The state of arts criticism in Australia has been a topic of doleful conversation for a few years now. From all accounts, things are pretty dire. Critics across the disciplines are bemoaning the shrinking space in print media, the “everyone’s a critic” mentality of blogging, the timidity of Australia’s close-knit arts community and the influence of a 24-hour news cycle that favours fast comment over considered analysis.

In 2010, for example, Gideon Haigh issued a scathing summation of the problem for Kill Your Darlings. “Some newspapers and magazines in Australia have ceased paying for reviews at all,” he pointed out, while others were “winnowing costs away” ruthlessly. Similar critiques have been made here by Ben Eltham and Mel Campbell.

This week, the Wheeler Centre has had a go at redressing such grievances, with the launch of The Long View, a new online review project. Made up initially of 10 long-form essays, the project has commissioned an impressive run of Australian writers and critics to pen serious articles on Australian literature. The site will be rolling them out every fortnight throughout the coming months.

The Long View was born out of the Critical Failure panel discussions the Wheeler Centre hosted in 2010. The series looked at our national critical culture across areas of books, film, theatre, visual arts and popular music — and found it wanting.

Looking on, the Wheeler Centre’s Director Michael Williams started to see a pattern forming. “A lot of themes were recurring across the weeks, but one of them was about the diminishing number of spaces for longer-form criticism,” Williams says.

So the Wheeler Centre decided to create one. “We wanted to have the capacity to do the kind of publishing that newspapers increasingly can’t give over the space for,” he explains. “The kind of stuff that in Australia mainly lives in specialist magazines and journals.” The Wheeler Centre, with its generous program funding, is not beholden to the dismal economics bedevilling criticism for publishers. “We wanted to embrace the fact that the way the Wheeler Centre runs, we’re not interested in trying to solve that perennial problem of how the hell to make money off it.”

The first essay, Brilliant Careers: A Quintet of Australian Writers, is by Elisabeth Holdsworth, winner of the inaugural Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay in 2007. Her contribution taps into recent debates surrounding gender inequality in Australian literary culture, lately ignited by Sophie Cunningham in a speech at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Holdsworth re-examines the work of Australian women authors Christina Stead, Henry Handel Richardson, Shirley Hazzard, Helen Garner and Delia Falconer. She describes the five as “technically idiosyncratic writers” possessing “the élan of recognisable voices”. Upcoming essays will include Maxine McKew analysing Bob Katter’s bound-to-be-colourful history of Australia, An Incredible Race of People: A Passionate History of Australia, and an essay in defence of rural writing by The Australian’s Geordie Williamson.

For his part, Williamson argues that “state of literary criticism” debates are a media beat-up — that said, he acknowledges The Australian is not subject to the same economic (and thus spatial) constraints as most broadsheets. The way we consume and fund arts criticism might be changing, but Williamson says the role of the critic is now more important than ever.

“It’s always been the subservient role,” Williamson reckons. “The real stuff is the creative work and the role of the critic was always to basically say, ‘what I’ve done in my life is that I’ve cared a lot about these texts. I’ve read a lot, and I’ve thought a lot about it, and I have passionate ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong.’

“Now we live in a culture where there’s a kind of hyperinflation of narratives, and it seems to me … there’s never been a more important moment to be passionate about something that could just get lost in the mist.”

The Long View is funded by Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), the collection agency responsible for collecting and distributing royalties in the publishing industry. Since 1995 CAL’s board has been authorised to dedicate a portion of licensing revenue to cultural development projects via their Cultural Fund, which increased from 1% to 1.5% in 2010 (roughly $2 million per year, depending on annual takings).

CAL has been an activist player in the cultural funding world, which CAL’s Cultural Fund manager Zoë Rodriguez likens to “a guerrilla activity”. “We want to work in the areas where other people won’t,” Rodriguez says. “We want to act as a stimulus funding for new ideas for innovation, and that’s why some of the more quirky things that come to us get backed.”

The increase in revenue channelled into the Cultural Fund was a move to assist CAL’s members move into the digital space, with online projects being a particular focus in recent years. The agency has also supported several critical projects, which it sees as enlivening the artistic community by providing artists with critical feedback but also with public profile. CAL recently funded visual arts magazine Artlink to do a series of essays on indigenous art, and supported online film journal Screen Machine to publish some long-form critical essays on cinema.

Screen Machine editor Brad Nguyen is understandably pleased. He points out that screen funding agencies like Screen Australia will only support publications that focus fairly narrowly on Australian film.

“Ultimately, the function of arts criticism isn’t that far removed from the function of art itself,” Nguyen says. “Hopefully we’re going to contribute to a culture where it’s actually exciting to read criticism, where you actually feel like you possibly learnt something or you’ve been enlightened and you don’t just feel like you’ve been sold a product.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey