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The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing


How to Read a Big Book

The Critical Reception of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites in the Context of Contemporary Trade Book Marketing


Author’s Note

The following essay was first published under the moniker ‘Critic Watch’ for the Sydney Review of Books (SRB). It is part of a series of essays being undertaken for the SRB that discuss contemporary literary reviewing in Australia. Critic Watch’s basic assumption is that all published reviews and critical essays are public and rhetorical performances of literary experience and so invite public responses. We are so accustomed to a situation in which reviews are regarded to be isolated taste events that public disagreement is regarded as a kind of trolling. It would be myopic, though, to imagine that we could understand reviewing and criticism without an awareness of their position within the dynamics of the literary field as a whole. Therefore, these essays also have engaged with various other aspects of contemporary literary production.

This particular essay looks at the mechanisms of trade book publishing, which, in the internet age, has sought increasingly to co-opt the sphere of judgement so as to ensure a benign cloud of positivity around priority titles. These are the so-called Big Books. To demonstrate the extent of the well-resourced PR departments of multinational publishers, Critic Watch tracked online the process of promoting Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, a debut by a young novelist from Adelaide that secured a large advance. Its promotion began with hype about the ‘bidding war’ to win the manuscript and went on to include pre-release media engagements, the distribution of advance copies to reviewers and bloggers, storefront eye-capture and other traditional advertising methods (including television), social media, the inevitable stories about cinematic adaptations and the relentless face-to-face touring of bookstores and festivals internationally. The online version of this essay contains upwards of 200 hyperlinks, which could not be retained in this version. Please visit to find them. All references to publicity and media in this essay were gathered in the six months following the novel’s publication in Australia. It was published just after the novel’s release onto the British and North American Markets. This essay thus pertains mostly to the Australian context.

In reproducing the essay for this volume I have retained the Critic Watch moniker. The style and form of argumentation is specific to the perspective adopted when ‘watching’ other critics in this manner.

Burial Rites is a historical novel set in 1830 that narrates the final year in the life of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnúsdóttir. One of the two men Agnes was accused of murdering, Natan Ketilsson, was a personality of the times who was connected with poets and freethinkers, and the episode is still known in Iceland. It has previously been the subject of books and films. In this English-language treatment the archival sources feature prominently. Direct translations of historical documents appear as extended epigraphs to each of the 13 chapters, setting quite strict narrative limits. Unless the facts are being played with (they are not), the novel needs to meet with readers’ expectations of historical plausibility. It is not surprising to find a note of pre-emptive defensiveness in the author’s afterword: ‘The high level of literacy shown by the characters is historically accurate’ (Kent 334).

The historical materials are absorbed into the tissue of the novel in the way that some historical films make use of historical footage, with the cinematography accordingly callibrated. The twenty-first-century prose is not intended to be identical to the language of the historical documents, but there is a concerted effort to blend them. Archaisms, more and less awkward, appear in both the narrative voice and the representations of speech: in the lexicon (‘whorling’ (40), ‘breakfast victuals’ (95)); in the grammar (‘she spat wetly upon the grass’ (68), ‘[a] slipper wanting mending’ (71)); and in register (‘I am of the opinion that a drier home allows better circulation of air, and is therefore better for the health’ (162)). It also prompts much description that is specific to nineteenth-century rural Iceland, and there are many Icelandic terms employed—mostly proper nouns, but also some phrases.

The labour of historical detail can be impressive:

Next are the bones, and the heads. I ask Lauga to empty the tallow pot of gristle and water, but she pretends she cannot hear me and keeps her eyes fixed ahead of her. Kristín goes instead. When Steina sidles up to me again, smiling shyly, wondering if there is anything I need doing, I ask her to fill the emptied pot with the bones that cannot be used for anything else. Salt. Barley. Water. Steina and I haul the pot next to the poaching blood sausage, for the marrow to leach into the simmering water, for the salt and heat to prise away all the tenderness from the carcass. She claps her hands when we fix the slopping pot upon the hook and immediately begins to throw more fuel on the fire. (206)

Here we see Agnes’s increasing sway over the younger sister, Steina, and her growing influence in the affairs of the family. Her skilfulness establishes her authority, and she is unruffled by the snub from the elder sister, Lauga. The parallel syntax (‘for the marrow’/‘for the salt’) conveys the rhythm of the activity, and metonymy (‘tenderness’ for lamb) deftly foregrounds the cooking process. The unusual use of a noun of action as an adjective (‘slopping’) runs in the flow of present participles. Historical research, plotting, characterisation and style meld into convincing prose.

Cinematographic analogies seem apt for this novel. It begins with a short, lyrical prologue in Agnes’s voice that is identical in style and tone to the voice-over that often leads into a film’s title credits. The structure is also, in a sense, filmic. There is frequent ‘cutting’ from scene to scene, while a steady momentum in the plotting is maintained. Each chapter has a number of major section breaks (around five per chapter), and these often have internal breaks. It is usually only a page or two to get through before lights out. The most significant differentiation of narrative style is between a mostly discreet third-person narration and Agnes’s first-person narration, at a proportion of roughly two to one.

The premise is simple and clearly articulated. With a year to live, Agnes is interned at the farm of Margrét and Jón and their two daughters in rural Kornsa. Over the course of the novel, the details of her life leading up to the murder of Natan are recounted through memories and discussions with her priest counsel. The inexperienced Reverend Tóti is something of a prop for Agnes’s mono logues, with their interactions more closely resembling the talking cure than religious guidance. Agnes’s presence produces tensions in both the family and the local community, creating a separate source of narrative momentum. If the method is that of the historical novel, the genre might be described as a mix of the death-row novel, Gothic romance and feminist revisionism. The first produces a compelling narrative arc. The second provides the frisson: the destitute yet poetic maid who has a love affair with a freethinking mystic. The third supplies the novel’s ethics and narrative mode: the voice recovered from the margins given fullness through the fictional imagination.

We have seen that where the historical research is thorough, the style can be assured. However, the prose is by no means functional. There is a tendency for unusual descriptors:

He mounted his horse and vanished behind the swell of hills (10)

… a slight blur of blue, a smudge of skirt being hauled off a horse (44)

… one [stocking] was torn, exposing a slice of pale skin (45)

Margrét winced at the smear of dried blood […] and the grime that lay in streaks across her forehead (45)

… grief that sets in when death falls thickly in the home (47)

I catch the words as they slither through the gap between this room and the next (128)

There were smears of violet that swelled against darkness of the night (143)

Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp (198)

He sniffed and wiped his nose on his glove, leaving a shiny smear upon the wool (280)

… the verses lifted over the snowy field and fell about them like a mist (328)

One begins to see patterns: a penchant for painterly descriptions (‘smudge’, ‘smear’, ‘streaks’); striking analogies, such as the alignment of humans and weather (Autumn/gasp, verse/mist), often mobilised by an unexpected verb (to fall); metonymy of quality for noun (‘smudge of skirt’); the animation of language (words that ‘slither’, verses that ‘lift’); and modifiers that have verbal connotations (‘swell’, ‘slice’). These examples, and numerous others like them, tend to come towards the beginning of chapters or sections.

The greater technical demands come in the passages of first-person narration. Without the guide of archival materials, Agnes’s interiority must be summoned through a mixture of historical empathy and the means available from literary style. It cannot be doubted that there is consistency in these sections. A handful of conspicuous rhetorical devices are repeatedly called upon. Take the following examples, which appear over three pages of text:

they have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground … bruises, blossoming like star clusters under the skin … I am tied like a lamb for slaughter … I wonder where they will store me, cellar me like butter, like smoked meat. Like a corpse … like a cow I go where I am led … it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow … rotting slowly in a room like a body in a coffin … Like a woman, he said. The sea is a nag … The light had arrived like a hunted thing. (35–37)

It could be that the density of simile reflects Agnes’s mental state as she is transported to the farm. Although they do not come as thickly again, similes are a continual feature of her voice. We are to believe that Agnes has a strongly lyrical spirit, so this has grounds in the characterisation. It just makes her lyricism a bit annoying.

The frequency of rhetorical or leading questions and syntactic parallels, however, raises questions about the technical range. The following examples are only a small sample:

Rhetorical and Leading Questions

What would I say to him anyway, now that it has come to this? (43)

But what is the use of protesting against language? (62)

Do they sing hymns in the winter here? (70)

Is this happiness, this warmth against my chest? Like another’s hand placed there? (78)

How do men ever see women like me? (101)

When the Reverend saw my name and birth in the church book, did he only see the writing and understand only the date? Or did he see the fog of that day, and hear the ravens cawing at the smell of blood? Did he imagine it as I have imagined it? (110)

Is the Reverend the person in my memory, or is he another altogether? Did I do that, or was it another? Magnús or Jón? […] did my mother look down at her baby daughter and think: ‘One day I will leave you’? Did she look at my scrunched face, hoping I would die, or did she silently urge me to stick to life like a burr? (111)

Why am I trembling like this? (119)

Did I author my own fate, then? […] Did I hold her too tightly? (150)

Are my eyes open or shut? Perhaps it was a ghost who woke me—how can I explain these lights appearing in the murk before me? […] Was I dreaming? (156)

What else is God good for other than a distraction from the mire we’re all stranded in? […] When was the last time I even attended church? (248)

… where all the birds have gone, where have they gone? (317)

Syntactic Parallels

You, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, have been found guilty of accessory to murder. You, Agnes Magnúsdóttir have been found guilty of arson, and conspiracy to murder. You, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, have been sentenced to death. You, Agnes. Agnes. (29)

I was two dead men. I was burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood. (35)

He knew me as one knows the seasons, knows the tide. Knew me like the smell of smoke, knew what I was, and what I wanted. And now he is dead. (83)

Until I feel that I’m not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. (103)

A lie for a father. A head of dark hair. A hayrack to sleep in. A kiss. A stone, so that I might learn to understand the birds and never be lonely. (111)

I craved his weight, then. I craved the breath of him: the quickening inhalation and the warm pressure of his mouth. […] I could feel him, the heat of him, the very quick of him. He groaned and the sound lingered in the air like a cloud of ash over a volcano. (220)

I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. (317)

Of course it is somewhat unfair to pick out and line up all instances of a stylistic feature—each might find justification in its context. The point is that at moments of earnest meaning-making, the same strategies are employed. By the time the novel climaxes, the prose feels exhausted:

Don’t feed me or I will bite you, I will bite the hand that feeds me, that refuses to love me, that leaves me. Where is my stone? You don’t understand! I have nothing to say to you, where are the ravens? Jóas has sent them all away, they never speak to me, it’s not fair. See what I do for them? It’s strange, I shatter my teeth, and they still will not speak to me. Only the wind. Only the wind speaks and it will not talk sense, it screams like the widow of the world and will not wait for a reply. (321)

Agnes is at the point of derangement, yet little further affect is to be wrung from the same devices. One suspects that the emotional arc of the death-row novel will propel many first-time readers through; a closer reading reveals the substance to be a little thin.

I was confirmed in this judgement when reflecting on the relentless symbolism of ravens and stones. It seems that one or the other, or both, appear every couple of pages, as though repetition will of itself accumulate significance. There is an attempt to integrate them into the narrative—her mother gives her a stone on abandonment; ravens are present at significant moments in life; and in a moment of light magic realism right at the end, Agnes chokes on and spits out a stone on the road to her execution—but without sensing any basis in the novel’s purpose, I was nonplussed. The function would seem to be more a kind of cinematic cue—a visual ornament, an atmospheric device.

* * *

Hannah Kent received a seven-figure advance comprising offers from three publishers for Burial Rites as part of a two-book deal (Deahl). This is her first novel, written towards completing a PhD at Flinders University. She was 28 when it was published.

In the Sydney Review of Books, Stuart Glover has written an illuminating essay on Kent and three other recently published first-time novelists in Australia. He focuses on the interplay between publishers and creative writing programs at universities, whose job it is to elicit a certain base-level competence from students, or, as he puts it, a ‘lack of incompetence’. Increasingly the acquisition of institutional credentials, recognition and advances is the platform on which new writers enter the commercial sphere. This creates the strange scenario in which there can be incentive for publishers to increase advances in order to create a first wave of publicity. In the case of Burial Rites, Critic Watch found seven articles announcing the book deal from July 2012.

A first-time novelist is already a difficult assignment for a reviewer. With such a large sum hanging over the book, a public judgement of its literary value becomes trickier: a positive review might look like commercial complicity, a negative one mean-spirited. In order to think about what might constitute a meaningful aesthetic response to Burial Rites, it will help to digress a little to consider what the advance for Burial Rites signals about its place in the logic of trade book publishing in our time. In the absence of industry experience, Critic Watch’s guide is the sociologist John B. Thompson’s gripping analysis, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

A large advance for a young first-time novelist might easily be supposed to mean that the novel is mass-market pulp. Alternatively it could suggest that we have a prodigy on our hands and the money reflects the quality of the work. In fact, it can have only one certain meaning: that the publisher believes it will at least recoup costs. In addition to the advance (which includes agent’s fees), a publisher will pay for marketing (which averages at around 6.5% of projected revenue), production and distribution costs, and overheads. Dan Brown received an advance of US$400,000 for a two-book deal that included The Da Vinci Code (Thompson 200). He was an established author and had published several books. So how is it possible that a studious historical novel by an unknown first-time author can receive nearly three times the advance of the novel that has defined the parameters of the market for contemporary popular fiction?

To answer this question we need to look at recent developments in the collection of sales data. At the turn of the century, Nielsen Company developed a service called BookScan. This makes available to subscribers the collated point-of-sale data purchased from retail outlets. An author’s sales figures were previously known only to her publisher and her agent. With BookScan covering around ninety per cent of sales, everyone can now see everyone else’s business. Two or three books into their careers, authors are pretty much bound to their track record. If they have failed to garner enough sales to make them attractive to their publisher’s bottom line, either the marketing budget for their work is reduced or they are cut loose. If they seek to move publisher, their ‘track’ hovers over them like a dark cloud. Dan Brown’s modest track before his mega hit meant that he and his agent had no numerical basis to negotiate a higher advance. The work of a new author, however, is all clear skies and so one of the very few occasions when the imaginations and enthusiasms of publishers can roam a little. To the unpublished masses the industry may seem impenetrable, but it is not true that it is geared to serve those who have already been published.

The seven-figure advance for Burial Rites is not an aberration. What it signals is that, ahead of publication, Burial Rites had attained the status of a Big Book: a priority title to which a publisher will assign sizeable editing and marketing resources in the hopes of generating income well above costs. This creates incentives for commissioning editors, who compete with each other—even within an imprint—to hype their titles in a way that prompts big offers. As Thompson observes:

the more you pay, the bigger the book is and the more likely it is that it will be seen and treated as a big book all the way down the line, from positioning within the catalogue and the allocating of marketing spend to prioritization by the sales directors and the way the book is worked by the reps. (210)

The ascension of Burial Rites to Big Book status is not a fairy tale, though it is unusual for a writer so far from London and New York, or even Sydney and Melbourne. It follows a typical sequence, which we can analyse as the conversion of ‘hype’ about the book’s quality into ‘buzz’ about its real prospects as a commodity. Hype requires only superlatives and a rhetoric of sincerity. Buzz comes when a publisher is prepared to lay down hard cash. In a competitive environment, Burial Rites is remarkable for having travelled so smoothly through this process.

First there would need to be objective-seeming indicators of the book’s quality. This would usually be found in the judgement of the literary agent, who must protect her reputation to remain in business. Burial Rites was given a significant leg-up when it won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. This helped to secure an agent from the multinational agency Curtis Brown and a well-known mentor, Geraldine Brooks, whose appraisal appears on the cover of Burial Rites: ‘an accomplished gem, its prose as crisp and sparkling as its northern setting’.

The well-connected agent would have approached commissioning editors who could be expected to be sympathetic to the novel’s premise and aesthetic. A phone call or covering letter would have hyped the book in terms that would guarantee buzzability. This would not be anything resembling literary criticism, but rather an assessment peculiar to the industry’s imperatives. In the absence of a track record, the agent would stress the marketing opportunities offered by Burial Rites’s prize-winning status and the endorsement of a well-known author. Comparison would be made to similar novels that had enjoyed significant sales, and there would be references to cultural trends. Kent was fortunate to have been entering the market with a historical novel set in Scandinavia at a time when historical novels and Scandinavian themes were fashionable. The agent would also have pointed out the ways in which both the novel and the author could be marketed—what gets called the author’s ‘platform’. Picador’s initial sales catalogue entry for Burial Rites, for example, explicitly lists ‘selling points’ (‘“Burial Rites” was the subject of an international bidding war’) and product placement information ‘dumpbins, bookmarks, and samplers available’ (Pan Macmillan Australia). The agent would have highlighted specific demographics that would constitute a ready, in-built market for the title. For literary fiction, the book club is one of the strongest word-of-mouth instruments—Picador, in fact, put together notes for reading groups ahead of Burial Rites’s release (Picador). With thought to publicity tours and media, there might also have been comments on the author’s personality and appearance. The potential for cinematic adaptation may have also been raised. (Jennifer Lawrence has apparently signed onto the cinematic adaptation of Burial Rites, to be directed by Gary Ross (Ianella).)

The commissioning editor convinced, the book would next have been recommended to the head of the imprint and an offer made. Hype has become buzz, but it is still not a Big Book. A debut only reaches Big Book status by way of an auction: a so-called ‘bidding war’. When two or more publishers bid on a novel, notes Thompson, it confirms their respective internal processes of evaluation: ‘The auction is a continuous process of re-evaluating the value of the book, testing one’s own judgements and opinions against the judgements and opinions of others and adjusting them in this light. The higher others are prepared to go, the more likely it is that you will be inclined to think that you should go higher too’ (209). It is no longer one or two bees, but a hive, and the publishers feel certain that someone is going to collect the honey. On this occasion the winning bids that formed the two-book deal came from Picador Australia (who are reported to have paid $350,000), Picador UK (both are imprints of Pan Macmillan international) and Little, Brown in the United States (an imprint of Hachette, which reportedly paid seven figures).

The index for Thompson’s Merchants of Culture does not have a listing under ‘reviews’ or ‘reviewers’. Evidently reviewing is not a significant element in the logic of the trade book industry. The single page that does consider reviewing only points to its declining significance. Unlike cinema, literary works are not usually judged with easily visible stars. We are just as likely to see the recommendation of a prominent novelist or the mention of a prize on the cover as we are a line from a review. When an outlay has been made on a Big Book, the publisher needs to create a market for it—and the route to a mass readership is not through disinterested judgements. Ideally, a Big Book will enter the bestseller list in its first week of release, usually ahead of, or concurrent with, the first reviews. The job of the marketing team is to reach out to the target readership well ahead of time, and to generate a large cache of pre-orders that will count as first-day sales. Once secured, the ‘bestseller’ label will be used to push the book hard in the six-to-eight-week window that most books have to establish themselves. Failing that, marketing resources are quickly pulled. Thompson quotes one publicity manager at a large publishing corporation saying: ‘If a book is not working there’s not a lot you can do. And if the fish is dead you let it float downstream. I’m sorry, but you just let her go, baby’ (265). The marketing team is responsible for ensuring that buzz becomes honey. If it fails, the publisher makes a loss, the agent loses commercial credibility and the author floats away.

For literary fiction, face-to-face events remain a key marketing instrument. (According to her website, in the six months following the May 2013 release, Kent appeared at 24 bookstores, three libraries and four literary festivals.) There will also be macromedia advertising: newspaper and magazine ads, ‘light walls’ and dump bins in shopping centres and airports. Australian publishers still favour the backs of buses. There will be cooperative arrangements with bookstores to ensure that the novel is the first thing that meets the eye of the customer. Effectively this means that publishers rent window and front-of-store table space from chain bookstores. This will also extend to the catalogues and bookstore promotions, including online ones. The publicist will attempt to get interviews for the author in newspapers (Critic Watch found seven with Kent on the internet) and in magazines and on the radio (Critic Watch found evidence of four). Kent’s publicists managed to snag an episode of Australian Story, which caused a great surge in sales (see below).

As with most retail industries, trade book publishing has needed rapidly to adapt its marketing strategies. Online has not replaced traditional forms, but it is now more likely to form the focus of any campaign. Rather than the dogfight for eyeballs in physical space, the internet makes available fine-grained methods for reaching a target readership. This particularly suits first-time authors, who can develop their name from blog to blog. Of course the author must have her own website, and there will be the usual Facebook and Twitter. There will also be online versions of traditional media formats, whether print (Critic Watch found five online-only interviews), audio (Critic Watch found three) or video (Critic Watch found seven).

Of most relevance to book reviewing is the targeting of book-related sites and blogs. It used to be that review copies were sent to professional reviewers and established names who would suffer reputational damage if they were perceived to be for hire. Now a publisher will send out dozens, even hundreds of advance copies to internet loudmouths and online communities. Word-of-mouth recommendations are not hoped for but concertedly generated. Critic Watch found 12 blogs that mentioned being forwarded such copies. The standard caveat seems to be that the free copy is in ‘exchange for my honest opinion’—an admission that the bloggers are not expected to be vocational. Whether by such fabricated means or genuine word-of-blog, once a book is taken up, it circulates at velocity. Critic Watch found 45 blog reviews and posts on Burial Rites: a non-exhaustive, mostly Australian list that was compiled in the early days of the release into the UK and US markets.

For literary fiction, the end of the rainbow is the book club circuit. When a literary novel takes hold here, it has hit the commercial sweet spot of accessibility and gravitas. Critic Watch found online evidence of ten different book clubs reading the book. Some of these reported being forwarded copies. When this is combined with the promotional ‘reviews’ of bookstores (Critic Watch found three such, though, did not look extensively) we confront a billowing cloud of opinion. There are, no doubt, acute and sensitive readers within this cloud, and the subject of reviewing in the blogging world requires careful delineation and discrimination. However, seen as a whole—and this is the view taken by the publishers—the overwhelming tendency in this liminal sphere of criticism is towards opinions without responsibility, in which judgements assume the tone of assertions of self-worth and identity. Lacking self-awareness but big on naive honesty, it is no wonder that the cloud can be commercially manipulated. This subtle infusion of the commercial into the domain of literary judgement makes cash-for-comment endorsements and product placements in films look like clumsy prototypes.

An inspection of BookScan revealed that by 19 October 2013, Burial Rites had sold almost 51,000 copies in Australia. On a bet of $350,000, Picador Australia had generated, by Critic Watch’s estimation, over $1.4 million in revenue. The Australian Story episode boosted sales in the week following its broadcast by nearly $100,000 and, according to Critic Watch’s calculations, by around $450,000 overall before weekly sales returned to pre-broadcast levels.

* * *

So, whether or not by manipulated means, you’ve heard about that book about the woman on death row in Greenland or somewhere. You want to know if it’s any good, so you track down the title and search for reviews. As things stand, most readers of literary fiction are likely to search among the results for reviews from respected print sources. However, as online and print spheres merge and consumers seek quick advice on quality, it is ever more likely that an impressionistic or commercially infused response will stand in for the subjectively universal judgement of the vocational critic. This is intensified in the case of a Big Book, when the publisher has done everything it can to generate a reception that circumvents the need for such appraisals. When Burial Rites had only been released in Australia, it took some searching to locate professional reviews within the billowing cloud. By October, there was a diligent and astute review in The New York Times that could be found at the top of the search results (considered below).

The entire field of literary criticism is shifting, and the delineation of the cloud becomes increasingly important for monitoring criticism’s career in the broad public sphere. The great challenge at present is for the established domain of disinterested judgement to retain its integrity as transformations take place in formats, revenue structures and reading habits. In the case of Burial Rites, there is the added challenge of the hype surrounding the novel’s advance, in which a reviewer can easily be destabilised by the interpenetration of literary and commercial values.

Writing in The Monthly, Alexandra Coghlan, perhaps a little disingenuously, places the burden of hype back on the prose, suggesting that the hype is ‘pressure this competent debut could do without’. Coghlan’s short review gives the novel relatively short shrift: it is ‘solid enough’ revisionist history, the lyricism ‘occasionally spilling over into excess’. Coghlan provides a pithy summary of the novel’s composition and ethical premise, no less accurate for being so: ‘The lists and stock phrases of municipal discourse offer a hard surface for the protagonist’s first-person monologues to rebound against, animating the issue of historical absolutes: these documents tell the truth, but do they tell the story?’ Mischievously, she appropriates the novel’s rhetoric in order to describe it: ‘Our heroine emerges in a smudgy collage of events.’ Coghlan evidently wants to counter the novel’s melodrama and commercial hype with sharp wit. Not surprisingly, the review did not appear among those listed on the author’s website.

The opposite treatment is given by Michael McGirr in The Sydney Morning Herald. A summary of the novel’s historical premise and plot precedes high praise. He finds Agnes’s voice ‘mellifluous’, citing several lines that made Critic Watch wince, such as ‘only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky’. Unfazed, or perhaps not sensitive to the arioso aspect of Agnes’s voice, McGirr finds that her voice ‘hums gently’ through the novel. The review closes with praise for the novelist for embracing a non-Australian subject.

Not so Bronwyn Lea in Australian Book Review, whose explicit appraisal, tellingly, is confined to a short final paragraph. For all its evident narrative skill, the book is ‘not a particularly challenging read’ and ‘leans heavily’ on its genre devices. The rest of a decent-sized review is given to the historical background of the case of Agnes—a reviewing approach more typical for non-fiction, suggesting that more worth is to be found in the history than the novelisation. In a comment concerning a potential Hollywood remake of the episode, one senses scepticism about commercial imperatives.

Over at The Australian, Geordie Williamson’s penchant for aphorisms is on display: a line from Auden gets him in the mood and he warms down with another from Woolf. He touches on the backstory of Kent’s time researching in Iceland, but avoids mentioning the advance and the commercial context. Williamson is most concerned with the novel’s gender politics, and is the only critic across blogs and print media to characterise it as an ‘angry depiction’. Compliments for Kent’s ‘uncanny knack for narrative’, the novel’s successful historical realism and the strength of the Agnes sections come before a closing criticism of what he regards as overdone gender politics. The male characters are flat, if not stereotypes, it is claimed, and Woolf is used in a rather sharp manner to suggest that aspects of the novel are politics dressed up as fiction.

In The Melbourne Review, Tali Lavi attempts to shield consideration of the novel from the commercial hype, but in doing so explicitly falls into the trap of repeating it. In a not very ambitious and mostly descriptive appraisal, Lavi admires the lyricism, or ‘poeticism’, of Agnes’s voice, but notes that the control over language falters at times. In his brief comments on the novel in his Sydney Review of Books essay, Stuart Glover’s assessment is that the novel is impressive in psychological detail, but the shifts in narrative perspective are perhaps too frequent. The material is well chosen, but the novelist is not entirely in control of it.

Aside from McGirr, who does not make a particularly convincing case, there were no greatly positive reviews. All of the critics could see that it is a novel with clear strengths, even if there was no agreement about what these were. Certainly there was no favouritism for Kent as a first-time novelist attracting international attention. The hype over the advance was present, but it could not be judged to have greatly skewed consideration. Across the reviews the sense emerged of a competent-to-skilfully-written historical novel on a compelling theme with some unevenness in style and characterisation. It hardly seems worth pointing out that the novel’s commercial success and its critical reception in Australia were at odds. And Critic Watch certainly would not wish to suggest that this selection of reviews was definitive. In setting judge ments of literary value against the enveloping background of contemporary marketing, I have sought to signal the importance of distinguishing the two. If good reviewers wish to ensure that this remains possible, diligence and faint praise may not be enough.

I will leave consideration of the overseas reception of Burial Rites to interested readers. The novel did well in the United Kingdom, with The Observer, Telegraph, Daily Express and The Sunday Times all reviewing positively. The Guardian gave a mixed assessment. At the time that this essay was first published, the reception in the United States was not yet greatly developed. Special mention must be given, though, for Steven Heighton in The New York Times. He does not select the aspects of the novel that it occurs to him to discuss, but, in 860 words, seeks to give a full sense of the qualities of the work. Refreshingly, and so rarely in contemporary newspaper reviewing, there is a concise, supported and convincing discussion of the novel’s style as it pertains to the realisation of narrative. Rather than lazy, non-specific adjectives or aphorisms (‘beautiful prose’, ‘as sparkling as the northern setting’), there is sharp characterisation and incisive quotation. For example, Agnes’s self-description as ‘beached in a peat bog of poverty’ is recognised as inventive, but its ‘metrical jauntiness deeply at odds with [the] meaning’. This shows a reader who is attentive to the interplay of style and meaning; too often the reviewer’s ear is alert only for one.

Works Cited

Coghlan, Alexandra. ‘“Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent.’ The Monthly. Schwartz Publishing, May 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Deahl, Rachel. ‘Little, Brown Pays Seven Figures for Debut Novel by Aussie Author.’ Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, LLC, 12 Jul. 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Glover, Stuart. ‘So Many Paths That Wind and Wind.’ Sydney Review of Books. Writing and Society Research Centre, The University of Western Sydney, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Heighton, Steven. ‘Fire and Ice.’ The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Ianella, Antimo. ‘Oscar Winner Jennifer Lawrence Signs Up for Film Version of SA Author’s Debut Novel.’ Herald Sun. The Herald and Weekly Times, 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Kent, Hannah. Burial Rites. Sydney: Picador, 2013.

Lea, Bronwyn. ‘Ambiguous Agnes.’ Australian Book Review. Australian Book Review, May 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Lavi, Tali. ‘Review: Burial Rites.’ The Melbourne Review 19 (2013): 18. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

McGirr, Michael. ‘Prejudice Melts Away in a Frigid Landscape.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media, 25 May 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Pan Macmillan Australia. ‘Sales Catalogue.’ Pan MacMillan Australia, May 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Picador. ‘Notes for Reading Groups.’ Picador, 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

Williamson, Geordie. ‘Outcast Doomed by Conformity in Hannah Kent’s Debut.’ The Australian. News Corp Australia, 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. <>.

The Return of Print?: Contemporary Australian Publishing

   by Aaron Mannion and Emmett Stinson