The Godfather: Peter Corris on being reviewed
The worst review I ever got was back in my academic days. My MA thesis, Aborigines and Europeans in Western Victoria from First Contact to 1860, a typically cumbersome title, was published in 1967 by the Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra as an occasional number in a series of monographs. An academic at, I think La Trobe University, wrote a devastating critique pointing out its factual errors, inadequate research and faulty theoretical underpinnings. Although the thesis had gained me the degree and a PhD scholarship, I was chagrined but not humiliated.
I excused myself with the thought that I’d done the best I could under the circumstances – time and the pressure of teaching. An easy out, perhaps, but I doubt that anyone ever writes anything under ideal conditions. Writing isn’t like that; those who wait for ideal conditions probably don’t ever write.
My subsequent academic books were respectfully reviewed without setting my career alight. When I embarked on a freelance writing journey, I had at first bad and then very good luck.
My history of prize fighting in Australia, Lords of the Ring (1980) probably took me longer than any other book to write. It involved a lot of research and recasting but my high hopes for it were dashed. It was published by Cassell, a publisher that was soon to be subsumed. It received almost no reviews and the one promotional event organised had me seated in a mocked-up boxing ring close to the cosmetics section in the David Jones store with a pile of books by my side. Not a single buyer! One woman, taking pity on me, chatted briefly about her son who had been a boxer.
The first Cliff Hardy novel, The Dying Trade (1980), was also made an orphan when the American publisher McGraw Hill cancelled its Australian fiction list, of which my book was one of the two published. Happily, because of its novelty, the first indigenous, as it were, Australian crime novel in decades, it got positive reviews from all quarters and was picked up, along with the next two in the series, as a paperback by Pan and then, as I continued to produce rapidly, by Allen & Unwin, by then embarked on their enterprising and successful Australian venture.
Over the years, with many books in different genres, I’ve had no seriously damaging reviews. One reviewer of perhaps the 10th Hardy book suggested that the blows the detective received on the head would’ve been mentally damaging. I took notice and when it was sometimes necessary for the protagonist to be out of action, I found other ways. Stuart Coupe, a friend, wrote that reading Aftershock (1991), the Hardy novel about the Newcastle earthquake, ‘was like watching paint dry’. It hurt at the time. I console myself with the fact that it is one of the most popular of my books borrowed from libraries and as an e-book.
Overall, I have only had two disappointments at the hands of reviewers. One has been that their treatment of my historical novels, which I consider to be my best writing, never generated public enthusiasm or good sales. The other is the paucity of reviews of the autobiography (co-written with euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke), Damned if I Do (2013). Newspapers, magazines and their editors are evidently as terrified as politicians of dealing with this issue, which has overwhelming support in the Australian population. Its time will come and this brave and pungent book may be one day seen in its true light.