It took me some time to find my way into this profession. There was the business of a certain letter which I wrote in my thirties asking for reviewing work, which was addressed to the editor of a prestigious literary journal. It sat on my desktop for several years. I would open it up every year or so to slightly alter the details. It was an exercise in self-flagellation. I was waiting for someone to anoint me. A first-class Honours degree in English Literature and a Masters degree in Creative Writing did not count.
I thought that to be a critic was to know everything. Before you laugh, let me be more precise: it was to know everything that mattered for the work at hand. It was to move through the world with a towering knowledge of names and philosophies already intact; to have an unceasing source of internal references to all the significant works of art, or at least those that ‘mattered’, ready at your lips.
Even those critics’ lips looked different to mine. They were guarded, indented by scepticism, had a readiness to be downturned. They were the thin lips of Ego – the food critic in the film Ratatouille, who sought to obliterate what he did not like or what he could not understand. (I am not making an argument here in defense of the populist method, the starred reviewing tradition of Amazon or Good Reads. These, along with bestseller lists, have their place but it is one that sits within the marketing machine apparatus.)
One of the other things I believed critics shared was a classical education. The ‘classical’ component of my schooling contained the occasional Aramaic, the reciting of classical Jewish poetry as part of the liturgy, the etymology of Biblical Hebrew. I was better versed in the names of Greek and Roman rulers and their policies on the Jewish population than I was in Greek and Roman myths or the philosophy of Socrates.
In a 2011 conversation with Harper’s Magazine, writer and critic Zadie Smith spoke about writing into this gap, specifically referencing the gulf between her unassuming high school education and Oxford University: ‘And that gap is filled with fear of not knowing—of constantly not knowing. So I feel when I’m writing, I’m still in that place. I don’t think you ever completely get out of that place when you feel that you haven’t known.’ On reading and rereading this, I felt – still feel – the shock of recognition; ‘the fear of not knowing’ as a driving force. When I write about a book or a play or a film, at first that gap feels more like a precipitous chasm I’m writing across. The state of precariousness charges the encounter.
Recently I interviewed writer, classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn for a Sydney Writers’ Festival Podcast. He spoke of his tilted position as constituting fertile ground. ‘Being slightly at an angle, outside, an outsider, allows you that perspective that is crucial to the act of criticism…you have to be looking slightly askance.’ For Mendelsohn, the idea of being an outsider, of looking into a culture, originated from his experience of being a gay adolescent in the 1970s.
Growing up and through my university years, the pane of glass that separated me from the dominant Australian culture, – which I now know is better understood to be ‘white Settler culture’ – was of a different hue: I was the child of migrant parents. I was also Jewish.
We all bring ourselves to the critical encounter. Early this December, a reader of Australian Book Review took issue with Declan Fry’s review of After Australia (ed. Michael Mohammed Ahmad), claiming that it was too political, and ‘never engages with the bigger questions of literature.’ Fry was invited to reply and as part of his gracious albeit firm response, he professed, ‘My hope is that criticism offers something the reader can’t get from the book itself – a reflection, an overview, a consideration. A commentary of its own.’ Once, when I was an older teenager in disagreement with a boy my age, he dealt a diminishing blow, ‘I’m speaking intellectually, you’re speaking emotionally.’ This statement, though uttered by a pimply-faced adolescent, haunted me for a couple of decades. I now mostly embrace the truth of the statement, that he might have been speaking from an intellectual position but I was more interested in a position that entwined both intellectual and emotional knowing. In my encounter with a book or another artwork, the emotional suffuses my reading. Is this one of ‘the bigger questions of literature’? I think yes.
My entry point into the work was through reviewing children’s books for the wonderful Australian children’s literature magazine Magpies – celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary this year – which covers everything from picture books to young adult novels. After a couple of years, I sent an iteration of that long-suffering aforementioned letter to someone else, Luke Stegemann, who was then editor of The Melbourne Review, a free publication which materialized one day with its striking covers and serious arts coverage . Luke was one of the most egalitarian editors with whom I have had the pleasure of working. Not once did he suggest that as a youngish female, writing on Orhan Pamuk, Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee was aiming above my station. (This does happen, although mostly it goes unsaid.) Later, editor Peter Rose of Australian Book Review began to commission film and theatre reviews. This gave me unfettered joy.
‘What’s in a name?’ In that Harper’s conversation, Zadie Smith made a cogent argument for embracing the title of ‘reviewer’, suggesting that over-identification with the term ‘critic’ might heighten ‘personal dangers of the ego.’ This method worked for me for a number of years. The word felt crushing. It evoked all that I feared and might as well have been a synonym for All-Knowing. And then I noticed that people who were being published in the same places as I did rarely used the label of ‘reviewer’ and I was not doing myself any favours. But more enlightening than this was the realisation that critics whose work I followed and who gave me much pleasure – Felicity Plunkett, Mireille Juchau, Maria Tumarkin, Anna MacDonald among them – were not made of the cut I had imagined. They were, perhaps significantly, writers and critics.
I find myself increasingly drawn to this dual approach; of claiming authority (how else would you find the courage to write about someone else’s work?) whilst embracing uncertainty. But where do you place this uncertainty: nestled close to your chest or lurking behind as a shadow companion? The character of the fiction writer who shares the same name as her creator in Nicole Krauss’ mesmerising novel Forest Dark decides to embrace a different way of being in the world, one of ‘Swimming against the forceful current of understanding, the other way.’ Many of the writers I keep seeking out or returning to, whether they are of fiction or non-fiction, head out to this thrilling territory. Being confronted by ‘that gap’, ‘being slightly at an angle’, swimming ‘the other way’; these contortions all infuse my critical work.
Back to Ego, that Scrooge-like critic in Ratatouille. I cannot leave him there as he appears in the beginning of this piece, unredeemed. The moment of his revelation is exquisitely Proustian; in allowing himself the openness to connect with his emotional past, he discovers a latent joy, another way to interact with the world and the object towards which his gaze is directed. At this moment another story is constructed, a braiding occurs between the text – in this case the dish of ratatouille, between Ego’s own childhood story and the emerging one that evolves out of the twining of the two. It is this process I seek out when I engage in my work as a critic, never knowing what I may find but knowing that it is a passage into myself as it is one into the artwork.
Tali Lavi is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Australian Book Review, The Monthly online, Sydney Review of Books, Overland and The Melbourne Review. An essay of hers appears in Garden Among Fires: A Lockdown Anthology (ed. Marina Benjamin). She has hosted conversations for Melbourne Jewish Book Week, Adelaide Writers’ Week, Melbourne Writers Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival Podcast Series and Sydney Jewish Writers Festival and is on the programming team for Melbourne Jewish Book Week.