Spotlight on: Jeff Sparrow
“Literary criticism isn’t an add-on to the publishing culture; it’s actually a part of what makes good writing.” Meet our 2019 Walkley-Pascall Prize-winner for Arts Criticism.
2019 Walkley-Pascall Prize for Arts Criticism
Jeff Sparrow, Sydney Review of Books, “A Place of Punishment: No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani”
Jeff Sparrow won the 2019 Walkley-Pascall Prize for Arts Criticism with a long essay for Sydney Review of Books on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains. The judges found Jeff’s essay on the detained author’s book an “illuminating and challenging” exploration of the power of writing and reading.
“He takes an important, award-winning book and examines it in the context of a long tradition of prison literature by authors such as Primo Levi, Jean Améry and Victor Serge,” the judges said.
“While much has been written about No Friend But the Mountains, Sparrow’s investigation of the issues it raises is original. This is a thoroughly researched and ethical contribution to the Sydney Review of Books. The editor of the Sydney Review of Books is also to be commended for publishing this work and many others of a high standard which the judges reviewed in the category of arts criticism.”
How did you come to write this piece?
I’ve been writing for Sydney Review of Books since more or less when it was launched. Sometimes I pitch them things but I’m pretty sure Catriona [Menzies-Pike, SRB editor] asked if I wanted to write a review. I was keen from the start because I thought it was an important book, but also because even though it had been acclaimed in a lot of reviews, I thought they’d missed some of the arguments it was trying to make.
One of the things I really like about the SRB and other literary magazines like Overland is that you have enough space to do a longer piece, to make the kind of arguments that you increasingly can’t make in other media outlets that do reviews. That essay was about 4000 words, which you can’t really do anywhere else.
Sydney Review of Books had a strong showing in this year’s prize, with both yourself and Fiona Wright nominated for work there. The judges were impressed. What makes a great publication for criticism?
The SRB was launched to fill that gap for longform literary criticism and literary essays because the media in Australia, as elsewhere, has been under such pressure. Sections for arts criticism in general, and book criticism in particular have been shrinking. Once upon a time there might have been more opportunities to do long, serious criticism in newspapers but it’s getting harder and harder to have that space.
I know as a writer myself, one of the things I’ve really appreciated about the Sydney Review of Books is whether I get a good review or bad review, generally the author has taken the time to dive deep into your book and to engage with it. That’s actually something that’s hard to find in the Australian context. Very often now reviews are just summaries of the book, and one or two sentences about whether the reviewer liked it or not.
The SRB allows you to try to tease out what the book is doing and have a productive argument with it. It’s actually a really important part of a literary culture.
Literary criticism isn’t an add-on to the publishing culture; it’s actually a part of what makes good writing, people being able to read and engage with it.
What went into this piece?
This piece did take me quite some time, partly because what I wanted to do was to try to understand Behrouz’s book within a variety of different contexts. Generically one of the arguments I make in the review is that the book has to be understood within conventions of prison literature. Which meant as part of the review I did a fair bit of reading around that genre.
The other aspect of the essay was trying to come to terms with the theoretical arguments in the book. And I think that was quite important. Because Behrouz’s book is — while a type of memoir, it’s not simply a memoir. It’s also an argument about political theory. So that was something I was keen to do: take it seriously as a book of ideas, not simply a piece of reportage or as the testimony of someone who is in refugee detention. But he’s very clear that that’s not all that he’s doing. He’s trying to make a particular argument about the political function of these camps. So that was something I was trying to tease out as well.
What impact did the story have?
Long essays of literary criticism, you never really know what the response is going to be. Sometimes they disappear without trace. But that one did circulate quite widely. I did get quite a lot of feedback, particularly after Behrouz himself had retweeted it. It also acquainted me a little bit with some of the hostility that people who are engaged in asylum seeker politics get as well.
What made you want to be a journalist? Or do you identify more as a writer or an author?
That’s an interesting question in and of itself at the moment — what is a journalist? When are you a journalist and when aren’t you?
I write a column regularly for The Guardian, so I guess in that sense I am a journalist. But it was something I came into through writing books rather than the other way around. I’ve had quite a circuitous career. I started writing as an extension of political stuff I was doing. Then I started writing books about history. If you’re involved in writing books in Australia you end up engaging in the media through things like book reviewing, then I moved into opinion writing. Now I do a fair bit of feature writing as well. Whether that makes me a journalist or not, I don’t know!
It’s all writing, anyway: putting words together into sentences, and sentences together into paragraphs. In some ways those distinctions are perhaps breaking down a little bit. Given that we’re all writing online now, and particularly given that the industry seems to be increasingly comprised of people who are either freelancing or on short term contacts… those delineations are moot.
You mentioned that in part these distinctions have kind of broken down because everyone’s writing on the internet. And I’m interested in what you think about the importance of really good quality criticism in a world where anyone can be a critic, or write about the arts or literature, on the internet?
I think there is a crying need for really good criticism. It goes back to what I was saying before. Criticism is not a secondary activity that just is an optional add-on to the creative process. It’s integral to the creative culture as a whole. There is this kind of dialogue between writers and critics about works, the meaning of works, and how they fit into society. I know myself as a writer, there is nothing more satisfying than reading critics who’ve engaged deeply with your work. Whether they’ve agreed with it or disagreed with it, you have a sense that there is a sophisticated attempt to come to terms with what you’ve produced. Conversely, there’s nothing more frustrating than to produce a book, and even if people praise it, sometimes you still have a sense they haven’t engaged with it deeply.
There is something of a crisis of criticism in Australia and it’s connected to broader declines in media. You only have to look at the book pages that used to be in the Saturday papers compared to the book pages there are today, to see how much less space there is for literary criticism. Obviously that’s a problem for people that want to write about the arts, but also for anyone who cares about books and arts generally. Because without that critical nurturing the arts themselves, I think, will suffer.
Having written books yourself that have been critiqued, has that changed the way you approach writing criticism?
I think it’s important for critics to really say what they think. There has been a bit of a sense in the Autralian context where there are so few reviews, that when you’re reviewing a book it would be tremendously mean to not give it a glowing review. So very often we end up with a review culture where people are simply describing the contents of a book, giving a sentence or two to assess it.
I think as a writer myself I would much prefer to have a serious engagement with someone who thinks I’m wrong than to have a glib engagement with someone who says my thing is great.
So much of great criticism is understanding the context for art, so experience is really powerful. But is that daunting for aspiring critics, young and emerging voices? What would be your advice to an aspiring critic?
I think this is an interesting and important point — it goes back to what we were discussing about the decline of the old models. There used to be some kind of career path for people who want to be opera critics, theatre critics, or various specialty fields you could actually sustain a career on in a way that it’s much more difficult to do now. It’s increasingly difficult to make a living, in these fields, like it is for many journalists in all sorts of fields.
For people who are aspiring, you need a massive degree of determination. A degree of flexibility, so you can find various income sources for yourself. And I suppose most importantly, you have to actually think that the arts matter, that ideas matter, that arguments matter. Because if you’re simply doing it as a career, that career path doesn’t exist in the same way it once did.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
Writing is a form of communication but unlike other more direct forms of communication it can have deferred effects. And so sometimes a piece you’ve written, or a book you’ve written, or an article will reach someone unexpectedly and have a consequence you weren’t anticipating.
Somebody will find a book in a context that you weren’t imagining that they would. Or somebody you couldn’t imagine as a reader of one of your pieces will come across it and tell you afterwards it made them think about something differently, or it had some effect.
For me that’s the most satisfying aspect of it. That you’re putting a message in a bottle, and that bottle is reaching somebody on distant shore in a way you wouldn’t otherwise have anticipated.
The best thing about receiving this prize?
The best thing about receiving it was that this was an award that was judged by peers in the field, that the other people who were nominated for it had put this really good work. And there’s something lovely in having the appreciation of people who work in the same field that you do. Seeing that your work is valued by them is really nice, and meant a lot.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
These are dangerous and intense times. I mean, this is a book review about a book written by somebody who’s in detention in an Australian-run facility, under conditions that I think previous generations would have found it difficult to imagine that Australians would allow to persist.
The things that are happening in the world now are, or should be, a tremendous warning to us all. And a serious media, decent reporting, serious discussions are not sufficient but necessary in rising to the challenges of the world we face at the moment.
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, broadcaster and editor. He contributes a regular column to Guardian Australia. His most recent books include Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right and No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jeff_Sparrow
The All media: Walkley-Pascall Prize for Arts Criticism is supported by the Geraldine Pascall Foundation
The Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, supports $5000 in prize money.