Beejay Silcox on literary criticism and the art of judging

Beejay Silcox on literary criticism and the art of judging

Beejay Silcox is a writer and literary critic, and also the Artistic Director of the Canberra Writers Festival.

Her literary criticism and cultural commentary regularly appears in national arts publications, and is increasingly finding an international audience, including in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian and The New York Times. Her award-winning short stories have been published at home and abroad, and have been selected for a number of Australian anthologies.

Beejay Silcox on literary criticism and the art of judging


ASTRID: I am so excited to talk to you. Thank you for joining me today.

BEEJAY: I'm so excited to be here because I love this podcast and I'm a terrible, terrible fan girl.

ASTRID: The reason why I'm so excited to talk to you is because we were two of the judges for the most recent Stella Prize and we have had so many fascinating conversations about criticism and judging and how one thinks about the words on the page. I wanted to share some of those discussions with everybody who listens.

BEEJAY: They are my favourite discussions to have in the world.

ASTRID: Easy question, but also very, very hard. What makes good criticism?

BEEJAY: I have an answer to this because I've thought about it a lot. I think the art and literature world has more than enough gatekeepers, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. What it needs are locksmiths, and that's the line I have always used about critics. A good critic is a locksmith, someone who opens space for discussion, who opens space between culture and books and readers, who opens the space between readers and books they didn't even know they needed or wanted to read. That is how I think about what an excellent critic does and it's so different, I think, to what people think a critic does, which is to shut spaces off. I come alive when I read things in criticism where I feel like, oh, I want to read more about this, or I want to go down this hole, or I didn't understand how to ask those questions about the world. So openness, grand locksmiths of our culture.

ASTRID: That is such a good image, Beejay. I'm going to follow up that question with potentially a harder one or maybe even a more important one if that is possible. What makes for bad criticism?

BEEJAY: Yeah, there are lots of ways to fuck it up, I think, and I think that's why people don't realise what good criticism looks like because of all of the ways it's able to be bad. One of them is when it's not criticism at all, but opinion. There's just no relevance at all what I think about a book in terms of my opinion of it. I think Sarah Krasnostein said this a couple of weeks ago, which is great because she shouted me out, now I can do the same thing. She's really smart about saying in that we can find out on Goodreads or Amazon and the various places that get you to put the abominable star rating next to something, or even from our friends how we feel about books, whether or not I liked it or didn't like it, but that's irrelevant to what criticism is doing, which is talking about the book, in a sense, on its own terms against the culture on its own terms.

Bad criticism looks almost indistinguishable from opinion. It also looks a lot like a blurb or elevated PR where you're describing what's happening in the book far more than you're engaging with what the book's trying to do. That's easy to do and I've certainly done my share of that when I was learning how to be a critic, which was just elegantly redescribing what was going on inside look. There's that. Then also, I think it's easy to make a reader feel stupid like they haven't read the right books, they haven't read the right things, they're not in the right club in order to participate in this cultural conversation. I think that's probably the subtlest way that we fuck it up is in having the expert knowledge, using it in a sense as a cudgel rather than an invitation.

The things that I'm really conscious of when I'm writing my own stuff is to not say, ‘Oh, well, you haven't read X, Y, and Z, so you wouldn't understand what I'm saying’ as opposed to inviting people to say, ‘Oh, and I read these other amazing things and if you do too, you might also like to carry this question on’.

ASTRID: I'm so glad you brought readers up. The subtitle for this podcast is writing and publishing, so I myself have done it, but so often, it's the readers who aren't actually part of this literary conversation that critics and writers and judges and all that different ways that there are people whose thoughts are put on a pedestal at a moment in time or on a particular platform. We don't think about necessarily the readers sometimes. I wish the whole industry was just what readers wanted.

BEEJAY: I absolutely think about who is going to read my criticism before I write it because I am writing it for an audience. Sometimes I know really clearly what that audience is in that I'm writing for different publications, and they have different demographics. There's a really great example of that. This is a tangent. I'm going to go down. I write for the UK, the US and Australia, and in the space of six months, I used unapologetically intelligent in all three different geographical zones, and it was fascinating to me to see how each of them responded to it. In Australia, it just went straight through the copy editor, no problem. He understood what it meant. In the US, I was told that it was deeply insulting to readers because I was suggesting that by a book being unapologetically intelligent that readers weren't smart enough for it. So it was a kind of backhanded insult about readership. Then in the UK, my editor told me, ‘Why would anyone have to apologise for being intelligent?’ and it was an unintelligible qualification to the idea of intelligence. So that, to me, is fascinating. I do have different ideas of readers in it, but criticism is writing to create a bridge. It's to create that conversational space between people so you have to know how to stretch that space out between those people.

ASTRID: You preempted a question I had for you, which is how do you pitch internationally? You've been a critic for years, but how do you move from being a critic in Australia, writing for Australian literary journals or Australian review outlets and they are getting few and far between to international?

BEEJAY: Part of it is being Australian and being, let's say, unapologetically Australian. We have a gorgeous, fabulous, wonderful, vibrant literary culture that is barely shown in other jurisdictions. It's really clear when you go to bookshops that have an Australian section and you have the same people that you always see, and you get really tired of being represented by two or three books or two or three names all over the world. Part of it is that, is that I write provocations to other editors and say, ‘I can bring you part of the world that you don't cover enough, and here are three or four books that I think your readers would find extraordinary and you haven't got them in your pages. It'd be wonderful to be able to write about them’. Part of it is leaning into that expertise, but also, I market myself, the word I like is joyful generalist. I will write about absolutely anything. I will read absolutely anything because I have had a weird and circuitous route to being a writer.

I came through ten other ways, all of which I thought were failures, and still I started writing criticism and realised it was the ultimate rendezvous discipline for everything I'd done in my past. So that's been the pitch.

ASTRID: That's a great pitch and well said. I want to go back to something that you just said, which is that you will read anything and review anything. I will also read anything and I have realised there are some things that I'm not going to be very good at reviewing. How do you navigate that? Have you ever said no? Would you ever say no? Is there a type of book that is not going to be right for you? Where do you stand in that big mess?

BEEJAY: I say no all the time and increasingly, I feel like I have the confidence to say no. First, I didn't feel like I had it because when you're trying to work as a freelancer in a world that does not particularly give value to criticism inside a world that doesn't give value to literature like criticism is not particularly valued in an industry, not particularly valued, you feel like in order to get any work at all, you have to say yes a lot. That, I think, does a disservice to some of the books that we review because you feel desperate for the work, like the freelance treadmill is the minute you step off, you fall off. At first, I didn't feel like I had the confidence to do that. I certainly do now and I'm a better critic because of it. I often say no to things that I desperately, desperately hate because the book's pages are so few and they're so precious and they don't need me shitting on someone, particularly some debut author.

That's a great way to use the pages. When I know that I'm not the brain for this, that I can't click into whatever groove that it's finding, then I say, ‘Actually no, I'm not the right person for this book’, and I've done that a lot. When I desperately think a book's not working and I know why, then I will absolutely write about it because I feel like I have a cultural authority to say, ‘I've worked this out on its own terms and I can explain to you again on the cultures on terms why there's that grating mismatch’. That's when a negative review's important, I think both for the culture and for the writer and for the reader. When I don't understand it, then there's no way I'll do it. When I read a book that I know was not written for me, it's not directed at me, it's not written for me, and so I couldn't possibly meet it on its own terms. I feel like that's another time when I've absolutely stepped away.

ASTRID: You just said the words or the phrases, cultural groove and also cultural authority. I'd like to interrogate both of those a little bit. One of the hardest things about writing criticism and learning to read criticism, I think, is that tension between what is happening in the culture and where a reviewer places a book in it. Can you talk to that?

BEEJAY: It's interesting. When I was teaching in the US, I did my master's in the US and when I was teaching college students there, one of the first things I did was teach them that they all had cultural authority, like that one of the things that they didn't realise they were allowed to do was criticise something that was written down. We treat expertise as rarefied as opposed to realising that when something's written about something that you've experienced or understood or read about, you have an authority to talk about it. That was an incredibly powerful to watch all of these new college students realised that just because I'd handed them an article that had been on the New York Times that they are allowed to say, ‘I don't think that's right’ or ‘I don't agree with it'. That was wonderful.

So cultural authority is absolutely an idea we should break down and we should think about differently. It's not something you earn in the way that you get a certificate for it and you can stick it on your wall. It's something you inhabit by being a member of the culture and thinking about it and reading about it. It's participatory rather than hierarchical, if that makes sense.

ASTRID: Can think of a few critics who it might not make sense to, but it does to me, Beejay.

BEEJAY: I like to think that I'm an active participant in the culture, that I'm thinking about it and talking about it. When I'm not reading, I'm reading. I'm listening to books and reading books and reading them for me and reading as a reader, which is really different to reading as a critic. I loved books before I wrote about them. Books saved my life and I feel like I'm returning the favour in criticism, so it feels like I come to it in that way.

ASTRID: You come to it as a true reader, I think, Beejay. Now, you are not on social media. That is a well-played life choice. The reason why I'm pointing that out is sometimes reviewers, and it happens, there's always one or two every year in Australia, there are Twitter takedowns and pylons and all of the rest of it. What has been your worst experience as a critic?

BEEJAY: The death threats are pretty shit. I feel like it's something worth saying, which is I feel like what I do matters and I'm proud of it. I feel like having a grand panoply of voices and discursive engagement makes our culture better and richer. But when you don't engage with a piece of work in the way that some people wish or believe that you should, you get pretty vicious responses to it, particularly when you're that dreadful beast, a woman with an opinion in public. Yeah. So the death threats are quite extraordinary and more elaborate than I was expecting, but Cormac McCarthy fans are really passionate.

ASTRID: You nominated Stella Maris as your least favourite novel of 2022. I love that you said that. I was also punching up. This is Cormac McCarthy. Cormac McCarthy could have a hundred bad reviews and it wouldn't hurt his sales. What, if anything, does the masthead, does the editor do in that situation?

BEEJAY: In this case, I haven't taken it to them because I've got thick skin. I know how to deal with it. I know that what I wrote was smart. I know what I wrote was a valid engagement with that book. I know what I wrote was an important addition to the way in which we consider how he was writing and co-opting a voice of a woman. I was actually pretty disgusted with that book and I feel like it was important to talk about that for a person who is considered one of the grand masters of the American realist genre. I stand by the review. I stand by every word of the review, and for every single person who sent me some little piece of hate missive, I've also received twice as many people writing to me and saying, ‘Thank you that that book received the kind of lauded praise that we give our gods and not the careful and thoughtful consideration that we give our novelists’.

I have had threats in the past that I have taken to mastheads and they've treated it seriously. I find this hard to talk about, not because I find it traumatic, just because I find it a bit absurd. I write about books, and I don't understand why you would bother to write to me to tell me to die.

ASTRID: I am really sorry that you had that experience, but I'm looking at your face now, Beejay, and you are smiling because the joy that you find in reading and words does shine through. That is a beautiful thing and that is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you on The Garret. I would also say that the great works of literature are always contested and they get contested over and over again. In each generation or each decade, find something different in them to both love and hate or to interrogate or to ask why, and that's what makes the truly great works that will be in print for centuries or online, whatever, in the future. That makes them last if they can stand up to criticism.

BEEJAY: Yes, and it also makes our literary discussion richer because we talk about the books that might get silenced and the voices that we haven't heard from before. I've just been reading Anna Funder's new book, Wifedom, and talking about what it means to include the unseen labour and collaboration behind an author. I think it enriches our literary discussion and it enriches our cultural discussion about the ways we collaborate and write together and the way in which we write and think about and reflect upon our history and the place we are in the world now. I think it's all deeply magical. I think that's the part of it. It's not just that criticism necessary. Criticism's magic. It's this beautiful place where we get to shape the story we tell about ourselves, the story we tell about our stories. I love storytelling and I love being part of it.

People, I think, often say to me, ‘Oh, but what are you really working on?’ like I must have some secret creative project that my criticism is a front for being some frustrated artist and that I can't do that, so I must have these critical teeth instead. I do write my own things, but I love what I do and I think what I do is a dream job.

ASTRID: Criticism is an art and you are a good storyteller, Beejay. The role that you have just taken up is as artistic director of the Canberra Writers Festival. Congratulations.

BEEJAY: Talking of dream jobs.

ASTRID: I'm going to admit that in the past, Canberra Writers Festival has always felt a bit different to me, mostly because it's Canberra and there tends to be a preponderance of political bias, which I read, but it does feel different than other festivals. What's your conception of Canberra Writers Festival in this first year that you are programming it?

BEEJAY: That's a lovely question and it's a lovely question because I've been asking it of myself and of the programme for the last few months that I put it together. I love metaphors. I love analogies. The one I've been using in my own head is I wanted to hold a mirror up to the city that I see because I love Canberra and I love all the various versions of it. I think in our national political discourse, Canberra becomes the word we use as a shorthand for that building on the hill. To Canberrans, that's just a part of that city and so I wanted to reflect back all the versions of Canberra that I see here, queer Canberra, First Nations Canberra, escapist romance Canberra, the wonderful crime-writing Canberra. We have lots and lots of crime writers, so we have all of these amazing literary writers in the city and I wanted to reflect that sense of creativity and energy back to the city.

It is my love letter to Canberra, this program. Politics is absolutely at the centre of this program, but I've chosen to interpret that broadly in terms of cultural politics and social politics. There are panels on climate change and medical misogyny and the ways in which we interact and are bound by our technology and its possibilities and pitfalls and voluntary assisted dying and all of these ways that we think about our culture. So that's my version of it. Little P politics, big expansive politics, and lots of energy and celebration of the creators of our stories.

ASTRID: I also want to ask you a question that everyone hates me asking, and I think you have the confidence to answer it. We've both judged the Stella Prize as I mentioned before. You've done lots of other judging, essays, short stories, state-based prizes, the whole deal. Judging is a really misunderstood process outside of those who have been a judge and that is not to say that everybody who has been a judge has been a particularly good one. So I'd like to ask you the mechanics of judging. What does a judge do? In some ways, it's like literary criticism. No one really understands what you do, but if the job wasn't done, there'd be a great gaping halt.

BEEJAY: Yeah. I think of judging as taking a core sample, like taking a core sample of the culture. I judged the Calibre Prize this year, which is Australian Book Review's essay prize, the richest essay prize in Australia. We got about 600 entries and I read about two-thirds of them, I think. That's a whole bunch of people all at the same time writing without limit in terms of what the topic can be. It is fascinating to watch a culture be reflected back to itself, like that core sample of, what is everyone thinking about right now? It was fascinating to me that the resounding theme was grief. It was loss of parents. It was COVID isolation grief. It was loss of relationships. It was loss of body, loss of self. Grief was the thing that was uniting us and it was incredible to see the world through that lens.

So once you had that sense of what these resounding things were, and then of course, climate grief, like solastalgic grief, once you realise that, I was then trying to find, well, what are the proto examples of that inside of each of these? If I'm going to do a service to this grand theme inside of it, who's writing it in a way that feels the most acute, the most original? Who is making me think about this elemental human experience in a way I've never thought about it before? I'm looking for someone who takes some certainty I have about the way the world works or the way it's described in my head and shakes it so fundamentally that I'm shocked by it. So that's what I'm looking for. I don't know if that's too esoteric for you as an answer, but it's that.

ASTRID: Oh, if only all writing did that, Beejay.

BEEJAY: Oh, God, yeah. Wouldn't that be amazing? That's what we did on the Stella this year, I think, is that the list was all things that shook certainty. It was all things that were strange and weird and interesting and boundary pushing and it was glorious.

ASTRID: So a follow-up question for you, Beejay. That's what you are looking for when you are in that role as a judge coming across new work, almost more process-oriented or procedural. I find myself thinking a lot about what we could do to make all judging processes feel, I don't know, more transparent without ever talking about individual discussions about individual books that judges have behind closed doors. They are sacrosanct and should not be out in public, but how the process works so people realise the huge time commitment and respect that is put into it, if that makes sense.

BEEJAY: It makes a lot of sense and I think that's something I'm passionate about talking about is just the sheer amount of even just the logistical effort that goes into reading something like that. For the Stella, what, 214 books we read, of which each of us read in entirety two-fifths as a baseline. We all started by having to be first and second reader on those books and then from then, read a large proportion of the ones that had come up with even one judge saying yes. You're looking at the vast proportion of 214 books. I read so much, I ended up with a new glasses prescription. Yeah, I'd never had reading glasses before in my life and now I have reading glasses and distance glasses. I read myself a new pair of eyes, a shitty pair of eyes, but it was all consuming.

And even just the numbers of how many books that was, how many pages that was, and keeping track of that, who had read what, what we'd read, what we were able to speak about with authority to each other. That's even before you get into applying judging criteria and all of the deliberations and how many deliberations there were. I think by the end, I must have read the winner in the first round, in the second round, then in the long list discussion, then in the shortlist discussion, and then before the judging. So that's five times for one of the books. It's an extraordinary amount of engagement and that would've been the same for every book that we had on the table as a potential winner. And that's just one of those prizes. You do it because it matters, because it really matters, because that money changes careers and changes lives, because that judgement goes into the grand story we tell about Australian literature and that story matters.

We are not very good at telling our own story in Australia. We're not good at it. We have a lot of silences we don't like to fill. We have a lot of things we should be proud of that we don't know how to be proud of. So much brilliant Australian literature is out of print because we don't know to even look for it or value it. It matters. I know that they seem subjective and that it's a bunch of prizes and it can seem like literary wank, but it goes into that and I'm passionate about those things and I'll fight for those things. Watching the faces of authors when we told them they were on the long list and what that meant in terms of just the validation of saying, ‘We read your work and we saw something alive in it’, that's precious.

ASTRID: I'm with you, Beejay. We have to fight for it.

BEEJAY: We do. Yes. I feel all energised now like I want to take up some sort of torch or pitchfork or something. I'm worried I sound like a polemical lunatic, but it's probably accurate. Thank you so much for having me on.