I came to book reviewing in a bizarre way. In 1975 I was teaching at a CAE in Gippsland, Victoria, and hating it, when I read a newspaper review by Olaf Ruhen of a book on Pacific history. I was affronted. I’ve forgotten the book’s title, but I thought the review poor and wrote to Stuart Sayers, the Literary Editor of the Age, to say so. I told him I had a PhD in Pacific history and could do better.
Understandably, Sayers was outraged, not only at my impertinence and arrogance, but because the review had not appeared in the Age at all but in the Australian. Sayers sent my letter to Elizabeth Riddell, the Literary Editor of the Australian, who quoted it to Olaf Ruhen. I never met Ruhen, but he must have been a man with a generous spirit because he was amused and suggested to Elizabeth that she give me a go to see if I could live up to my boast. Quite a bit later I wrote to thank him.
The first book I had from Elizabeth was The Lost Caravel by Robert Langdon, which argued that some customs and technological advances displayed by Polynesian societies were the product of their exposure to European influence – castaways from a lost Spanish vessel. I was unconvinced and wrote a critical review in which I made a comparison with Erich von Daniken’s fantasy Chariots of the Gods. The sub-editor titled my review ‘Chariots of the Castaways’.
Robert Langdon had been a fellow member of the ANU’s Department of Pacific History as an archivist. He was very hurt by my review and wrote to me and to Elizabeth Riddell, who published the letter. Within reason, there is nothing a literary editor likes better than a response from an author. It proves that someone is reading the pages and very likely talking about them to others.
Elizabeth Riddell continued to send me books and I hammered out reviews on a portable typewriter, reading and writing quickly so that I sometimes had three or four reviews banked up, awaiting publication. The appearance of the reviews was the one bright spot in my servitude in the Gippsland mud. My model was George Orwell – simple language without pretension or obscurity. I tried to inject something funny or caustic to catch the reader’s eye, but I never achieved the acerbity of Humphrey McQueen, who once wrote that the book under review ‘should have remained a tree’.
In 1976 I abandoned academia and moved with my family to Sydney where, for a time, I scraped a partial living writing book reviews for the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, Nation Review and any other outlet that would offer me a fee, however small. I had a lust for print and it was a rare but triumphant Saturday when I had a review published in both the Sydney broadsheets. Money was tight and I often went to the News Limited pay office to collect my cheque rather than wait for it in the post.
As I wrote in an earlier column, book reviewing became a mainstay for a couple of years when I became the Literary Editor of the National Times. In the years following, as a published author, I continued to review for the broadsheets and occasionally, usually as a favour to a friend, for the literary magazines. I took care never to review my contemporaries and competitors in the Australian crime field – Marele Day, Kerry Greenwood, Clair McNab, Robert Wallace (pseudonym of Robin Wallace-Crabbe), etc. Some were friends and any could be encountered, embarrassingly if one had put the knife in, at book and writing events.
In a long career as a book reviewer, now very much scaled back by my eyesight problems, I believe I only made one enemy. For a trenchant reviewer like McQueen, Clive James or Louis Nowra, this would be a failure. My one enemy, who I’ve heard has (probably not seriously) threatened me with harm, is a writer about whose book I said something like: it’s the kind of book written by people who can’t write but think they can. Harsh but deserved.