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James Bradley: 'Accidental' Critic of the Year

One of Australia’s lesser known literary awards is the Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year, our only national prize for critical writing. Awarded annually, with the sum of $15,000, it rewards a critic or reviewer ‘whose work changes the perceptions of Australians, opens their eyes to a different perspective of their culture, develops a new interest in the subject and is both imaginative and creative’.

First awarded in 1998, to David Malouf, recent winners have included Geordie Williamson (last year’s winner), Alison Croggon and Mark Mordue.

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James Bradley: ‘I do think the sorts of skills good critics have are important and will endure.’

This year’s winner is James Bradley, who combines his work as a novelist with regular reviewing work. In his acceptance speech, he called himself an ‘accidental critic’, having first embarked on reviewing as a way to make money while writing his novel. But somewhere along the way, he says, it turned into ‘something that might almost – if you catch it in the right light and squint hard – be called a career’.

Bridging ‘traditional’ and online readerships

Bradley was chosen partly for the way he bridges ‘traditional reading communities and new online readerships’; he publishes regularly in the Australian, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, but also maintains his own blog, City of Tongues – and is an active member of the literary Twitterati.

James has also ventured into the digital publishing world as a fiction writer; he recently published a short story, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, in the Penguin Shorts e-book series and helmed a volume of Review of Australian Fiction, a digital journal that publishes two short stories in each volume, with an established writer choosing an emerging writer to be paired with.

In the Pascall Judges Report, Geordie Williamson wrote that Bradley ‘thinks hard’:

not only about the book under review, but also about the ways in which changing modes of production and dissemination of texts might affect the words on the page and readers’ reception of a given work … there is a sense of larger cultural phenomena being addressed.

‘The only bad writing is dishonest writing’

Stephen Romei, one of Bradley’s editors, recently interviewed him about the prize and his approach to criticism. ‘The only bad writing is dishonest writing,’ Bradley said. ‘The best thing you can do is write from the heart and talk about how you felt and what you think … I know a lot of the writing I’m proudest of is writing where I’m trying out ideas, or exploring something I’m not quite sure about.’

He said that it’s important for a reviewer to acknowledge their own prejudices and to accept that critical judgments are ‘provisional’. The best writing, he believes, is ‘always actively engaged with thinking something through’.

Online audiences make you ‘work harder to earn their respect’

Bradley also shared his thoughts about the print/online divide, which he believes has ‘pretty much broken down’, as many readers now read everything online, including the content of traditional print outlets. (For instance, most of the reviews you can read in the weekend papers can also be found online, as can the books pages of the Guardian in the UK and the New York Times in the US.)

‘The transition to ebooks and digital publishing is going to be a real process of creative destruction, altering the publishing industry but also enabling a moment of incredible creative possibility,’ he told Stephen Romei.

He welcomed the way new media ‘enables all sorts of newer voices and breaks down traditional hierachies’.

‘Online audiences are highly engaged and often quite challenging, so you find yourself working harder to earn their respect, which can only be a good thing.’

Further reading

Here are a couple of examples of James’s reviews:

‘Bloody Beauties: The Rise and Rise of Vampire Lit’ (from Australian Literary Review)

On Nick Harkaway’s The Angelmaker (from Sydney Morning Herald)

And a series of blog posts by James on reviewing:

Literary Bloodsport: On Louis Nowra’s devastating take-down of Bob Ellis in Australian Literary Review.

Literary Bloodsport Part 2: On Hatchet Jobs: ‘As spectator sports go literary hatchet jobs are up there with cage-fighting, but are they actually a good thing?’

Literary Bloodsport Part 3: Authors Fight Back: ‘While I’ve had plenty of reviews I could have done without, my general view is that it’s not just undignified to get into a stoush with a reviewer, it’s a fight you’re almost guaranteed to lose. At best you’ll give a bad review oxygen, at worst you’ll look petulant and egomaniacal.’


The Wheeler Centre’s Long View project, a fortnightly series of long-form critical essays, puts Australian writers under the spotlight, and gives our critics the room to stretch out.

The current Long View essay is by Delia Falconer, on animals in Australian literature.



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