Book review: Critic Swallows Book: Ten Years of the Sydney Review of Books, edited by Catriona Menzies-Pike

A selection of essays that bear witness to a diverse history of literary criticism in Australia.
Sydney Review of Books. Image is an author shot on the left, a woman with very short dark hair outside leaning on a white fence, and on the right a green book cover filled with authors' names.

Established in 2013, the Sydney Review of Books (SRB) this year marked a decade of publication. Critic Swallows Book encapsulates a series of critical essays published throughout the 10-year history of SRB.

As outgoing editor Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in her introduction, this volume is driven less by the idea of condensing the “best essays” published by SRB, and more by a desire to resist manufactured “competitive hierarchies” that creative environments in which it is ‘difficult to think about the connections and communities that can form’ between writers, readers and texts.

The essays nestled within these pages are characterised by their autonomy and wit, as well as by their keen hunger to interrogate what writing within a so-called Australian context means, both as readers and as critics.

In ‘Staring Back’, Wiradjuri writer Jeanine Leane offers beautifully entwined thinking on Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear. Araluen’s work boldly challenges the cultural and literary narratives of settler-colonial Australia, disrupting established norms, Leane suggests. In her astute refusal to frame her method of inquiry within the frame of post-coloniality – ‘because post-colonialism in a settler colony like Australia is as much a part of the settler mythscape as terra nullius’ – Leane writes towards a locus of solidarity and resistance.

In arguing that  Dropbear is a forceful, incisive and exquisitely constructed collection, she manages to braid a critique of the deceits present within the field of the white authorial tradition and, in so doing, provide a sharply articulate summation of the beauty and significance of Araluen’s work. 

‘Verisimilitude’ by Melinda Harvey moves to examine Rachel Cusk – more specifically, her works the Outline trilogy and Coventry – as well as asides referencing Deborah Levy, Sally Rooney and Susan Sontag. It is a wonderfully entangled essay – shuttling between literary critique and personal reflection – marked by a subtle inflection of Cusk’s influence upon the piece itself.

Early on, Harvey writes about a conversation with a friend, who reflects on the fact that Cusk ‘has such a cruel eye’ for her characters’ flaws: for their ‘moles, dry skin, bad teeth, big noses’. Later, when Harvey characterises a prospective student, noting his ‘pale and pimply’ skin and ‘bloodshot eyes’, the passage stretches into a Cuskian space: both deadpan and dryly witty. The essay acts as both critique and mirror: the reader themself subject to the tidal push-pull of the forces at play.

Alix Beeston, in ‘A History of Shapes’, explores the nuances present in No Document by Anwen Crawford. Opening with a contemplation of the similarities present between Crawford’s writing and the work of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, Beeston unravels the textured layers present within No Document. One of the ways the book can be read, she suggests, is as ‘an attempt to discover a form of writing fit for ephemeral art practices – especially as those practices relate to, or become bound up with, experiences of vulnerability, pain and mortality’.

The essay is also a record of Beeston’s attempts to break into the text, detailing her inclination towards the vacant spaces within the book, pen in hand, focusing primarily on the rectangular shapes that demarcate different sections. The immaculate emptiness of these shapes appear, to Beeston, to extend an invitation for their own annotations and incomplete sentences – the relationship between writer and reader twisting elastically.

Read: Book review: So Close to Home, Mick Cummins

What is, perhaps, most striking about the density of this collection is the fact that the tone of SRB has been moulded by the varied critical perspectives of its contributors, each posing distinct enquiries into the state of contemporary literature. Critic Swallows Book reflects this diversity within its pages – offering its readers a complex smorgasbord of criticism to dig into.

Critic Swallows Book: Ten Years of the Sydney Review of Books, edited by Catriona Menzies-Pike
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing
ISBN: 9780648062196
Pages: 368pp
Publication Date: December 2023
RRP: $34.95

Ellie Fisher is an emerging poet, reviewer, and lyric essayist. She holds First Class Honours in Creative Writing from The University of Western Australia. Ellie's creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Mag, Aniko Magazine, Gems Zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others.