Next week, one of those literary willy willies will doubtless rise from the pages of Wednesday’s September issue of the Australian Literary Review. Crikey readers may remember the origins of this minor dust storm, commented on by Bob Gosford.

The barney was to do with ALR contributor and NT journalist Nicholas Rothwell’s The Red Highway, a flight-of-fancy book on the Northern Territory. Rothwell, generally a well-regarded (if, from my point of view, a Bulwer-Lyttonish) author, had recently moved from art appreciation, pensées and reverie to setting himself up as a reflective traveller; an aspiring Jonathan Raban perhaps?

In doing so, as far as some critics were concerned, Rothwell had over-reached himself. The memoir of the author’s experiences in the rugged, red and rough Top End was then carefully and politely picked apart in a May 2009 ALR review by freelance historian Peter Cochrane.

What had, until then, been a genteel difference of viewpoint subsequently turned nasty when litcrit pundit Peter Craven, a Rothwell defender, savaged Cochrane in a 2950-word free kick in the August 2009 edition of the ALR.

As for Rothwell, well, good luck to him since it’s a tough gig being any kind of writer these days, but surely the standard 500-word letter in rebuttal by the author would have sufficed. And so, it was an astonishing thing to read Craven’s extended assault on Cochrane, astonishing that is until a couple of my dormant synapses re-connected.

Was this the same Craven who had written a 2005 essay in Text that academics were out of touch when it came to mainstream literature and therefore out of touch with the majesty of aestheticism?

Over-the-top and over-written, the Craven ambush on Cochrane contained nearly 40 name-dropping cultural references (from Thucydides to Bob Dylan by way of Proust, Dostoevsky and Lévi-Strauss), and attacked, among other things, Cochrane’s mild insistence that any memoirist who is passing for real should somehow convince the reader of the authenticity of his or her experiences, possibly by backing up key anecdotes.

To add force to Cochrane’s point about perceptions of fabrication, Crikey columnist Gosford pointed out that, as far as Rothwell’s creative licence was concerned, “[NT writer] Andrew McMillan, who is quoted in The Red Highway extolling the virtues of Darwin’s St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Cathedral as ‘a temple of art and beauty’ reckons he’s never set foot in the joint.”

In that context, Cochrane’s suggestion that memoirists should pin their narrative to some kind of persuasive reality and authority makes sense and Craven’s criticism of this assertion turns out to be a fine piece of hypocritical peacockery, coming from a writer who had himself cited at least one supporting sage for every 76 words in his own incandescent critique.

If there was ever a visible demonstration of the continuing failure of a littérateur’s ability to distinguish between narcissistic ramblings and authentic memoir, it is Craven’s article.

Florid, rococo and morally adrift as it is, the piece also comes across as a literary standover, since his two-page offensive could well be seen by other reviewers as a shot aimed across their bows. Indeed, they may now have to search their reviewing souls, in case they get a similar fusillade from a well-connected chum of a well-connected author. It will now be interesting to see how the ALR deals with the next episode in the literary skirmish, and how, in the future, the ALR deals with serious and diligent criticism of favoured writers. Who’s next up for the two-page broadside?

Tony Taylor teaches and researches at Monash University. He is not well connected but he does have at least one name-dropping reference. Once upon a time, he knew Jonathan Raban, who is a very fine and a very convincing writer.

Peter Fray

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