UQP Critic's Corner: Kate Evans – Presenter for ABC Radio National
Dr Kate Evans has a PhD in history and regularly hosts live events at writers festivals. She has worked in publishing, universities, TV and radio, and joined Radio National in 1997. In that time, she has worked as both a producer and presenter, on historical programs like Hindsight and Rear Vision, ideas programs including Australia Talks, Movie Time and Life Matters, and in recent years has specialised in interviews with authors on Books and Arts, Books Plus and The Bookshelf.
What do you love (and loathe) about book reviewing?
Being an on-air book reviewer is a privilege. It means I engage with books, ideas, worlds of creativity and imagination constantly. It also means I have the opportunity to read widely, across genres and styles, both international and local titles. This comes with both pressures and responsibilities – especially working for a national, public broadcaster – and this is where both the pleasure and pressure comes into it. Have we chosen the right books? Are we being fair to both readers and writers? What have we missed?
What does an average day look like for you?
As a broadcaster, there’s no such thing as an average day, as production pressures means things are shaped more across a week (or month) than a day. But there is no single day of calm and focused reading (huh!). Every day is a fragmented mess of meetings, editing, emails, writing, contacting potential reviewers (as most of my reviews are in conversation with other reviewers), recording interviews with writers, and hustling towards deadlines. I read in between, and after hours, making notes all the while.
How do you choose what (and what not) to review?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s a mixture of dark arts and considered analysis/ consideration. Every week, on The Bookshelf, we review three new works of fiction, all of which I read; and we try to include other new titles by inviting writers onto the show as reader-reviewers, and by recording extra interviews with writers about their own reading and their latest books.
The decisions about what to include are complex – and fill us with great anxiety. There are some ‘big’ books that we know we just ‘have to’ review; but apart from that we try to include a range of debut authors, lesser known writers, local and international authors, books in translation and eclectic books. I meet with publishers regularly to find out about new releases, as well as reading ahead on book releases. I read widely in general, and also read reviews and try to keep an eye out on books we might have missed.
I often think of Claire Tomalin, former literary editor, biographer, and the author of the memoir A Life of My Own, who made a case for why reviewing matters, both as a way to celebrate the best and most innovative writing, and also to be ‘in conversation’ with bestseller lists. That is, not to be in thrall to them, but to add something to them. Sometimes exploring, sometimes pushing back. (Hilary Mantel is similarly reflective on what reviewing can do, in her latest collection, Mantel Pieces.)
What are you aiming to achieve with your reviews?
Many things, all at once. We want to introduce people to new fiction, and give them a pointer to what they might like to read. We want to add a critical and engaged voice. We want to be surprising and dynamic in our conversations about books. We aren’t there simply to promote or spotlight books, but to ask ongoing questions about what we might read, and how. We want to include books that are popular and engaging, as well as those that are difficult, innovative, that fall under the radar. And yes, we want to include diverse voices and perspectives too.
But this is also a radio program, so it needs to ‘work’ as radio. This means including a range of voices and perspectives, as well as audio ‘texture’ (grabs, interviews, music).
What is your advice for aspiring book reviewers?
Read. Then read more. After that, keep reading.
Which reviewers do you like to read?
I like to read widely when it comes to reviews – but I read them in a couple of different ways. With a book I know I am going to read and review, one that I have scheduled ahead of publication, then I don’t like to read other people’s reviews before I have finished reading the book and have decided what I think about it. But I also like to read about books I don’t know about, as a pointer to new ideas and authors. So I always read the Australian Book Review and the reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Weekend Australian, as well as reviews in The Saturday Paper etc; as well as OS papers like the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books (whose style, on the whole, I prefer to the New York Review of Books).
I do love those reviewers who are essayists – like the late Jenny Diski, or Andrew O’Hagan or Hilary Mantel. Then again, short reviewers can be very concise and punchy (Kerryn Goldsworthy, for example); and local reviewers like Susan Wyndham and Ashley Hay are always worth reading. I also like seeing novelists and historian as reviewers.
What makes a book great?
Huh: impossible. I’m not falling for that one... My whole working life is in conversation with that question.
Who are some of your favourite Australian authors?
On the Bookshelf we always warn our guests about what we call ‘reviewer regret’. Leaving the studio and thinking about all the things you didn’t say, expressed badly, didn’t make clear enough. This is partly the challenge of the spoken/ conversational review (you can’t polish each sentence the way you can in a written review) . . . And I’d like to apply that idea to this question. Any writers I mention here will sit next to the ghost list of writers whose work I have forgotten to add.
Melissa Lucashenko and Kim Scott are high on my list of Australian writers whose work I admire. The shortlist for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award is full of terrific writers: the imaginative bravura of Ronnie Scott, the sharp analysis of Aravind Adiga, the lyricism of Amanda Lohrey. But what about all the great genre fiction, the non fiction, the slippery cross-over writing. This is really terrible of you to put me on the spot like this . . .
What’s on your TBR pile at the moment?
By the time you read this, my TBR pile will have shifted. I’ve just finished Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand and am about to read Patrick McGrath’s Last Days in Cleaver Square, Mark Brandi’s The Others and Lisa Taddeo’s Animal. I’m also reading bits of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in between other things, and just read two giant fantasy novels as well.
Do you have any favourite UQP titles or authors?
I know why you’re asking but am uncomfortable singling out a particular publisher (for ABC editorial fairness reasons), but I will say that I’m looking forward to Tony Birch’s new collection of short stories, I’ve already mentioned Melissa Lucashenko, and I really like the way a writer like Maria Takolander refuses to be categorised, playing around both boldly and intelligently with what books can do.
How can we follow you online and where can we read your reviews?
You can listen on air to the Bookshelf on ABC Radio National at midday on Fridays or at 3pm on Sundays; you can follow our podcast and listen any time; and I write articles for ABC Arts online as well. As response to Covid, we also started a monthly on air book club (in May 2020), as well as the ABC Book Club Facebook group, which has (astonishingly) grown to 40K + members, and is both generous and robust.