Sometimes I style myself as “a poet, essayist and critic,” and what I have in mind by “critic” is my work as a book reviewer and literary commentator.
I’ve always enjoyed book reviewing, and over the years I’ve written a couple of hundred, I guess. A book review, written a certain way, is an essay, a thing Anne Fadiman affirms in her introduction to Best American Essays 2003. Even a short review—and I’ve written mostly reviews of a couple of hundred words, an exacting constraint, over the past years, most of them for The Bulletin—can be a brief essay. Good reviews don’t just retell the story; nor is their primary purpose to tell you whether you should read the book or not. Good reviews converse with the book; they pick up an idea and develop it. That’s what I tried to do in my short review of Cormac McCarthy’s fine novel, The Road. The trick is to find something worth saying beyond a précis of the book, while not stealing its thunder. It’s a thing I try to do even if I hate the book (see my review of Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest) or feel only mildly engaged by it (see my review of Dave Eggers’s novel, What is the What? and Brenda Niall’s memoir, Life Class).
I wrote a PhD some years ago; my book The Land’s Wild Music came out of that time. For a period I thought I might become a university teacher of writing and literature. I have written a few essays of literary criticism, though I’ve always steered clear of the recondite and abstract prose that the academy favours these days. In a way, the extended studies I make of the works of Barry Lopez and the others in The Land’s Wild Music are such writing. One essay I’m pleased with is my study of the poetry of Robert Gray, an Australian poet I have admired for many years. That essay is called “Under the Mountains and Beside a Creek”. It appears in an altered version in an anthology called The Littoral Zone.