I’ve been thinking about the role of the critic recently. First because I sometimes review books for Who magazine, and am therefore a professional though occasional critic, and second because I love films, and have been totally at odds with the critics on two recent motion picture releases: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I’ve already blogged about, and Australia, which I finally saw on Friday night. The critics praised the first and largely damned the second, and I can’t emphasise enough how much I disagree with them on both counts. Which brings me to a reader’s recent and staunch defence of Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes on DoctorDi. I imagine this was Sandra Hogan’s maiden and probably last visit to this blog, and I was really taken aback when I first read her comment. Good heavens, I thought, this lady’s really angry with me. I felt a bit misunderstood: I wasn’t attempting to review Johnson’s novel in that post, I was actually talking about another book and mentioned Johnson’s by way of comparison. But I did review Life in Seven Mistakes for Who, and since this eventually all wound its way to the author’s own blog, I’ve been thinking and even worrying a little bit about the damage that reviewers can do. Especially after seeing Australia, but more about that in a moment.
As one such reviewer, I’ve been going over and over my Johnson review, and was duly abashed by the certain knowledge that Susan Johnson herself ended up seeing my blog post, which wasn’t my review of her novel (her very successful novel, I might add – mine may well be the only review out there that wasn’t a verbal ovation). In the post, I said things that shat and irked me in Life in Seven Mistakes were deftly avoided by Charlotte Wood in The Children. First Sandra Hogan and then Susan Johnson understandably leapt on the unfortunate phrase ‘shat and irked’ – not exactly the usual parlance of the professional critic, let’s face it, and not what I would have said had I been in a professional forum. Still, I really was repeatedly, genuinely irritated reading Life in Seven Mistakes – I found the chief protagonist Elizabeth Barton stunted and infuriatingly passive. I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and remind her that she was a grown woman, for god’s sake, not a child, and was therefore accountable for the condition of her own life. In my opinion, it was time to stop making everyone else responsible for her well being. By the end I’d completely lost my readerly empathy for the character, which was disastrous, and I worked hard to balance my review.
Now, on the other hand, I strongly considered editing the post. After experiencing the wrath of Sandra Hogan (I don’t doubt Johnson’s delighted to have Sandra in her corner!), I was embarrassed by my language, and I didn’t want Susan Johnson reading it, but then I thought, well, the truth is, I really was shat off. I was irked. And if I can’t admit that on my own blog, where can I admit it? And anyway, it was too late – it was out there, they both read it, and I stand by it. But don’t think I’m not sorry to have felt that way reading a book so many people love, and that Johnson worked so hard to produce. I don’t read books I’m reviewing looking to be annoyed or alienated. I pick up every single text with a sense of profound hope and anticipation, because books are precious to me, utterly precious. Books are holy to me. I never have any desire to write a negative review, and I take no pleasure from those occasions when my response is lukewarm or worse. I just try to be honest – as a reader. I love reading, I’m an involved, attentive reader, and I want to love every single book I read. It’s just not always possible, and sometimes I miss a boat that’s packed to the rafters with revelling readers. We’re all different, so it’s bound to happen, but the question of how much reviewers sway opinion is one that bothers me always (I worry about restaurants going under, I fret about first-time authors never seeing a second chance, I gnaw my nails at people bravely putting themselves out there only to be slammed and bloodied against the wall), and I take my responsibility as an occasional reviewer very seriously indeed, though I contribute to a magazine that is not serious at all. So. That’s all I can tell you.
Oh, except that I loved Australia. I can’t understand the critical response to this movie – so I completely get why Sandra Hogan can’t understand my response to a novel she obviously loved, and why she was so fired up about it. I feel the same way about Australia. And like Sandra Hogan, I’m not alone: there was a spontaneous burst of audience applause at the end of the Friday night screening I saw. I can’t remember the last time I was in a cinema and people clapped at the end. It was typical Luhrmann in the sense of melodrama and pageantry, and it was, as always, utterly gorgeous and made me want to drop everything and run off to Arnhem Land, but it was also very funny and loving, and, it seemed to me, wonderfully and deliberately Australian. No colonising Brits strutting about sticking Union Jacks in the red earth (Kidman’s character is an English aristocrat, but aside from using this to great comic effect – why is Kidman’s comedic ability so widely denied? – there’s scarcely a Pom in sight), no Yanks charging in to save the day – just some very recognisable Australian types. And I’d love to know what Indigenous Australians think of it, too, because more than anything, I came away feeling the whole film was a gesture of friendship, and that’s an incredibly hopeful thing. To hell with the critics (and that includes me).