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ABR cadet James Jiang explains what makes a good critic

Image: Australian Book Review

Image: Australian Book Review

In a fast-moving world where digital communication is reduced to acronyms and emojis, it’s refreshing to hear a young journalist muse on the power of a single, well-chosen word.

Melbourne-based writer James Jiang made the jump from academia to full-time journalism in 2021, joining Australian Book Review as an editorial cadet, a position supported by JNI.

Jiang has degrees in English from Yale (BA) and Cambridge (PhD) and has previously written on poetry, literary-critical culture, and sport for a variety of publications in Australia and internationally.

He was appointed ABR‘s editorial cadet in May last year, after being selected from an impressive field of 120 applicants. Jiang’s role includes editing, proofreading, digital publishing, writing and commissioning articles for the magazine.

What’s been his highlight in the role so far? Jiang said discussing and developing ideas and articles with ABR‘s close-knit team, under the mentorship of editor Peter Rose.

“You feel a greater sense of personal responsibility for everything that gets published,” he said.

Attention to language

One of the ABR pieces Jiang is most proud of is his review of Timothy Brennan’s biography of Edward Said, a literary critic he admires and someone, he writes, who “embodied a many-sided ideal of intellectual and civic engagement.”

They are qualities Jiang also sees in critic David Bromwich, who taught him poetry as an undergraduate at Yale.

“He became slightly notorious among the American liberals for being critical of Obama and especially Obama’s foreign policy,” Jiang said.

“But I can’t think of a better example of a literary scholar who’s made a real contribution to contemporary political thinking by virtue of his attention to language.”

It is Bromwich’s attentiveness that Jiang mentions when asked about the essential qualities a literary critic requires.

“Part of being a good literary critic is being able to summarise things really succinctly and memorably,” he said.

Jiang said Bromwich’s November 2020 essay in the London Review of Books, describing Donald Trump’s “warthog dynamism”, was an excellent example of the art form.

James Jiang working at JNI’s Chippendale HQ.

Hunger for different voices

Jiang said it is refreshing to see more critics coming from diverse backgrounds and more opportunities for self-starters.

“Because there are so many more ways to get into book reviewing, the type of person who ends up being a book reviewer is much more unpredictable,” he said.

“There’s a real hunger for different styles of writing and different voices.”

But, while opportunities for emerging writers may be greater, the industry is still yet to fully embrace the digital age.

“The mainstays of literary criticism in Australia are still print focused.”

“I still don’t think that we have a substantial body of criticism that is attentive to the dynamics of digital writing.”

Best books you’ve read recently?

We asked James Jiang which books he had enjoyed reading most in 2021. This is what he said.


No One is Talking About This
Patricia Lockwood

“I think it is a really interesting social barometer.”


Aesthetic Theory
Theodor Adorno

“There isn’t really a more challenging or more insightful book about art’s relationship to a contemporary capitalist reality.”


George Eliot

“I forgot how funny and sharp Eliot could be.”