At home with Declan Fry

Declan Fry is a critic, writer, poet, essayist, and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, in 2020 he became a critic for The Age/Sydney Morning Herald. He was also awarded the 2021 Peter Blazey Fellowship and the Lord Mayor's Creative Writing Award for memoir. His work has appeared in MeanjinThe Saturday PaperLiminal and Overland.

At home with Declan Fry


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Declan.

DECLAN: Hi. Good to be here. Thank you for having me.

ASTRID: I am... I don't even know what the words are. This is the first time, Declan, that I have tweeted someone and said, ‘That was amazing, can I please interview you?’.

DECLAN: But don't let me stop you. You can keep doing that.

ASTRID: So, you are an essayist and a critic, but your February 2021 piece in the online literary journal, Kill Your Darlings, took my breath away. I read it. I immediately messaged some of my bookish friends and said, ‘Oh my God, you have to read this, he said everything that we've been thinking and too scared to say in public’. So firstly, congratulations Declan, I mean that sincerely I am a forever reader, I love books. But, there are some significant problems in our literary industry and one of them is book review culture. Today, I want to talk to you about book review culture and why we have a problem. And also, some ways that we might be able to start fixing that problem.

DECLAN: I think the first sense that I have is we haven't got too much of a problem in so far as, as you say, you're a forever reader, and that visceral response is what I hope for when I read, when I write. I really think that you've got to leap out of your seat and tell people what just happened to me. So, I'm really glad, not just in a self-interested sense, but in the sense that it is a very generous thing to share your writing with the world. And that comes with the desire on the reader's part to really engage, to really want to sit up and pay attention, and to feel that sense of blood in the veins that I talk about in the Kill Your Darlings piece.

ASTRID: Listeners of The Garret aren't necessarily used to me putting aside a whole episode to talk about the industry. I think maybe I should do more of that, and a healthy writing culture, a healthy review culture, a healthy publishing industry benefits us all. So, before we go into what might be wrong in Australia, what makes a great book review and then following from that Declan, what makes a healthy review industry?

DECLAN: Well on the level of the book review, it really is just another piece of writing. So, all the qualities we look for in poetry, in prose, great essay, great short fiction is basically the same things we look for in a review. It is a piece of writing. You can approach it, really as freely as almost any other piece of writing. Of course, there are constraints, but ultimately writing does start from tabularize a blank slate, just you and the page, and what are you going to say? I think many people come to the review with a preconceived idea, I need to tell you this is the debut, they've won an award. Here's the plot, what did I think? I didn't like this, let tell you what I did like so I don't seem like too much of a bad guy. And these preconceived ideas, you can forget them.

You come to the book as a reader, and you come to the page as a writer and there is nothing else. So, you really have to just have that first thought, best thought in a sense. Of course, you edit later, like all writing, but again, like all writing, it's the first thought, which then goes through 20 billion edits and then comes up, hopefully it's still saying like the first thought, but with a bit of style and gravitas and emotion behind it. So on the level of the review, I think that's what it's about. It is a form of writing and I was genuine. I was genuine in the piece when I said that I am waiting every day for Peter Carey's review, for Alexis Wright's reviews, for Helen Garner's, for Tim Winton's, for anyone.

Particularly, I think again, this idea about review that it's not real writing for some people. Well, do we say that to E. M. Forster? Do we say that to Virginia Woolf? Do we say that to Alexis Wright, who did do reviews earlier in her career? And do we say that to Zadie Smith and so many writers who are practitioner critics? For them, I can't presume to say how they treat criticism, but I know as a reader, for me, I read their criticism as I read their prose, as I read their poetry, their essay, everything. It's just another chance to engage with the book and with the writer. That's how I would see the person who wants to practise criticism, how they can come to it.

ASTRID: So Declan, the title of your piece is, ‘Negative Reviews, Positive Vibes and Being a Forever Reader’. And then, it's described as ‘rather than being a vehicle for selling books, the critic in Australian literature is first and foremost a loving, engaged reader. In a fundamentally privileged industry, false praise harms writing more than it helps’. I got chills, when I first read that first sentence, Declan, I have been paid to write reviews and I often didn't get choice in which book I reviewed, which was the first problem.

I wasn't necessarily a forever reader of that book. And there is one review, in particular, and I know why I was chosen to review it. And I knew at the time, I shouldn't submit it and I did. Two years later, I still feel wrong, but I went ahead and did it, Declan, and I got paid for it. And, I haven't come to terms with that myself and I don't review for pay anymore. I want to ask you about why book reviewers in Australia do what I did and flub it. What are the pressures that you see that mean that critics kind of don't tell the truth?

DECLAN: I think there is a labyrinth in a person's head when they write criticism that tells them, as I say, this is how the review should be written, but also, this is the expectation. And that is a chain that goes from the publisher to the editor who commissions, to the writer and all of the cogs in-between. If any one of these people have an idea that they can't stand up in terms of the books they choose to commission reviews of, in terms of the review that they do, the book being reviewed, you can say, no, you can say no to everything. An editor can say no to a publisher. A publisher can say no to an author. An author can say no to a publisher. And a reviewer can say no to all of those parties too. We can all just say no. And then say, ‘What about this? Because this book is not getting attention’.

When I talk about privilege, it's on two levels. One level is, it's a privilege to be able to read and write. I mean, in this country, we have a lot of mob who cannot speak their native languages and may or may not be literate in English. Both of these things are government inflicted. And you have to understand, well, if you're literate in your languages, English, or other languages, then you are immensely privileged. Of course, there should be a right to these things, but in practise, these rights often fail. Ideally, but in the real world, it's a great privilege. Now, you then have a lot of power. You have the power of the word and for you to then say I'm going to phone this in, I don't really mind this book too much, or I'm just going to commission this for this young person, they weren't saying no. Or not even necessarily young. I mean, at every level, there's just many, many, many people in the industry who cannot say no, cannot stand up. They would rather die on their knees, at least that's the impression they give because it's not clear, I think to me or to anyone else, why we can't for the good of the greater culture, say no. And particularly, in light of the immense privilege we have in what we do, it is a source of power and pride to be able to put ideas that hopefully will influence and impact people emotionally, intellectually, physically too. You want to run out the door, call up your friend, ‘I've just read this, stop everything’.

And that's the joy of being a forever reader. And if you're a writer, it's the joy of being a writer too, I think. So, I would just say that my greatest encouragement to everyone at every single level of this industry is to think, I use that childhood metaphor and maybe that's a cliche, that blurry, sepia tone vision of who was I before I became so jaded, or so weak minded, or will that I've ended up doing this, and then I regret it for years or decades later. Because, that is the power of the word, as you say, Astrid, you write something and just as the reviewer or reader might never forget it, whether because it's a beautiful review or it's a hatchet job, the point is there is an impact, you should take that seriously and you should stand up for what you want to do. And if enough people do that, we honestly would not have a problem. That's not an ideal, that's very practical. There is too many people at every level of the chain who do not have the emotional engagement that they perhaps should have, or that they had when they began.

ASTRID: I am struggling to find words because I feel so deeply about books, and the power of words and ideas, and what a review culture could be. And I don't normally bring so much of my own emotion into reviews, into discussions on The Garret, but I really don't want to excuse myself as being one of the people who made the wrong choices. I think that there are kind of two levels for why people make wrong choices and don't take the responsibility they have, if they are going to publish a review in a major outlet or in a literary journal. First is money, writers don't get paid much in Australia and getting paid for a review is a privilege, and so people take it, and I did take it at one time. But also, there are the structural problems, you just referred to people who may no longer have the passion for editing that they once did when they started, and are now in a position of power that is kind of clogging up the system, shall we say.

I want to talk about the relationship in Australia, between writers and critics. Obviously, writers spend a lot of time and they put their soul into works that get published, and that is to be respected. But, as much as I am a forever reader, sometimes things that get published aren't that great. We should be able to say that in public, but often we don't. Now, you mentioned a hatchet job before. And a hatchet job on one level sounds bad, but Declan, there is a part of my brain that reveres the perfectly written hatchet job. Can you explain that to those listening? Because it seems so mean, but at the same time, it is an art form.

DECLAN: It is. It's something that has passion. We know that when we love something, we want to engage with it. There's an author who says in her latest book that the greatest disservice that a writer can be done is not a bad review or a hatchet job, essentially, it is being ignored and that's human instinct. We would rather someone talk to us, talk about us, then no one even know exist. So, I say in the piece that every day books wander off and toddle into obscurity, and many of these books are very, very good. There is no reason for them to vanish as if they'd never been. So, a hatchet job, I liked that because it has this word hatchet, execution. And as I say, it is about the execution, whether you like or dislike something in terms of how that affects readers or writers is 110 per cent irrelevant, because it's subjective.

So, what you want to do is forget whether you liked or disliked it in terms of, will the author dislike me, will readers take this the wrong way? Because I can assure you a good author doesn't think about that. A good author follows the writing. They don't think about, will people like or dislike this? Notwithstanding that we live today in a culture that is very concerned with one's persona and being liked. But that's another discussion. I think that you need to appreciate that a hatchet job is either well-executed or not well executed and that is all that matters. So, if it's well done, of course, it's beautiful because it shows care, it shows this person wants to engage with something. They don't have to like it, no one has to like anything, but if they've done the right thing, then this hatchet job will be considered, it will be reasoned, it will explain why I viscerally wanted to throw up or throw this book across the room when I encountered it, whether you agree or disagree, doesn't matter.

But if you can read it and go, ‘I can appreciate the response and I think that this was considered’, not with saying, ‘I disagree with it’, then that is the beauty of the hatchet job. And it's the beauty of the positive review, because so often, we make these distinctions of negative or positive, but it's really an illusion. I mean, it's actually hypocritical. Every day people will write positive reviews that are not well-executed, or not well-written, or not well-reasoned. And we don't break them, we don't say, ‘Hold on, you just told me this book is excellent, but didn't really explain why, you just said it. You incanted it, like some sort of Hogwarts spell that I should just believe that you said it's good, so it must be good. You gave a plot recount, but you didn't actually criticise’. And we don't tend to call that out, but really, if we are being as objective as we can be or neutral as we can be about these things, we should, because that's the true test. Did you execute the review well, according to whatever litmus test you have been employing, or that the reader feels is a mark of a good review. And if so, that's all that matters. And we should, if we must berate reviewers, we could berate them for a lot. That's for sure. But if we had to, we should just be saying ‘positive or negative, this was or was not a well-executed review on these terms’.

ASTRID: I would like to see the book review recognised as a craft once again. And, when you go to a bookstore, no matter how much you love the bookstores, and I do love bookstores, Declan, when you have the kind of summary of the plot, that's not a review, that is a summary of the plot. No matter if their website says, ‘Here's a review of this book, we want you to buy’. There is for some perceived feeling, an expectation of the need for a positive review, even the right to a positive review, now this is pushed out by publishers, kind of top-down, but I teach and I see this bottom up from emerging writers who are horrified, absolutely morally offended by the idea that they could ever write and publish a review that wasn't glowing of a fellow Australian author. That worries me. Where do you think this came from?

DECLAN: I think there is something in our culture that tells us that it's important to be liked. This has some good sides, the baby boomers or whatever else you could say about that generation could be pretty abrasive about things. And, Millennials and Gen Z are often, generally, I think nicer people or their people, at least who are more concerned to appear nice, perhaps is the more accurate distinction. So, appearing nice in terms of getting along in the world and having a sense of savoir faire, so you can get along day-to-day is really great, but it's nothing to do with art, and it's nothing to do with writing being good or bad, that's just your sort of, I don't know a judgement on your morality, or your humanity, or just whether I want to follow you. I think there is a blurring in the young writer's mind or the new writer's mind.

Again, they're in that labyrinth where they think, ‘Oh, readers want this, editors want that’. None of it's really true. Particularly, if you stand up and you actually go out there, just say what you actually think and want to write and see what happens. Even if there's blow back, I mean, that's the nature of writing. Just as the writer is not owed anything, the truth is nor is the reviewer. Some of the blow back maybe unfair, but again, writers can speak to that as much as anyone else. It's really, I understand that as human beings, we all want to dish it out, even if we can't take it. That's one of our flaws or one of the funny things about us. We'd like to kind of be in a world where we can say what we think, but never have to hear a bad word about what others think of us.

And so, we're all mutually participating in this thing where the writers saying all sorts of things in the book that the reader's going, ‘You know what on earth you're saying?’ But the writer doesn't want to hear, they just want to say it, and so to the review, and so to everyone else.

The truth is you have to have some grace and writers do show grace, often not publicly. They may secretly look back, especially when a reviews in the long distant, vantage past and go, ‘That critic maybe had a point’. But at the time, no, there is nothing but unmitigated praise that the author wants to hear. So I think, look, as far as young writers are concerned, there needs to be someone telling them it's okay to say, no, you do not need to have any preconceptions. If you feel that you have a preconception, that's being proved, if you feel that and the editor pushing you to do something you feel is a bit iffy, if you feel the publishers pushing you, and this goes for people at every stage of their career, at every level of the industry, you need to stand up to them.

ASTRID: Thank you for saying that. I have this fantasy, Declan, that one day I am not only going to open the Saturday review page, go to my favourite literary online journals and read really well executed reviews, but I'm going to read multiple well-executed reviews about the same book from different critics who all have their own interpretations about it. And, we do have a small literary industry in Australia relatively, and I do understand that there are constraints and no masthead, or no literary journal, or no independent reviewer can find the time to all review the same book so we can have this amazing discussion.

But, I have this fantasy that one day we're going to wake up and there's reviews about the same book by Helen Garner, and Ben Law, and Maxine Beneba Clarke and Christos Tsiolkas, and they all have one big fight, and it would just be amazing to watch those literary minds pick apart another work. And I don't know if I'm ever going to get that in my lifetime on a consistent basis, but I just had this fantasy that one day we could become like London or New York was back in the day when people cared about these things and put money behind them. And that was not a question, Declan, that was just me expressing a deeply held wish.

DECLAN: Well, I want to participate in your fantasy Astrid. I think it's a great fantasy to have, keep fantasising and keep living that fantasy in so far as you can, because I disagree that we have a small scene. Everyone says this, everyone says, ‘Its a small scene’. All scenes are small. Every scene is a fishbowl. Do you think people in Brooklyn feel they're seen as tremendously big when they open the review pages and see that name, that person, that book, no. It's a small scene everywhere in the world and there's no greener grass. If anyone says to me, ‘We have a small scene’. I'd say, ‘Compared to where? Tonga? Estonia? Where's this small scene?’

It's a pretty big scene. If you think there's a bigger scene, there always will be, but it's up to us to make the scene as big as it can be, because the idea that it's a small scene is an illusion that we have that's this idea of zero sum, or an idea that the coffers are empty. The coffers are not empty, therefore there's a lot of money, it's just where the money goes. And the money heads in pretty unjust directions most of the time to single artists, to single publishers, to single books. You could take that money, and many writers have talked about this, and funnel it in other directions if you push. The problem is not enough people are pushing and you need to push. Everyone who is coming into this industry must push for the best writing, for the best books, for getting the best outcomes, because the money and the talent is there.

We're only not seeing it because things have been artificially straightened and made smaller by people just being massacred in droves, on their knees, and I think that is entirely just a failure of will. I would say that every scene is as big as it wants itself to be. There'll be people in New York or London, these metropoles who would complain that things are not the way they were, and that is the onus is on the people in the scene to widen it and to make that space. And people are doing that, you just need to come into the fold, join us and have a great time because it's a lot more fun than sort of phoning it in, or thinking, ‘God, what am I doing here every day?’

ASTRID: Declan, you are schooling me today and I greatly appreciate it.

DECLAN: I don't know what to say to that. I mean, I hope I'm not, but if I am-

ASTRID: No, but I really appreciate it.

DECLAN: Oh, look any time. I can't take a compliment, but thank you. And I need to school myself. I need to go to class more often, because you do forget things change and go on. And we owe it to people who are coming into this scene every day of every year. I think that, that fantasy, that's what I wanted to address, the fantasy, there is no good reason why we're not seeing these reviews from Helen Garner, Alexis Wright, Murray Bail, it goes on and on, pick your writer, any one of them. They should all be writing reviews and they should all be writing reviews, because the review is a craft, as you say, and it's a form of engagement and love that all readers feel. Whether they can voice it or not, that's a matter of talent, and mentoring, and practice like every other form of writing.

And, I think that so much of the small scene idea is artificially instilled in us by the fact that we're not seeing these models, we're not seeing the support, but that is because of people not pushing, because the money is there. Everyone should be paid for the work they do, no one should be doing free reviews, no one should be doing free anything. But again, our generation, especially younger people have been told, ‘Well, look, life used to be good, but time to get with the program and get a very expensive education, and then do things for free’. No, everything you do is an engagement and an act of love, and that means that you should be lovingly paid for, and lovingly edited, and lovingly published and lovingly read. And if we're all doing that, what's the issue? There's no issue.

ASTRID: When I was preparing for this interview, Declan, I wrote a dot point to myself and I said, ‘Grant culture. Do we dare we go there? Maybe that's a different podcast episode’. I don't know if you are referring to granite culture in Australia, but I do want to talk about where the money is flowing, and what people are trying to do, and what people are doing and maybe doing it badly.

Last year, myself and my colleague Fiona Scott-Norman, devoted an entire class to what happened with The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Judith Neilson, Copyright Agency critic madness. We took that straight into the classroom, because those who are entering the industry should know how badly that was done. And it was rectified, but it shouldn't have had to be rectified.

DECLAN: My opinion is that Bec Kavanagh and Jack Callil should be working alongside myself, and Jessie and everyone else. Again, we think it's a small scene and it's not. It's the same as... You know what this is called, it starts with C, capitalism. The idea that there's not enough to go around, so let's all hate each other and let's ground for scraps, because that's dignified and fun. It's entirely artificial. Of course, Jack and Bec should be writing for The Age. And gosh, knows a lot of other people, because it's not the case that we can't fund this, we can fund this. We can fund all of this and people don't need to fight for scraps or be engaged all of this distraction where they're just eviscerating each other and accomplishing nothing.

It's very good that Jack and Bec took that step, but they shouldn't have had to, there's enough for everyone. And, if you think there's not, then you should be looking at your bosses and you should be protesting your bosses. People are not doing that, they need to. And if the bosses say, ‘It's not me’, well, find where the buck stops and get that person. It connects also to the illusion of a small scene. I would say to people in Australia, there's so many great opportunities, you'll never get overseas, swings and roundabouts, pros and cons everywhere you go. Here, you can write for The Age, and then next minute you'll end up on national TV. You can end up on The Drum. You can end up on national TV, and that's from writing for Meanjin, for Overland, wherever. That won't happen to you in Brooklyn. Again, there are pros and cons. We have many pros here, we have so many ways that a writer can rise in a way they never could overseas, even though they're being read by less people, if you're just counting the numbers, the influence though can be much greater and that can translate overseas too.

It is a huge scene here. You can find many smaller scenes. I invite anyone who says it's a small scene, please go to some of the countries, I perhaps ungenerously name-dropped as perhaps being smaller, and come back and tell me how small this scene is. You need to stand up and you need to be talking to the bosses, the people who are pulling the strings and saying why are these writers not reviewing these books, writing these novels, getting commissioned for these poems at this rate, for this word count? And if you can't get it, you should be walking, and if you're not walking, then I don't know what you're living for.

ASTRID: I want to ask you about a weekend in review history in Australia that occurred in 2020. At first, I thought it was amazing, and then I was so upset. Two major outlets published a review of the same book in the same weekend. One book review was quite positive. One book review was, well, it was the opposite. I think it was a hatchet job. I really loved the hatchet job written by Jessie too. But literary Twitter in Australia descended into what can only be described as a racist fight. What are your thoughts, Declan, on what happened?

DECLAN: The life of a writer is tempestuous. The life of a working writer is filled with conflict, with argument, with gossip, with scandal manufactured or real, and that comes with the territory. Unfair things happen to people, we can't calculate every variable of what happened with that event, but I think that everyone who participated in any form can go to sleep at night and say, ‘Did I do the right thing in that situation?’ And if they did the wrong thing, they can do better next time. And if they did the right thing, they can keep doing that.

I mean, literally everyone. Myself. Jessie. Jason Steger, the editor who commissioned the review. The people on Twitter who participated. We all know who they are, if we're involved, and we'll never forget their names and we'll never forget their role. So, always think about when these things happen. Do you want your name to be associated with this forever, because it will be?

And secondly, and I think this is the grace for everyone, no matter their involvement – and it will be a contradiction of myself, but that's okay because Walt Whitman said, Whitman said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Well, then I contract myself’ – it isn't forever. Every working writer has things that happen like the end of the world, every day that the biographers – if there is a biography, because then there may not be one – may or may not focus on male may not really matter. Pearl clutching, storms and teacups, it may just be a teacup, it may just be some pearls. So, everything passes and everything is remembered. You will live with the consequences because it is forgotten, and you will live with the consequences because you will remember.

I don't mean to sound so monkish, it is hard. And again, I don't want to act as though this is specific to a particular event or a particular scene. This is not specific to this country, this is not specific to this event. There are parallels all the time. And the question is for people who are living today, talk to those who are older or wiser than you and learn from them, because they will have lived through this 20 billion times over, and as a participant on Twitter or as a writer, or as an editor, learn from it, keep going, do better.

ASTRID: Declan, I have learned so much from you today. I...

DECLAN: No, tell me what you really think.

ASTRID: Well, I really think that I have some work to do, but I have learned a lot from you today. I get really excited, clearly talking to writers, that's what I do. And I get really excited as a reader when I come across a book that I love so much, I throw it against the wall, that's what I want when I pick up a book. And the third thing I love is talking to other forever readers and engaging in the ideas, the books, whether they're fiction, or non-fiction, or poetry, create for me, I am so sorry that I have referred to our industry as small. I will not do that again.

DECLAN: Yeah. It wasn't small for me growing up, when I looked at the shelves, which I mean, my mother told me when she was growing up, that she dreamed of having bookshelves. It was really special. And I thought it was really special to be introduced to books, like you can remember the first books you read in your life, it never leaves you. And, the scene was as wide as anything, as far as I could tell, and I hold on to that. And I think everyone in their better moments can remember and hold on to that. This will be the most Bono thing I say or interview, it's all about love. And it is a loving thing to read a book, it's a loving thing to write a book, it's a loving thing to write about a book. We put out of all proportion, the idea that because you said something that wasn't very nice that, no more words will come out of the author's pen, they'll never win the Nobel Prize now, you've totally messed up the work. Thank you very much, you ungrateful reader.

Of course, Shakespeare didn't always write great plays. People said that. When I think of Shakespeare, I don't remember that. So, there's so much grist that goes into the mill and in the end, a lot of stuff comes out that it is not in your control, whether you're a critic, whether you're a writer, whether you're a reader, whether you're their mother or father, whether you're just a fan who wants to defend them at every turn, it's okay, people survive and the work will speak for itself. And we're just engaging, we're just trying to be loving. And my greatest fear is that, at some point in the night, Brad Pitt and Tom cruise must have visited the homes of all of the people in our industry, because everything is so bloodless, so nice in a disingenuous and frankly, patronising way, because where is the love? Where is the engagement? Where's the care?

There are things I've been critical of, but I loved reading. And I think I was critical because I was in love with what I read and I cared about it. If I didn't care, I wouldn't write about it. And that again, is what happens when you don't care about something, it gets ignored.

So yeah, I don't want Brad Pitt or Tom cruise visiting me, particularly in that iteration, that periodic iteration I'm referring to. I want to stay engaged, and I will try my best, and I encourage everyone to please remember what brought you here and follow that, and don't listen to anyone else who's trying to steer you away, they are wrong. They have given up on themselves, let them do that. That's their right. You don't have to interfere with that. You can just, let the work speak, stay engaged, keep reading and keep falling in love with the page over, and over, and over again, until you can't remember anything ever being different.

ASTRID: That is so well said, Declan.

DECLAN: I'm trying. Thank you.

ASTRID: Thank you for talking to me today.

DECLAN: No, thank you. It's been a pleasure. It's been a pleasure. So thanks for having me on, and thanks so much for the opportunity and it's been a pleasure.