UQP Critic's Corner: Thuy On – Reviews Editor at ArtsHub
Thuy On is the Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and the former Book Editor of The Big Issue. She's been a critic for well over two decades and has written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH, and Books+Publishing. She's also a poet; her first collection, Turbulence, was published in 2020 by UWAP.
What do you love (and loathe) about book reviewing?
I love being able to get right into the marrow of a book and to be able to try and offer a considered opinion about it as well as to situate it within an appropriate context. (Is this the author’s debut offering? If not, does it touch upon themes written about in previous books or is it a complete departure from the last ones? Does it reflect present socio-economic conditions, is it historical, or surreal? etc.)
Never ever having enough room to review all the worthy books that are available is the worse thing about reviewing; that, and the mountainous piles of new books forever arriving. It’s a Sisyphean task to sort through them all.
What does an average day look like for you?
I’ve recently started a new four-day week job as Review Editor of ArtsHub, so I have had to cut down my freelance reviewing considerably. But prior to taking on this job, I was forever: reading; note-taking; writing; commissioning reviews; editing reviews; dealing with publicists, editors and writers. Rinse and repeat.
How do you choose what (and what not) to review?
It depends. I’m on the cusp of leaving my job as Books Editor of The Big Issue (after eight years there), and my choice of commissioning for reviews or writing them myself for the publication always involved thinking about the general reader of The Big Issue. It is not a specialist literary magazine so I tended to feature a wide selection of books, across genres.
If I am pitching to other publications I just pitch books that I think I may enjoy. It’s an inexact science.
What are you aiming to achieve with your reviews?
Criticism isn’t just about recommendations and warnings. Whether or not I like the book I’m reviewing, I’m interested in what it means, how it works (or doesn’t), why it matters (or doesn’t), and how it reflects and is part of the larger world of publishing. I assume that readers are looking not only for advice, but also for ideas, arguments, provocations. I hope that even if you don’t actually get round to reading the book you’ll at least find my review of it worth reading.
What is your advice for aspiring book reviewers?
To think of a review as a piece of persuasive writing – the reviewer acts a bridge between the book and the reader. Reviewers need to point out the picturesque sights along the way as well as the ugly potholes. If they are doing their job properly, the reader would be made conscious of a number of things including: the language, the characterisation, the narrative, the voice and tone and whether or not it succeeds as a fair or excellent example of its genre.
Aside from the simple act of commerce, you should write for art’s sake. Let’s face it, lots of people read reviews just to have an idea of what’s out there, not necessarily to purchase books.
Which reviewers do you like to read?
I’m a huge fan of Declan Fry, Cher Tan and Oliver Reeson.
What makes a book great?
That’s an incredibly personal question. For me, it’s the quality of the prose (also very subjective). I simply like to be told stories. When it comes to fiction, I don’t particularly care where in time or space the novel is set. I like to read about characters who are nuanced and in language that’s playful and poetic. In terms of non-fiction, I like a well-argued premise, with a far-ranging ambit and lots of examples. As for poetry? It has to make an emotional impact. I don’t care too much about rigid formalities; it needs to have passion as a driver.
Who are some of your favourite Australian authors?
What’s on your TBR pile at the moment?
Also too many to mention. Outside of my day job I am judging three (!) competitions simultaneously so I am barely doing anything else but reading for The Big Issue fiction award, The Age Book (fiction) of the year awards and the inaugural Children’s and YA fiction award for the Historical Novel Society of Australasia.
Do you have any favourite UQP titles or authors?
Yes, plenty: Jordie Albiston, Tony Birch, Bernard Cohen, Nick Earls, Mireille Juchau, John Kinsella, Julie Koh, Robert Lukins, Melissa Manning, Meg Mundell, Kristina Olsson, Felicity Plunkett, Tara June Winch, Damon Young.
How can we follow you online and where can we read your reviews
You can find me on Twitter at @thuy_on. I post most (not all) of my reviews there.