Kate Livett

Not a little fit, not a little fit sun sat in shed more mentally.
Let us why, let us why weight, let us why winter chess, let us why way. …

— Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914).

Utterly different from its use by Gertrude Stein in Modernist experimental poetry, ‘fit’ has become a pop culture word of the 2010s, meaning the ‘fit’ between product and consumer, between organisation and employee, between equally ridiculous celebrities. Give us some examples, you say? Okay. Some perfect ‘fits’: The Wiggles and small children. Apple computers and art/design students. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (yes, I know it’s On the Rocks, but that’s all part of it – a Hollywood couple with such perfectly matched levels of narcissism – from perfectly amorous fit to perfectly vicious split!).

‘Fit’ is a pretty good word to describe what a reviews editor is trying to achieve. I try to make sure there is a ‘fit’ between the book and the reviewer.

How to attain such a fit? The main method is simple:

–       the book is about a particular topic, and the reviewer is a professional specialising in that area.

It might look obvious, but it’s less easy to achieve than you’d think. Ideally, I will be professional acquaintances with an academic or writer who specializes in the book’s subject matter. If so, before I email them asking if they’ll do the review, I need to ask myself a couple of questions, and be able to answer them with confidence:

  1. Has this potential reviewer worked on the book or provided substantial manuscript/editing advice? With many fields of academic study being quite small, this can often be the case. If it is, I have to cross them off the list.
  2. Is this potential reviewer the sworn-enemy of the book’s author? Have they been in a public spat over their difference of professional opinion? If the answer to this question is yes, this doesn’t automatically rule them out as a potential reviewer, it just means I need to think very carefully about why I would give them the book to review, ie. What am I hoping to achieve by practically guaranteeing a negative, probably even sledging, review? (Some publications do this deliberately, in order to create a hoo-haa and get audience attention. However, most reviewers would hestitate to set up such a review as – hoo-haa fun notwithstanding – the resulting review isn’t very helpful to anyone, as it is pretty much guaranteed to be biased and at the very least a highly selective review).

Okay, if I can confidently reply to my own questions as above, that the person I know is a professional specializing in the book’s subject matter, but has not been involved with the book, and yet does not have an AVO out on the author, then we’re good to go, we have a ‘fit’! I can slap the book in a mail bag and entrust it to the winged messengers of Australia Post. Then I just sit back and wait a month or so for the reviewer to read the book and send me an informed, engaged and authoritative review. Success!

End of the Night GirlThis was the exact run of events before Christmas when I took delivery of my first lovely pile of freshly-printed books from the Southerly office, to take home and then send out to reviewers (with perhaps a little cheeky glance at a couple of them by me – one of the perks of the job!). One of the books is a novel by a young Australian woman, Amy T. Matthews, entitled End of the Night Girl, published by Wakefield Press, 2011.

The title instantly invokes the title of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932), an infamous French post-World-War-I novel, used by feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in her very famous Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982). Kristeva uses Céline’s novel to show how literature is a space in which writers can explore the boundaries of physical, psychical and moral domains.


Kristeva argues that – as Céline’s novel, in which many disgusting, abject and ‘immoral’ things occur in the context of WWI, shows – society and indeed our very sense of our selves as functioning, distinct individuals, is based on our decisions about where the boundaries lie, and our collective obedience regarding them. (If you are interested in this, quite a few years ago now I wrote an essay on Kristeva’s theory of abjection in relation to Radiohead’s 2003 album, Hail to the Thief, for AHR (Australian Humanities Review). AHR is an awesome online, refereed scholarly journal, and you can read the article here for free.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Amy T. Matthews’ 2011 novel, End of the Night Girl. The title seemed to me to be alluding to Céline’s novel. Upon further examination ie. Reading the back-cover blurb, I was resolved in this impression. Here’s the blurb:

Molly, a sassy Australian waitress, is haunted by the ghost of a murdered Polish Jew. The two young women’s stories, each a compelling page-turner, combine teasingly in one as End of the Night Girl explores shadows cast by the Holocaust across decades, continents and cultures.

It sounded to me like it shared the considerations of the degeneration of European civilization. However, its focus is clearly the post-WWII and Holocaust loss of faith in the coherence and humanist morality of the European ‘self.’ In the specifics of its contemporary setting and the range of European nationalities included, as well as its examination of the effects of social trauma, it also suggested it might share something with Christos Tsiolkas’ (author of The Slap) 2005 novel, Dead Europe.

Here’s a link to the Random House website for Dead Europe: http://www.randomhouse.com.au/books/christos-tsiolkas/dead-europe-9781740511940.aspx

Tsiolkas being an Australian writing about these issues of trauma, Europe, Late-Modern self, sexuality, and death, and Amy T. Matthews being, also, an Australian writing about them, reminded me that I needed to choose a reviewer who was an Australianist – that is, who specializes in Australian Literature. Many people don’t realize how extensive Australian Literature is, and how much of a specialization it is. A literature academic who specializes in modern American literature, for example, would really not know even a quarter of what it is necessary to know in order to discuss, with authority, contemporary Australian fiction, and vice versa. So, I needed a specialist in contemporary Aust. Lit., preferably one with an even more precise specialization in theories dealing with abjection, death, sexuality, trauma, and the disintegration of the white European subject… Aha! What about my colleague Dr. Laura Joseph! She has recently finished her PhD in the field of Australian literature, on the topic of Australian, or antipodean, literature and its construction of selfhood, time and space. Here is a section of the abstract for her PhD, which is entitled ‘Brimstone Flowers: Towards an Antipodean Poetics of Space’:

… As a real and imagined space where geographic location and classical and Judeo-Christian cosmologies collide, representations of the antipodes are circumscribed by a metaphorics of classical and biblical underworlds. I demonstrate that these tropisms are key to relationships between the imaginative operations of antipodean space, transformations in the geographic imaginary and the emergence of particular formations of subjectivity.

Showing how contemporary antipodean fiction uses the tropisms of the past to make sense of what Bill Brown has called a moment of temporal, spatial and ideological “bewilderment” in Western thought, I examine how literature both informs and responds to dilemmas of real and symbolic location. In the contemporary texts analysed in the second half of the thesis, the imaginative tradition of the antipodes with its affinity with, and proximity to hell and classical underworlds is able to offer contingent and materially grounded resolutions to contemporary bewilderment. Finally, I argue that from this imagination a new vertical metaphorics can be seen to emerge, where the material specificity of region as a location of possibility departs from colonial and national spaces.

Pretty cool! You can download Joseph’s thesis for free from the UNSW library catalogue: http://primoa.library.unsw.edu.au/primo_library/libweb/tiles/lrs/unsworks/datastream.jsp?pid=UNSWorks9266

After a quick email to Dr. Joseph in which she said she didn’t know Matthews (that’s a ‘No’ for the arch-enemies question, then!), and she would be interested in doing the review, I whacked End of the Night Girl into a postbag and smiled with the satisfaction of achieving a reviewer-book ‘fit.’

As to the types of reviews actually written by reviewers… well, there are many kinds, but the most useful to a prospective buyer of the book is a review that at least tries to be objective, describing the book and informing the reader where it sits in relation to other books on the same topic. A ‘quick’ way to do this is often seen in music reviews, as Vijay Khurana points out in his April 2010 jMag review of eponymous album by band ‘The Soft Pack.’ Khurana writes:

I usually eschew lazy musical comparisons such as, “These guys are like if Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones drove to a Scissor Sisters gig while listening to a mixtape made by Bjork and on the way they ran over David Bowie and the only witness was Dizzee Rascal.”

Ha!  But this can sometimes be a very effective way of describing an album/book/film, particularly if the artwork is wearing its influences so proudly that they outshine any moments of experimentation with or development of those influences. Khurana identifies this as he continues his review ‘The Soft Pack’:

But in this case, [such a comparison is] just too apt to ignore.
This band is the Strokes meets Eddy Current Suppression Ring.

The hits do outweigh the misses, but the Soft Pack sound like a band who have stuck too hard and fast to one idea.

A ‘useful’ review isn’t always the same thing as a review that’s the most fun to read for a reader with no serious interest in buying the book. For that reader, a really good old-fashioned sledge-fest can be heaps of fun! Here are some of my favourite scathing reviews from the literary past:

F. W. Dupee defines Gertrude Stein’s modernist experimental writing as “gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated… lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation.” (Source: Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten, 1962).

Reviewing Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, one of Chopin’s hometown newspapers, the St. Louis Republic, described it as “poison” and “too strong a drink for moral babes.” (Can’t you just imagine thousands of readers going: “Ooooo, sounds good, where can I get a copy?”) In any case, it’s now regarded as an important work of feminist literature.

More recently, here’s Laura Miller reviewing Diary, the 2003 novel by Chuck Palahniuk:

The wildly popular Fight Club novelist Chuck Palahniuk is back with more fodder for his army of disenfranchised Everymen, delivered with all the grace and poetry of a blunt object.

— Salon, Aug. 2003

But it’s particularly mean when it’s from a family member… To return to Gertrude Stein, this is a comment by Leo Stein – older brother to Gertrude, who had in the years just preceeding this been a kind of mentor to her – on Gertrude Stein’s ‘cubist’ literature of the early 1910s:

Both [Pablo Picasso] and Gertrude are using their intellects, which they ain’t got, to do what would need the finest critical tact, which they ain’t got neither, and they are in my belief turning out the most Godalmighty rubbish that is to be found.

                        -Leo Stein in a letter to Mabel Weeks, 1913.

(source: Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, ed. Renate Stendhal, Thames & Hudson, 1995.)

Leo Stein’s comment is a timely reminder for all of us in the post-social-media world where harshness seems commensurate with ease of upload; his flat-out derision is part of a ‘private’ letter, and perhaps he thought it would never be made publicly available… Having written such thoughts down, though, history has preserved and published them, and now they serve to make him look more than a little bit stupid!

But if carpe diem is your motto, and you couldn’t give two hoots about internet archiving or burning bridges, it seems that if you’re a truly mean reviewer you might even win a prize, nowadays! The BBC did a story on ‘The Hatchet Job of the Year Award,’ a prize being awarded by The Omnivore online journal, which collates reviews, for the most scathing review of the past year. Anna Baddeley, editor of The Omnivore, commenting on the shortlist of eight, says that: “All eight are artful demolitions that can be enjoyed equally by the expert and the general reader.”

One of the reviews on the shortlist is by TV presenter Mary Beard, who described Robert Hughes’ Rome as “little short of a disgrace – to both author and publisher.” In her review of Rome in the Guardian, Beard wrote also that “It is riddled with errors and misunderstandings that will mislead the innocent and infuriate the specialist.”

‘Scathing Reviews Prize’ story source:


Apparently, the winner of the most scathing review of the year gets a year’s supply of potted shrimp. It’s tempting to say at this point: What goes around comes around….