896–1906) of the Red Page of the Bulletin, A.G. Stephens was a literary essayist and reviewer. In the early 1890s, his column in the Boomerang, ‘The Magazine Rifler’, surveyed the latest numbers of English and American journals. ‘The Red Page’—devoted to both local and international literature—began in October 1896 and developed from the ‘Books of the Day’ and ‘Book Exchange’ columns.
One of Stephens’ successors—from 1940–61—was the poet and dramatist Douglas Stewart. Often the influence of these editors was increased by the longevity of their tenure. Margaret Jones was literary editor at the Sydney Morning Herald for most of the 1970s and Patricia Rolfe at the Bulletin in the 1970s and 1980s; poet David Rowbotham was literary and theatre critic of the Brisbane Courier-Mail from 1969–79 and its literary editor from 1980–87; while Stuart Sayers served as literary editor of the Age from 1968 until the 1980s. He also contributed the weekly ‘Writers and Readers’ column. Each editor was happy to use regular reviewers and to seek out untried talent.
The popular press also played a role in promoting ‘good’, or ‘good value’, reading. The Australian Women’s Weekly introduced a free full-length liftout novel in 1934, and discussed Australia’s large crop of contemporary women writers. One of the magazine’s earliest literary critics, W.S. Howard, was to host Book Parade, sponsored by Angus & Robertson, on the Macquarie Network in the 1950s. Many other book programs, often hosted by local bookshops, were heard on metropolitan and regional commercial radio stations across Australia, and writers such as Miles Franklin gave talks on the ABC and commercial stations.
As well as the literary editors on newspapers, the founding and long-serving editors of the magazines Meanjin and Overland—respectively Clem Christesen and Stephen Murray-Smith— played an important role. Book reviews of varying lengths have long been a staple of both magazines. That has also been the case with Australian Literary Studies, founded by poet and academic James McAuley under the editorship of Laurie Hergenhan at the University of Tasmania in 1963 before transferring to the University of Queensland in the 1970s.
The increasing professionalisation of journalism from around the 1960s also contributed to the decline of opportunities for freelancers, especially for those who had ranged across a number of fields. In colonial Australia, Marcus Clarke was the most complete man of letters— novelist, short story writer, playwright, editor, but also journalist, essayist, art critic, book reviewer (French novels a specialty) and Charles Dickens’s obituarist. James Smith was a leader writer, drama, art and literary critic between 1854 and 1910, working in Melbourne at both the Age and the Argus, editing the Australasian and founding the periodical Victorian Review (1879–86). (Sir) Walter Murdoch was perhaps the most prolific and influential essayist (the title that he preferred) cum literary journalist in Australia from 1905, when his column ‘Books and Men’ began in the Argus. It ran with an interruption for World War I until 1938. Murdoch was one of the first literary journalists to diversify into the medium of radio, broadcasting from the 1930s until the 1960s. A collection of his work, On Rabbits, Morality, etc: Selected Writing of Walter Murdoch, edited by Imre Salusinszky, was published in 2011.
Two of Murdoch’s contemporaries, Vance and Nettie Palmer, also adapted quickly to radio in addition to their decades of literary journalism. Some of Nettie’s extended pieces on Australian writers appeared between 1927 and 1933 in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail and the Brisbane Courier. Her personal column, ‘A Reader’s Notebook’, appeared in All About Books from 1928–38. Both Nettie and Vance Palmer offered numerous lectures in the Commonwealth Literary Fund series. Delivered at universities and provincial centres, the scheme of lectures ran from 1940 until 1964, and was an important, public source of book talk around Australia. Such literary journalism, whether first published in newspapers and magazines or delivered as lectures, furnished important works of cultural and literary criticism. Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties (1954) and A.A. Phillips’ The Australian Tradition (1958) were among these. Significantly, as with a number of books of Australian history written in the first half of the 20th century, they were produced from outside universities. One of the few current, non-academic literary journalists and book reviewers of the same breadth is Peter Craven, who writes about literature, theatre and cinema.
Michael Wilding has asserted that ‘one of the advantages of living in Australia for a serious writer was that freelance journalism paid so badly that it was not much of a temptation’. It should be added that the temptation has waned further because the number of print avenues for such journalism as well as for book reviewing has dwindled notably over the past two decades. That period has seen the demise of the Age Monthly Review and the Australian Literary Review (each of which encouraged lengthy critical appraisals of recent books), the Bulletin (so crucial to the early history of book reviewing in Australia), the (broadsheet) Melbourne Herald, the National Times and Nation Review. In addition, literary features and book talk were once a feature of such more populist, but also defunct, magazines as the Australasian Post, Man, Pix and Walkabout. Financial pressures have meant that since early 2013, the Saturday editions of Fairfax Media’s the Age, the Canberra Times and the Sydney Morning Herald now share many book reviews. This reduces both the opportunities for book reviewers and the range of opinions about the books. Short reviews of books are now more common in the weekend literary pages. Moreover, the length of longer reviews has also been reduced.
The Australian Book Review has had two incarnations. The first was published in Adelaide from 1961 to 1974. The second began in 1978 and has continued to the present with support from the Literature Board of the Australia Council as well as private and corporate donations. In line with its brief, the Australian Book Review covers more Australian titles than any other publication.
Allan Ashbolt livened up the discussion of books on ABC Radio in the 1970s with a new program, Books and Ideas, arranged and presented by young producers. The Book Show (2006–12), heard daily on Radio National and hosted by Ramona Koval, consolidated ABC Radio’s book programs. On television, book programs—notably The Book Show (SBS, 1986–97) and The Book Club (hosted by Jennifer Byrne, ABC, 2006– )—have been confined to public service broadcasters.
A perception of the need for lengthier and more reflective book reviews led to the creation early in 2013 of the online Sydney Review of Books, which is modelled on two print magazines, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Its online format gives its writers the luxury of expansive 2000/3000–word articles, and may indicate a likely direction for the future of book reviewing in Australia.
REF: W.H. Wilde, J. Hooton and B. Andrews (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1994).