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City Rd death trap


05 Feb 2020

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Not all a bed of roses

By Rhonda Dredge

Books dominate the life of Peter Rose, waiting in piles to be reviewed in his nice wood-panelled office on City Rd, and he takes those books very seriously, patting them gently like favoured friends.

When it comes to reviewing one of those books, he will read it twice and familiarise himself with the genre before developing an angle.

Yet Rose, the editor of the Australian Book Review (ABR), challenges others to take a few risks.

“There’s not enough individuality in reviewing,” he says. “This is something I’ve spoken about and lamented in public. There’s a certain unanimity.”

He cites the case of Beejay Silcox who was on his case for a year to review Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.

She loved The Handmaid’s Tale. So, Rose finally relinquished and gave her the book for the November issue.

“She was disappointed and said so,” Rose said. “Having the confidence and courage to criticise an immensely popular author takes guts.”

The ABR produces 50,000 words of criticism and analysis a month from its Southbank office.

You could call the office quite a significant manufacturer of text. Rose copy-edits every article and his assistant and deputy editors do all the rest from layout to selling ads, delivering 7000 copies in print 10 times a year.

Rose is upbeat about the magazine which increased its circulation by 10 per cent last year and its advertising revenue by 30 per cent, but it’s not all a bed of roses.

Book reviewing could be a daunting profession, he said. “I never wanted to. My predecessor Helen Daniel broke down my resistance.”

His first reviews took a month then he got them down to five hours. Now he reads a book twice and has his ideas up and running by the time he reads it a second time.

His latest review was of Helen Garner’s Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1: 1978-1987, a topic quite close to his own heart since he writes up to 80,000 words per annum on his own life. He said he’d even summarise the interview with Southbank News in 100 words.

“Diaries are bound in that self-criticism I admire. My diary is not a masterpiece. It’s an exercise is reportage. If I go to an interesting party, to summarise that, I have a record of it to go back and revisit the event.”

Two major points occurred to him while reading Helen Garner’s diaries. She was more concerned with her relationship with her inner writerly self than the men in her life and she did not devote much attention to an analysis of practice.

These insights can help readers understand their own responses to Garner’s work and create ways of understanding writing.

Give him the topic of writing to address and Rose comes alive. “I’m a loner,” he said, and he enjoys the administrative work in the office with others for its sociability.

At the recent Peter Porter Poetry Prize launch he stayed in the background. Even though he began his writing life in poetry it was as a modernist poet. “I wanted to baffle and mystify,” he said.

Then he wrote The Rose Boys, a non-fiction account of his brother’s accident. “It was illuminating to write in a direct voice, to bring people in,” he said.

It’s a fact that not many people know that ABR is in the Boyd Community Hub and that its editor eats his lunch under a tree in the newly-formed Boyd Park behind •

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