James Ley On Literary Criticism

Rhys Gard
2nd Sep 2014

We sat down with this year’s Pascall Prize winner, James Ley, to talk the future of criticism, writing in sheds and the value of commerce degrees.  

1. Has writing criticism online changed the form? Are you finding a new, different audience or is the only change the delivery?

I think the online world has clearly changed the context in which criticism must position itself. I am less certain that it has altered the form that good criticism takes and the qualities that ultimately make it worthwhile. The Sydney Review of Books has been founded on the notion that substance matters, that if it can publish long-form critical essays of a consistently high standard then it will find readers who are genuinely interested in literature and ideas. So far that seems to have been borne out. As a general rule, I don’t think too much about audiences in a specific way, either as a critic or an editor. The aim is to make the work as good as it can be. Readers will either respond or they won’t. I tend to think that if an essay is well-written and says something worthwhile it will find its audience.

2. Colm Toibin writes prose on a hard, uncomfortable chair.  Roald Dahl and Virginia Woolf composed in sheds.  Where do you work best and why?

Well, that explains a lot about Toibin. The place and seating arrangements are less important than finding the solitude and the mental space to be able to concentrate in a single-minded way for an extended period. I find a bit of variation helps. Moving between paper and keyboard, home and library, can often help to get the cogs turning.

3. Some have argued the role and importance of the critic has waned with the invention of blogs and other forms of online media. Do you believe the authority of the critic is still alive or dwindling?

I think one could make the argument that good criticism has become more important, even though the cultural environment has perhaps made it harder for serious criticism to be heard amongst the uproar. The obvious consequence of the online world is it provides a platform for anyone who cares to express their opinion, which is of course wonderful and affirming, but it also means that there is a huge amount of shallow and ephemeral commentary out there as well. I would not want to suggest that there was ever a Golden Age, but I do think it is the case that, for a host of complicated reasons, a good deal of the cultural space that at one time might have been occupied by criticism has been colonised by various forms of promotion and boosterism that have been directly enabled by the rise of digital culture.

In my experience, the people who suggest that criticism is no longer important or has become less important tend to make two assumptions that I think are wrong. The first is that the primary job of the critic is to act as some sort of consumer guide, advising people about which books are good and which books are bad; the second (related) assumption is that the critic is somehow imposing him- or herself in between the writer and the reader.

But the idea that critics have become otiose because it is now possible to access the unfiltered opinions and impressions of any number of ‘real’ readers misses the point. Much of what matters about criticism is not to do with opinion and impression, but with analysis and argument. Criticism is primarily concerned with meaning, and in that sense it is indispensable. I think perhaps the word ‘authority’ may be a little bit suspect in this context. It would indeed be presumptuous and ultimately counterproductive to set oneself up as some kind of arbiter of taste whose job it is to advise readers whether or not they will like something. To the extent that an individual critic can claim some kind of authority, it can only be on the strength of the cogency of his or her arguments.

4. Who do you think is the most important novelist at work today and why?

I would hesitate to say. There are many novelists at work today who are doing very good and interesting work, but it would be difficult and probably foolish to single anyone out. The underlying questions are what makes a good novel in the first place and why we might consider novels to be culturally important, and those are questions I don’t think I can answer in any succinct way. It’s more of a potential thesis topic than an interview question, I think.

5. Any advice for disillusioned arts students whose parents keep telling them to do a commerce degree? 

I have managed to remain illusioned and my parents never tried to make me study commerce, so I’m not sure. Get some new parents?  I don’t think that we should be too hard on the poor hypothetical parents, who are merely concerned with the future material wellbeing of their child. And if it is career prospects you are after, then commerce is definitely the way to go. I can only say that I am glad I took an arts degree. But of course the way things are going at present, it is quite possible that our unfortunate student will soon not be able to afford to get any kind of a degree at all, thanks in no small part to the miserable ideological assumptions of a lot of dour people with commerce degrees.