The Godfather: Peter Corris on reviewing
I must have written hundreds of book reviews. I cut my teeth at the business when I was an academic, reviewing books in the fields of my own research – race relations in Australia and the Pacific. I was lucky; these were popular areas of research and published writing at the time and I was in the box seat. The work wasn’t paid, of course, but a review article, where you considered a number of related books at length, qualified as a publication for your CV (I did a number of those), and single reviews kept your name front and centre. As an ambitious young academic I reviewed often. I was a quick reader and found writing easy. ‘I can’t open a journal without finding you in it,’ one of my colleagues said, and I was pleased.
When I began reviewing for newspapers and magazines in 1975, I found the experience exhilarating: not only did the words appear quickly to a wider public (academic journals were notoriously slow to publish), but money was paid. These two forces, combined with my dislike of teaching, helped impel me out of academia into journalism.
I’ve written how I scraped along as a freelance reviewer until appointed literary editor of the National Times, where I contributed a great many reviews because, in addition to my rather meagre salary, I was paid for each review.
Subsequently I continued to review regularly for such papers as the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, occasionally for the Illawarra Mercury and magazines, and even, as a favour to a friend, Quadrant.
I found reviewing easy and enjoyable for a number of reasons. I share, with other writers I’ve discussed this with, what might be called ‘a lust for print’. We are never so happy as when we see ourselves in print, however measly the fee. I once achieved the double-header – a review in the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald on the same Saturday – and was inordinately pleased.
I can honestly claim that I always read the books, though I sometimes skipped the dull parts. I tried to evaluate what the writer was trying to do rather than what I thought he or she should have done. My models were George Orwell for his plain speaking and Clive James for lightness of touch, though I never achieved their heights.
Looking back over my career as a general reviewer I can see a few themes. One is that I never reviewed contemporary Australian crime writers. This is common among Australian reviewers – the field is too small to invite enemies. Let the journalists carry the can. I also kept reviews short. Many reviews, in my opinion, are too long and self-indulgent. I always tried to sketch what the book was like, what its appeal was and what reservations I had to enable readers to make their own evaluations.
I made mistakes: a major one was to suggest that Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977) was just a re-jigged diary. I didn’t realise what a powerful talent I’d underestimated. One response to a review of mine stands out in my memory. In a review of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s first book, Chopper From the Inside (1991), I said that it was ‘partly bogus’. Read cheekily had the quote printed on the back cover of Chopper 2: Hits and Memories (1992) – up yours, Corris.