There is the moment when a book arrives in the mail for review. Before opening the package, I hesitate an instant: Will it be readable? Enjoyable? Stimulating? Add to ideas? Foster debate? Or will it be awful? And, if it’s awful, will it be awful in an interesting way? Or just plain bad?
I consider myself to be a fair reviewer. As a writer, I understand the effort and dedication that goes into creating a long work for publication. In any book, there is almost always something good to set against whatever might be negative.
Last December, I was sent Bryce Courtenay’s The Story of Danny Dunn. Though I knew his name as a blockbuster sort of writer, I’d never read anything by him. To be honest, I never really wanted to, and so I stood crestfallen when this very heavy book arrived. It took a long time to get through.
After a week, my editor politely queried: “The Courtenay review… soon?”
“Nearly there,” I replied. “It’s long, and I feel I should be fair and read the entire book before writing about it.”
A couple of days later I delivered a scathing review, one of the most negative I’ve ever written. I could not find one positive thing to mention. An excerpt:
Courtenay is an author who eschews literary aspirations in favour of writing what he puts forward as simple stories about simple lives. In this case, such non-elitism falls into shallow characterisations, predictable conflicts, and expected resolutions. In a recent interview, Courtenay claimed to have the education required to write a literary novel, to be a writer rather than just a storyteller. Unfortunately, The Story of Danny Dunn isn’t a good novel of any sort. It isn’t a novel by Bryce Courtenay, the Writer, or Bryce Courtenay, the Storyteller; it has the feel, rather, of being manufactured by the Bryce Courtenay Machine.
It’s a year later and, right on schedule, Courtenay has produced another book—Fortune Cookie. I was spared that moment of getting it for review (and then having to traverse my way through it). I did, however, read with interest Geordie Williamson’s review in The Australian. I was amused by the parallel with my review of last year’s book. Williamson says: “Aided by a small army of researchers, personal assistants, editors, brand managers and marketing directors, Courtenay does what he has always done: sell things, and exceptionally well.”
In the review, Williamson also refers to the well-known stoush between Courtenay and Peter Carey. Last June, in an interview with Crikey, Courtenay labeled Carey’s closing speech at the Sydney Writers Festival “absolute bullshit”. (Carey called for higher literary standards.)
“Peter Carey is a perfect example of that kind of inane literacy (sic) snobbery. Good writing is good writing,” the 76-year-old told Crikey from his home in Bowral in NSW. “There’s no such thing as popular writing versus literary writing. If I’m a popular writer then Peter Carey is an unpopular writer. If I’m a best-selling writer than he’s a worst-selling writer.
“It’s not ‘I am a literate writer and he is an illiterate writer’. My education is every bit as good as Peter’s, possibly better. Unequivocally, I could write his kind of stuff.”
It seems to be lost on Courtenay that Peter Carey hasn’t done so badly for himself—with excellent sales, three Bookers among other prizes, as well as film versions of his novels. All this and ideas, style, and craftsmanship too.
Courtenay remains mightily defensive. If he is indeed capable of writing well-crafted novels with solid ideas and interesting characterisations, I urge him to do so. He should shut down the factory and really write. So he misses next year’s just-in-time-for-Christmas release. Big W will find something else to display. Uncle Joe just might be relieved at getting a different kind of book for a change.
I think Courtenay has long been coasting on the reputation of his first novel, which I’ve been told isn’t bad. If he continues with his current frequency and standard of output, he should expect the kinds of reviews he’s currently getting.
Like Carey, I strongly encourage the reading public to send a message to the publishing industry by not supporting this type of substandard factory product. There’s room for fiction of all types: literary, crime, adventure, speculative, fantasy, romance. What there isn’t room for is this kind of cynical, assembly-line, cheaply-made, profit-at-all-costs writing. Do not reward it.