UQP Critic's Corner: Declan Fry – Writer, Poet and Essayist
Declan Fry is a writer, essayist, and poet. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, in 2020 he was engaged as a critic for The Sydney Morning Herald/Age newspaper, awarded the 2021 Peter Blazey Fellowship, and a Lord Mayor's Creative Writing Award for memoir. His work has appeared in Meanjin, The Saturday Paper, Liminal, Overland, Australian Book Review and elsewhere.
What do you love (and loathe) about book reviewing?
I love the chance to see something being born. It’s an alchemical moment, nicely summarised in the opening of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller: just you and another consciousness, and all the worlds that consciousness has known – the lives it has lived and seen – now neatly contained and printed inside of the book you hold in your hands.
I don’t like the way older and established authors are ignored in favour of the new and shiny (even Helen Garner was recently being marketed as if she were a debut author – probably because, on some level, it helps). Equally, I dislike seeing older and established figures in the industry phone it in; once that happens, you need to take stock.
Cultural amnesia is a problem. The same problems and debates recur every ten years or so. It is not lost on me that, in writing ‘Negative Reviews, Positive Vibes and Being a Forever Reader’, I was following on from one of Kill Your Darlings’ first pieces, by Gideon Haigh, in 2010, and from Helen Daniel castigating reviewers for being unable to connect a novel by Adib Khan to Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith in the ABR in 2000. Not to mention Rebecca West in 1915 and Elizabeth Hardwick in 1959. I look forward to doing it all again in 2030.
I dislike hype. Many books suffer the opprobrium of silence, deserved or otherwise. Some books hog the pulpit while others go unnoticed. In my reviews I’m always looking to draw parallels with work I think people should know about. Orwell painted a depressing but accurate picture of the hack reviewer’s life:
In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases – “a book that no one should miss,” “something memorable on every page,” “of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc., etc.” – will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetising books will have arrived by post. So it goes on.
Mine isn’t that bad – I’ve been lucky to find something meaningful to say about almost every book I’ve written on, sometimes to my surprise.
Publishers, editors, writers and critics should, ideally, all be equally passionate, engaged, and adventurous. When that happens, everyone benefits. When it doesn’t, everyone suffers.
What does an average day look like for you?
I like the romantic image Martin Amis painted of Updike’s working day: a libretto in the morning, bit of work on the new novel in the afternoon, a poem or two at night. That would be ideal.
With that in mind, I’m not about to reveal an average day (it would be too tawdry). But a good day sees me up around five, spending an hour to an hour and a half on the most important work for that day. If things go well, every few hours I’ll work on something else: a poem, my own essays or fiction, a review.
I like to write a certain number of words a day – 1000 feels comforting – but there’s no magic in this, and nothing wrong with coming up empty. Sometimes the words disappear in the processing of experience, or the hundred indecisions and revisions before dinner. Some of the best days are spent just reading.
Admittedly, if I wasn’t such a masochist, I’d probably work on one thing at a time. That might be more pleasurable. But there’s pleasure in pain, too.
How do you choose what (and what not) to review?
I keep my ear to the ground. Certain authors and publishers I always have my eye on. I pass on books if I have nothing substantial to say about them, or if I thought reviewing them would mean breaking up a friendship. Not because breaking up a friendship is always a bad thing, but because it’s nicer to break up a relationship or marriage instead.
What are you aiming to achieve with your reviews?
You want to say something the book isn’t already saying for itself. Something you couldn’t get by simply going and reading it. Like translation, you’re writing an additional text; a new book.
Equally, a review should be something that engages you, regardless of your interest in the author or subject matter. If it’s particularly successful it will make you interested despite yourself. Whether the critic personally enjoyed the work or not is beside the point.
My ideal is to write something that has all the precision, style, imaginative capacity, and intellectual questioning available in poetry or good fictional prose.
What is your advice for aspiring book reviewers?
Read. Read as if every book were about to go out of print tomorrow (not exactly a fantastical scenario). Reading lets us speak with the dead – to commune with people we would never otherwise have the chance to meet.
We should read as if everything were on the verge of disappearing. Eventually, it will.
Which reviewers do you like to read?
My life changed when I first came across Kathy Acker's essay collection Bodies of Work. I remember reading Alison Whittaker's review of Sarah Maddison in a trance. James Wolcott wrote a great review of the Philip Roth biography, not least because he did what most other critics feared: actually talking about the book, post-Blake Bailey allegations. I think about Claire Dederer’s 'What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?' at least once a month. Becca Rothfeld on Sally Rooney was compelling. Clive James had a boppy, conversational style; it manifested in those tightly wound adverbs and Johnsonian aphorisms.
James Baldwin's criticism is timeless; imagine writing a review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that doubles as one of the twentieth century’s most important pieces of commentary. Vivian Gornick’s writing on Christina Stead in The End of the Novel of Love isn’t perfect – Gornick is a little overly fond of tripartite description (aping the style, I might say that it is too regular, too recurrent, too inescapable) – but it’s galvanising and it manages to achieve what good literary criticism should: making you want to go back to the author’s work.
James Ley’s review of The Trials of Portnoy in Alexander Portnoy’s voice was memorable, and a welcome reminder that censoriousness and wowserism enjoy a stronghold in Australia – seeing that Amanda Lohrey had won the 2021 Miles Franklin Award, I remembered how her 1988 novel The Reading Group was pulped after a Senator threatened defamation. Martin Duwell, for ensuring new poetry continues to be critiqued.
I thought Sally Olds’ review of Lockwood and Oyler was very good. It was, like Wolcott, a nice example of how you can still say something new about a book or subject that risks being written into non-existence. Fiona McGregor’s ‘The Hot Desk’, reprinted in her latest collection, is a proverbial must-read. Michelle de Krester’s ‘The Transit of Venus’ chapter in On Shirley Hazzard. Patricia Lockwood’s Updike review left some indelible images on my mind – not least the blood on the ceiling.
What makes a book great?
Voice. Insight. A sense of frisson.
What’s really lovely is the feel of an author letting go; throwing out the rulebook and doing something dangerous and unexpected. There’s a mythos suggesting this takes place somewhere between the third and the sixth book, but it can happen anytime. Funnily enough, the same ingredients tend to be what produces great criticism.
The surest recognition is a shiver or pang or throb. Something akin to the feeling of being inspired to create yourself. Now I am in that person’s debt, you say. A relationship is created; a special bond. You know that the two of you will never be the same again.
Who are some of your favourite Australian authors?
I've tried to limit myself to 33, but really there are around 330. In alphabetical order:
Murray Bail, Peter Boyle, Peter Carey. (His UQP covers – I’m thinking here especially of Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda and The Tax Inspector – are also some of the best designed in Australian fiction, so kudos to UQP (and Christopher McVinish, in the case of Illywhacker) for creating them.) Kev Carmody, Brian Castro, JM Coetzee, Paul Dempsey, Michael Dransfield, Kathleen Mary Fallon, Beverley Farmer, Lionel Fogarty, Philip Hammial, Elizabeth Harrower (was there ever a more accurately surnamed author?), Dennis Haskell, Shirley Hazzard, David Ireland, John Kinsella, Julie Koh, Emma Lew, Jennifer Maiden, Les Murray, Gerald Murnane, Josephine Rowe (I remember being startled by ‘Living Memory’, a new story published a few months ago; when I read ‘Anything Remarkable’ and ‘Chavez’ it was all over for me), Gig Ryan, Ellena Savage, Kim Scott, Christina Stead, Elizabeth Tan, Andrew Taylor, McKenzie Wark, Francis Webb, Patrick White, Alexis Wright.
What’s on your TBR pile at the moment?
I'm currently enjoying Can Xue’s I Live in the Slums (the first story I read of hers was ‘The Roses at the Hospital', an incredible piece of work). Juan Goytisolo’s Exiled from Almost Everywhere (Goytisolo is wonderful; it was nice to be able to talk a little about him in the context of Ngunnawal-Ngambri-based poet Cham Zhi Yi’s work). Anna Kavan’s Ice. Looking, Writing, Reading, Looking, a series of reflections on art by authors like Yoko Tawada, Mariana Enriquez, and Eileen Myles. Andrea Bajani’s incandescent If You Kept a Record of Sins. The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, edited by Daniel C. Blight.
Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire, which I’m really enjoying. Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories and this year’s Mona. Yoko Tawada, whom I’ve read religiously for years (it was sad to learn, after contacting New Directions about the publication of Three Streets in early 2021, that its publication had been delayed indefinitely).
Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait and Poetics of Work. Ed Pavlić’s Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno and Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners. Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, an often poignant look at marital separation. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.
I’m looking forward to McKenzie Wark’s Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker in September. Also Percival Everett’s Erasure, which is being reissued with a new introduction by Brandon Taylor, the same month. Stanley Plumly’s Orphan Hours – Rita Dove rightly described him as a ‘modern elegiac poet [...] with a marvelous ear for the music of contemplation’; I especially like ‘The Jay’ (I can’t see a sunset now without thinking, ‘Naturally the sun is falling’, or recalling lines like, ‘I can still see him, though finally he was nothing / but a blue inside the death of everything that happens’) and ‘Arbitrarily’ (‘We think the light is blinding. It is failing’).
I imagine I’m not alone in looking forward to Gerald Murnane’s Last Letter to a Reader in November. I enjoyed the chapter about Inland that appeared in The White Review; it’s such a beguiling, moving novel. I also like to keep up with the latest issues of Meanjin, Overland, Australian Book Review and Westerly.
Do you have any favourite UQP titles or authors?
The first UQP book I ever saw was on a shelf at home. It was Peter Carey's Illywhacker. As a young boy I recall getting about fifty pages in, all on the basis of the astonishment of the opening one, which included the line: ‘When they photographed me I did not care that my dick looked as scabby and scaly as a horse’s’. I couldn't believe an adult would write something like that on the first page – and still have 600 more to go.
Josephine Rowe. A Loving, Faithful Animal is a mesmerising, revelatory novel. Single paragraphs read like microfiction:
This is Exhibit A in the Museum of Possible Futures; the life that might have rolled out smooth as a bolt of satin, if she had just swung her slender legs up into that beautiful car and driven as fast as she could in the opposite direction, leaving the man with the camera far behind. Your father, he could keep the photograph.
Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake, too: just check out ‘Raising the Wreck’. Incredible. Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body. Shastra Deo’s The Agonist, which somehow reminded me of both Galway Kinnell and the ‘body horror’ of David Cronenberg. Ellen van Neerven. Jaya Savige. Andrew Taylor’s Götterdämmerung Cafe. Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Julie Koh. John Tranter’s Starlight: 150 Poems. Both of Sarah Holland-Batt’s volumes, Aria (‘Exhaustion’: ‘a solitary tube of cobalt blue, its crimped end / folded over and over until nothing was left’) and The Hazards (‘Insurgency’ is a stunning poem, as are ‘Interbellum’, ‘Liebestraume’, ‘No End to Images’ – ‘no end to the pharmaceutical clouds over Kraków’ – ‘The Vulture’, ‘The Quattrocento as Waltz’ and ‘The Atlantic’). Fay Zwicky’s Kaddish & Other Poems.
Evelyn Araluen. David Malouf. Omar Sakr. I particularly like ‘Instead, Memory’ (‘This is the trouble // with faith, it fathers and leaves you / with children who refuse to die’) and ‘How to endure the final hours’ (‘Every death is violent to the life around it, / seeks to take as much as it can’). It was a real pleasure to bring Malouf and Sakr together in writing, given Malouf is one of UQP’s earliest authors, and Sakr one of the latest. John Kinsella’s The Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography and Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective. Samuel Wagan Watson. Olga Masters.
Brian Castro’s Looking for Estrellita, a gorgeous collection of essays, with photography by Peter Lyssiotis. Its concerns remain as topical as ever – autobiography, the nature of representation, grief, migration. It deserves a reprint.
Peter Boyle’s Museum of Space. Boyle writes some incredible prose poetry – variously elegiac, as in ‘Practising Bach, Riverview College 1967’ (‘Far from everyone, the small intensity of shoelaces waiting for feet to grow, for hands to let go of certainties. Listening is never enough. He kept trying to begin in the right way as if one note should say everything’), and lyrical, as in ‘Wilfred Thesiger Reaches the Uaso Nyero River’ (‘We spend a lifetime losing the perfection of the instant’). Poems like ‘Christ and the Apostles Survey Suburbia’ and ‘The Unknowable’ are great, too.
How can we follow you online and where can we read your reviews?