The Constructive Critic (Panel discussion)

For some reason that I can’t quite explain – a sudden rush to the head methinks – I agreed to be part of a panel being organised by the ACT Writers Centre for this year’s Design Canberra Festival. The panel, called The Constructive Critic, was described as

a unique panel discussion about art criticism across multiple disciplines including visual arts, design, theatre and literature, and its importance and impact.

What is the point of arts criticism? What has changed now everyone has a voice via social media? What is the relationship between artist and critic, and what about the blurred lines of artists who critique others?

The panelists (check bios on the event website) were art curator and critic Peter Haynes (also the moderator), local authors Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, and me. This is not one of my verbatim reports because I was too busy taking part, but I want to document some of the things I remember that we discussed.

It was an enjoyable evening – for me, anyhow – largely because both the panel and the audience were friendly and engaged. We didn’t always completely agree on topics, but the ensuing discussion invigorated rather than diminished our thoughts and ideas.

My favourite description of arts criticism came from the most experienced critic amongst us, Peter, who said that:

For me writing criticism is about opening a dialogue and first the critique is for me to explore the work. Whatever medium. A review should start with a question. The critic opens the questions that the artist and curator have posed. (Tweeted by the ACT Writers’ Centre whom I thank for capturing this so nicely!)

I love this, the idea of opening the questions posed by the creator of the work (the book, the play, the exhibition, the film, etc), and will try to do it more. [PS: I forgot to say that we later talked about how social media at its best can encourage this dialogue/conversation.]

The topics we covered included defining what criticism is, what creators want from criticism, who criticism is for, the role of social media in contemporary criticism (is everyone really a critic?), the economic impact of criticism, whether creators can critique or review each other’s work, and what we think about negative criticism.

Most of us seemed to agree that there is a review-criticism continuum. The highest level of criticism we saw as comprehensive, academic, knowledgeable about the wider culture/genre/context within the work fits, while reviewing at its most basic can be short, narrowly focused and, perhaps, more oriented to promoting the work. This is not to say, however, that high level criticism can’t/doesn’t promote a work too, but the link is, I’d say, more tenuous.

Related to how we define criticism is the question of who/what criticism is for. For some critics*, it seems to be for the consumer (the reader, for example), for some it can be for the creators (the authors), and for others seems to be more for the producers (the publishers). At least, this last is how it looks when you get to the emerging “influencer” role, upon which we touched briefly. For the authors in our panel, the second was particularly relevant. They appreciate criticism which can help them develop their own work. There is a fourth option, which is the one I ascribe to. It’s that criticism is about contributing to the wider culture. While of course what critics write will encourage or discourage people from reading the book, going to the show, whatever, the main loyalty is to the culture. This means I’m keen to see the work I’m discussing within the context of both literary and social culture, to talk about how it adds to the body of work to which it belongs and how it addresses or contributes to the society in which we live. Looking at it this way, I’m less interested in ascribing value – this is a “good” or “bad” book – than in where it fits. I’m not sure I achieve this, but that’s my goal.

We talked briefly about social media: the destructive impact of thoughtless negative comments on authors; the positive and negative economic impact social media can have; the impact and application of ratings (like those on GoodReads); the current plethora of free review copies which can result in reduced early sales; and the value of hindsight versus the immediate response that is common in social media.

Opposing opinions were offered about whether artists can critique artists. The affirmative suggested that artists know what’s involved in creating the work and can therefore bring that understanding to their review, while the negative suggested that it is hard to properly critique people you know, and that creators, knowing the techniques involved, will often focus on technical aspects rather than the work as a whole.

Negative reviews came up several times throughout the discussion, and again at the end. Peter announced early on that he didn’t write negative reviews, which, regular readers here know, would appeal to me. What he meant by this – and how I also see it – is that if he doesn’t like something, he won’t review it. However, he will, in an overall positive review, refer to aspects that might not have worked so well. Yes! However, a question came from the floor about negatively reviewing a work that is against current social values – that is blatantly sexist, racist, ableist, for example. Karen spoke for all of us when she said that such ideas should be called out. Jack, earlier in the session, had entertained us by describing how he had learnt from a one-star review. The reviewer had missed the main point of his work he felt, but nonetheless the comment had made a valid observation, one that he used in the next book in his series!

Of course, like my old school exam days, I came away thinking about all that I could have, or wished I’d, said. One issue we didn’t discuss in any detail was the critic him/herself: the degree to which critics should aim to be “impartial” (whatever that is) versus put their preferences and background on the table, and, indeed, whether, in our current environment regarding who can write what, whether there’s also a question concerning who can critique what? But, I’ll leave those for another day!

Meanwhile, thanks to Paul and the ACT Writers Centre for asking me to be on the panel, and to Peter, Karen and Jack for being such fun and so interesting to talk with.

* I’m using the term “critic” broadly in this write-up to cover the whole continuum of arts writers, and my examples are mostly from the book world (but in most cases you can substitute your art form of choice!)

The Constructive Critic
Design Canberra Festival 2019
Gorman Arts Centre, Main Hall
12 November 2019

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 3: In our backyard

Suddenly it was my last session! How quickly the two days went. The reason I chose In Our Backyard is obvious. It was described as “Get up close and personal with four of Canberra’s literary gems”, and was moderated by ABC journalist, Emma Alberici.

It was a warm-hearted session, characterised by a sense of respect between the writers made most evident in their friendly banter and genuine interest in each other.

Alberici introduced the four writers:

  • Nigel Featherstone, novelist, Bodies of men (my review)
  • Karen Viggers, novelist, The orchardist’s daughter (my review)
  • Kathryn Hind, novelist, Hitch
  • Patrick Mullins, political biographer, Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon.

Four very different books, said Alberici, so she suggested they start with their book’s genesis.


Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterKaren Viggers: Is passionate about Tasmania, wilderness, freedom, empowerment, forests, and friendship. Her novel is about three outsiders in a small timber town, and explores how people create bonds and belonging in such places.

Patrick Mullins: Did his PhD in political biography at the University of Canberra in 2014, but hadn’t written one. He looked around and Billy McMahon was there for the taking (with “good reason” he added!) Researching McMahon, he became intrigued by the disconnect between the reputation (the derision) and the reality (twenty plus years covering all major portfolios as well as prime minister.) Further, his unpublished autobiography indicated he had a divorced-from-reality view of himself, which suggested themes about the myths we can create about the past.

Kathryn Hind: Enrolled in a creative writing masters in the UK. She had to write something. She looked to her  experience of travelling around the world alone for a year, during which she found that she needed, as a young woman, to be hypervigilant, always. Suddenly, Amelia and her dog by the side of the road appeared to her. Neither she, Amelia, nor she, the author, knew what would happen to her!

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone: Wanted “to piss off Tony Abbott”. Seriously though (or, also seriously), the book resulted from a “strange decision” to apply for an ADFA (Australian Defence Force Academy) residency in 2013, despite having no interest in war. Of course, the residency did come with $10K! Featherstone’s overriding interest was to explore different expressions of masculinity under military pressure. Eventually, he found two books in the ADFA Library: Deserter, by American Charles Glass, which explored desertion as an act of courage, and Bad characters, by Australian Peter Stanley, which included the story of a soldier who, during World War 1, had been caught in a homosexual act, been found guilty, and never turned up to board the ship to take him home to prison! There’s my novel, he decided. Had he had any reaction from ADFA to the book, Alberici asked. No.


Given the narrow “backyard” framing of the panel, Alberici took it upon herself to broaden the theme to “place” in general. Suited me. I love hearing authors discuss place.

Karen Viggers: All her stories come from a spiritual connection to place. (I follow Karen on Instagram and can attest her love of place!) She gives her place a fictional name, because she, like Tara June Winch said in the morning, didn’t want to impose her views on real towns (but it is set in the Geeveston/Huonville/Hartz Mountain region of southern Tasmania). She wanted to focus on different types of violence, besides physical, including psychological and economic control. In small towns people know this is going on and can’t pretend they didn’t know. She also wanted to bring back park ranger Leon from a previous book. And, most of all, she wants people to visit, love, and support Australia’s places.

Book coverKathryn Hind: Believes her senses were heightened because she started writing in England, when she was missing Australia. She couldn’t do physical research so would “drop a pin on map”. She named real places. She didn’t feel she had to capture exact their reality, but the timings of Amelia’s journey had to be right. I love that she used online traveller reviews to inform herself. For example, a review of a hotel in a little town mentioned being kept awake by trains shaking the walls at night. She used that! She wanted to truly test Amelia to bring out her strength.

Nigel Featherstone: Hadn’t been to Egypt, so had some initial creative concerns. Then he realised that 1940s Alexandria no longer exists, which that freed him to rely on research. He knows very well the other main place in the book, Mt Wilson. He also talked about writing by hand (which astonished journalist Emma Alberici!) He has gradually learnt that writing is a whole of body activity.

Book coverThen it was Patrick Mullins. He was tricky in terms of “place”, so Alberici asked him about the title. Mullins admitted that his publisher chose it – using Gough Whitlam’s description of McMahon’s scheming by telephone. Mullins’ own title is the subtitle. Alberici asked if he had any cooperation from the family. None, said Mullins, though he sent messages and did have coffee with one member. So, he couldn’t access the 70 boxes of McMahon’s papers at the Archives. He understood, he said. Children of politicians have crappy lives, and, anyhow, it freed him from feeling beholden to the family. Silly family, eh? Fortunately, he had access to one of McMahon’s autobiography ghostwriters who had seen the papers. The most startling revelation, he said, responding to another question from Alberici, was that McMahon was “more admirable than we would have thought”. He racked up several significant achievements, including taking us to the OECD, and showed impressive persistence/resilience.


It was a quality Q&A. The first questioner asked the writers to share the best part for them about writing:

  • Viggers loves the first draft, the joy of going on the ride, and taking the tangents. She also loves those rare moments when the words start to sing!
  • Featherstone found it a hard question, but said one part is when you feel you have written a good sentence, one that feels alive. (One that sings, perhaps?) This happens about once a month, he said. He quoted novelist Roger McDonald, who says that writing is putting sentence after sentence after sentence.
  • Hind’s favourite moments were making discoveries in her own work, the moments when you forget to eat and drink, the moments when you feel “this is what I’ve done”, and when you know your novel so well you can defend it against an editor (albeit her editor was great, she hastened to say.)
  • Mullins gave a non-fiction writer’s answer: It’s when you get access to material, when you find that special piece of information, the little details.

Another question concerned characters “taking over”. Does this happen, and how did they feel about it? Viggers said that for her it’s less that the characters dictate and more that the publishers want her to go deeper, while Hind said that there were times when she wished Amelia would tell her more! Amelia divulging much, even to her author! Featherstone gave the answer of the session. He said that around draft 20 (of the 40 he wrote), he pretended he was a journalist and interviewed his main characters. He asked them to give him an object that represented them, and to tell him a secret about themselves, which he promised not to put in the book. They did, and he didn’t!

Another asked for the best piece of advice they’ve received. Featherstone said it was “to write about what makes you blush”, while Viggers said it was “to get it down, then get it right.” Her husband also says that writing is not about inspiration but getting “bum on seat” and doing it. Hind said her tutor told her that she writes very plainly, which upset her – until he added, “a bit like Tim Winton”! That’s ok then! Mullins said he’d been told that a book about McMahon would be short. It’s not, it’s nearly 800 pages. So, his response was, don’t follow advice!

A good place to end my report of my Canberra Writers Festival. Phew. To those still with me, thanks for following along!

Karen Viggers, The orchardist’s daughter (#BookReview)

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterThe orchardist’s daughter is local author Karen Viggers’ fourth novel, but the first that I’ve read. She has, however, appeared on my blog before, being the person who conversed with Sofie Laguna about her novel, The choke. It was one of the most entertaining conversations I’ve ever attended.

Now, if you haven’t read or heard of Karen Viggers before, there are some facts worth knowing about her. Firstly, she’s a vet with special training in native wildlife health – and this background informs most if not all of her novels, I believe. It certainly informs The orchardist’s daughter. Another significant fact is that she’s a best-selling author in France! How wonderful that a novelist who writes strongly Australia-centric books does so well in France! Her previous novel, The lightkeeper’s wife, was, in fact, awarded the Les Petits Mots de Libraires literary prize.

So, an interesting author, and The orchardist’s daughter is an interesting, enjoyable book. It is set in a small logging town in Tasmania, and has quite a formal structure, starting with a Prologue, followed by four parts – Seeds, Germination, Growth, Understorey – and ending with an Epilogue. It is told third person through the perspective of three characters – Miki, the titular orchardist’s daughter who is 17 years old for most of the novel; Leon, a Park Ranger, who is 25 years old at the novel’s start; and Max, a 10-year-old boy who is Leon’s neighbour. Miki and Leon are relative newcomers to the town, Miki arriving with her older brother Kurt to run the town’s takeaway shop after they lose their home, farm and parents in a fire, and Leon moving from his Ranger job on Bruny Island to the mainland. All three are outsiders and serve to illuminate the tensions existing in the town.

Around these characters is a community comprising mainly logging families, Max’s being one of them. However, there are others who round out the town a little, including policeman Fergus and his sons, Geraldine who runs the information centre, and vet Kate. The narrative develops around a couple of situations. One is a mystery surrounding Miki’s brother Kurt. What does he do by himself in the forest when he insists that Miki wait in the ute, and what does he do during his weekly solo trips to Hobart (during which he locks Miki inside their shop/home)? The other concerns logging, and the dangerous unrest that develops when a temporary ban is placed on logging around a certain ancient tree. Jobs are at risk, the loggers believe, and the butt of their anger is of course Parkie Leon. From these two situations, Viggers builds tension slowly but inexorably, with the Kurt-and-Miki story becoming the prime focus, of course, given the book’s title.

So, there is a strong plot to the novel, but this plot, while driving us on to read, is there to serve some issues that Viggers wants to explore. These concern logging and the environment, bullying and domestic violence, not to mention more personal ones like freedom. These are big issues, and not only is Viggers clearly passionate about them, but her writing about them feels authentic. The characters may be a little less complex than, say, those in Lucashenko’s Too much lip, but they are believable. Logger and vicious bully Mooney is offset against Robbo, who is equally single-minded about logging but seeks more peaceful, law-abiding means of protest. Similarly, Max’s father Shane, another logger who is violent, is offset against colleague Tobey who has a tender, caring relationship with his wife. All of this is observed by Miki from her shop-counter – and she makes her own little attempts to lighten the lives of the bullied and the ostracised, by sneaking treats into their take-away bags. Through this little subversive action, we sense Miki’s inner strength and resourcefulness, something she takes to another level when she works out ways of escaping her “prison” while Kurt is away.

Freedom is one of the novel’s underlying drivers. Miki’s imprisonment is literal, but imprisonment takes many forms – the wives who are abused but feel incapable of escaping, and young Max who is bullied to behave in ways antithetical to his nature. Some of these are resolved, but Viggers recognises that there’s no magic wand for domestic abuse. The first step is moving from passive awareness (or acceptance, even) to taking action, and this starts to happen in the novel.

In the Tarkine, NW Tasmania

The book really stands out, however, in its writing about nature. A Booktopia interview with Viggers tells us that she grew up in the Dandenongs and has been to Antarctica. She has also spent time in Tasmania (and immersed herself in Tasmanian-set books, including two I’ve read, Anna Krien’s Into the woods, and Louis Nowra’s Into that forest). All of this has given her a sure feel for the wilderness, so much so that it’s difficult to choose an excerpt to share, but here’s one:

Miki loved the trees and the birds, but what she loved most couldn’t be seen. The way she felt in the forest. The scent of the bush after the rain. The sound of bark crackling. Branches squeaking. The feeling of patience and agelessness, growth and renewal. The aura of trees. The sense of connectedness. Of everything having its place. She could stay here all day, breathing with the tree, drawing its life into her lungs.

These forest descriptions move into Tasmanian Gothic realms during the climactic chase. The experience is both “terrifying and surreal” for our character who crawls and runs through, burrows and squats in the forest, “slipping from the thicket and weaving though the trees, ducking under tree ferns, past the tipped-up end of a fallen tree whose buttressed roots made a wall he could hide behind.” It’s muddy and dangerous with sword grass that scratches you and bark mounds that can trip you up. Viggers knows this landscape – and how to make it terrifying.

In the end, The orchardist’s daughter is about community and compromise, and about the courage to break free. It straddles the boundary between commercial and literary fiction. It is accessible, it has a strong plot and easy-to-engage-with characters, and it is hopeful (not that literary fiction can’t be!!) But, it is also gritty in subject matter and doesn’t offer neat solutions to the important environmental and social issues it raises. I like that in my reading!

Theresa (Theresa Smith writes) also loved the novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeKaren Viggers
The orchardist’s daughter
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760630584

Review copy courtesy the author, Karen Viggers.

Sofie Laguna in conversation with Karen Viggers

Sofie Laguna and Karen VIggers

Sofie Laguna and Karen Viggers

What a treat it was to witness a conversation between two lively, intelligent Australian women writers in the company of other writers. I mean, as you can see from the post title, Miles-Franklin award-winning author Sofie Laguna and local writer Karen Viggers whose book The lighthousekeeper’s wife has just hit 500,000 copies sold in France!

I must say that I felt a bit like an interloper, given the event was organised by the ACT Writers Centre in their “Developing Writers and their Work” program, but I did enjoy eavesdropping on what writers talk about and want to know!

“I wasn’t ready to win”

The evening started with Sofie (I’m going to use first names) reading from the second chapter of her new book, The choke. Then we got down to business, starting with how Sofie handled her Miles Franklin win for The eye of the sheep (a book which still sits on the pile next to my bed, I’m afraid.) She had a new baby at the time and wasn’t expecting to win. She felt out of her depth. She had no speech prepared, and was suddenly surrounded by media and the press. It was both too much and something you want, she said. However, she felt the prize would be positive for many years to come, and said it made her feel her work was now validated by the literary establishment.

Karen Viggers, The lighthouse keepers wifeKaren then asked her about her experience as a woman in the industry, but Sofie turned this back on Karen – as she did several times during the conversation! Karen, though, was up for the challenge. She commented that she did feel her gender has impacted her career, including such things as the covers of her books.

Sofie agreed that she works in an unfair world, and that women get less attention. She talked about dealing with practical demands of winning the prize and managing a baby. It helps, she said, to trust your instincts. However, “you still have to empty the dishwasher every day”. That got a rueful laugh from many!

“Character IS the plot”

Sofie Laguna, The chokeMany times during the interview, Sofie returned to character. It’s clearly what she writes for, and about.

Karen asked her how she “found” Justine’s voice, the 10-year-old girl living on the Murray with her war-damaged grandfather in The choke. Sofie referred to her training as an actor, and how actors discover that some characters are easier to inhabit than others; she finds young voices easy. Young protagonists, she said, can have a fresh view on the world. Moreover, the more vulnerable voice of child characters frees her to comment on the adult world in a more powerful way.

Sofie then talked about Justine’s Pop. He’s narcissistic. He cares about Justine, albeit not necessarily as he should or could. She admitted that yes, he was another damaged character, but that seeing him that way was too simplistic. Many of us, she said, are damaged in some way. It was clear that she felt there’d been too much focus in interviews on “damage”!

Nonetheless, Karen commented, Sofie did write demanding books, to which Sofie responded that she’d grown up with war-caused loss and damage in her family, something she hadn’t talked about before.

The conversation then returned to Justine, who is dyslexic and generally powerless. Karen asked whether there were ways in which Justine was powerful. Sofie said that while Justine’s in a difficult world, she has the power – can choose – to respond in positive ways. She’s able to form connections. Unlike Pop, she’s not self-absorbed, and can enter other people’s worlds, can empathise. Sofie believes there’s much positivity in the book.

Sofie said that it’s the characters and the tensions between and within them that drive the narrative.

Later, when asked whether her books are character- or plot-driven, whether the plot fits the character or vice versa, she said that character IS the plot.


While character is Sofie’s focus, Karen noted that place is significant in the novel. Sofie described how the Murray River and the Barmah Choke inspired her setting. She said the Murray is brown and gritty which works metaphorically in her story. The choke is where the river becomes narrower. Trees in the choke may look like they’re dying, but they don’t die, they keep growing, which makes a lesson for Justine.


Sofie believes that hope is important. She quoted a writer’s adage, which is that you want readers thinking:

“I fear she won’t, but I hope she will”

Writing to this tension keeps readers reading. (I love this, and will try to remember it.)

Around here, the issue of writing about disadvantage came up. Sofie said that people living disadvantaged lives often find themselves in self-destructive patterns. And yet, like the women in her book who don’t have much power, they can find ways to survive. However, she said, her subject is the richness of world, not specifically poverty and disadvantage. Her stories would not work if she decided to write about disadvantage. She sees her job as being to endow world with life not to be a spokesperson for marginalisation. Anyhow, privilege doesn’t save people from suicide, crime, etc, she argued.

The writing process

Given that the session’s focus was “developing writers”, Karen concluded by turning to the writing process. A lesser interviewer would have been flummoxed at this point when Sofie responded that she had “no answers for questions about how she does it”. But, of course, she did have answers, and she shared them. She:

  • plunges in with a plan
  • writes millions of drafts
  • doesn’t always write from beginning to end, and sometimes stops when she has more to say which can make it easier to start next sitting
  • has found that, with experience, writing has got faster over the years
  • knows her character’s “soul”, but the rest she gets to know as she writes. She noted that initially she found it hard to differentiate Justine from The eye of the sheep’s Jimmy, but Justine’s character developed as she kept writing
  • prefers one-person to multi-person narratives
  • doesn’t choose to write for a specific audience (i.e. young people or adults) but writes for character, and the audience falls into place
  • likes to have some time and space between books (partly because of the promotion she needs to undertake for the most recent book)

It felt at times that Sofie was discovering more about her book as she discussed it with Karen. Her excitement and Karen’s flexibility in going with it made the conversation fun and engaging. It was one of the liveliest I’ve been to, and we all laughed when Sofie said that she wasn’t like this at the breakfast table! I’m glad I decided to go.