"One of my favourite Australian writers of his generation, David Free has the rare gift of writing critical prose with a creative dimension. Whether talking about high culture, popular culture or both at once, he is the master of the line of argument that makes you hungry for what happens next. Such a knack for turning the process of thought into a dramatic narrative is given to few, but he not only has it, he seems determined to develop it to the limit. His plain, natural but invariably melodic style combines appreciation and judgment in an addictive blend, the appreciation deep and wide-ranging, the judgment precise and sane. His powers of illustration leave most poets and novelists sounding short of skill, and how they leave most other critics sounding it would be impolite for me to mention. Enough to say that he is many furrows ahead in his field." — Clive James

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

No basis in reality

In front of me are three books about Donald Trump, along with a book-shaped object purporting to have issued from the pen of Trump himself. Before we talk about these publications, we might as well acknowledge that discussion of the printed word, in the age of Trump, is a laughably pointless endeavour. Clearly, we’re past the point at which books can alter the course of events. The asteroid is bearing down on us now, fringed by its raging orange mane. Either it will miss us narrowly or it will hit us. Talking about it will do us no more good than staring at it in mute horror. Then again, there is no subject we want to talk about more. As long as we know we’re wasting our breath, there seems to be no harm in proceeding.

If words still mattered, the ones that routinely emerge from Trump’s own mouth would have sunk him long ago. The point is proved by The World According to Trump, a slender but damning selection of his most asinine utterances. The book is billed as a work of humour. Whether you find it funny will depend on how dark you like your comedy. Speaking for myself, I feel it’s a bit early to find Trump funny at this stage, as well as a bit late ... [read more]

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Surfin' Salieri

Brian Wilson had genius, while Mike Love only had talent. That is the standard thing to say about the two dominant personalities of the Beach Boys. The tortured but indispensable Wilson wrote the irresistible tunes and created the richly textured arrangements. Love, the all-American Everyman, supplied skills of a more material kind. He had rangy good looks. He sang some but not all of the lead vocals; wrote some but not all of the best lyrics; became the touring band’s gawkily bopping front man after Brian, crippled by stage fright and mental illness, retired from performing to stay home and write songs.

Love, with some justification, thinks the conventional reading of Beach Boys history sells him short. It’s not that he minds Wilson being called a genius; indeed he’s ready to call him one himself. But he resents the notion that the remaining Boys were “Brian’s puppets,” or “nameless components in Brian’s music machine.” His new memoir is an attempt to set the record straight – to write his way out of the genius’s shadow. The book is called Good Vibrations, but I believe I picked up a few bad vibrations in it too. For an adept of Transcendental Meditation, Love sure knows how to nurse a grudge ... [read more]

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Jimmy Barnes has been trying to get the story of his childhood off his chest since the early nineties. He had abandoned the project twice when a viewing of the movie Snowtown impelled him to push through with it once and for all. “The floodgates opened and I couldn’t hold back the past any longer.” When Snowtown serves as a trigger for the remembrance of things past, it’s a fair sign your childhood was less than ideal.

This isn’t, then, a memoir of its author’s career as a rock star. When Barnes brings the book to a close, he has only just joined an obscure Adelaide band called Cold Chisel. Nor is there any other sense in which this book resembles the typical celebrity memoir. Most star autobiographers have nothing urgent to say; their books aren’t driven by the impulses that make a real writer write.

Barnes’s book is, to a startling degree ... [read more]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The art of serious reading

In his regular pieces for The New Yorker, the literary critic James Wood gives you hope for the ailing arts of reading and writing. Wood is a master of both things. He uses words as scrupulously as he listens to them; his prose hears nuance and has it. His stuff is like a reviver tent by the side of the information highway. When the traffic starts to dull your brain, Wood can always be relied on to remind you what real thinking sounds like.

In his new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, Wood unshackles himself from the obligations of the critical review, and unfurls a sustained, free-ranging meditation about life, art, and the relationship between them ... [read more]