Editorial — Issue 53

“Impersonal sympathy”

The Times Literary Supplement recently celebrated its centenary, and used the occasion to print two substantial essays – one by Ferdinand Mount, its current editor, the other by Stefan Collini – on its history, editorial policy, style, and its place in the literary spectrum. Their reflections prompt us to reflect in turn on the role and place of New Zealand Books.

Of course, NZB is not a New Zealand equivalent of the TLS, but we do share some of its functions and aspirations, and are proud to do so. Collini in his essay quotes Walter Bagehot’s approval of the “hybrid genre”, “the review-like essay and the essay-like review”, and then goes on to align the TLS itself with the latter, as opposed to the review-like essays of the London Review of Books. NZB’s raison d’être, like that of the TLS, has always been to review books; however, it too looks beyond the bread-and-butter review to something more considered and less ephemeral; in a word, more essayistic. In this issue, for example, we feature extended pieces by Michael King and George Griffiths that set our history – both national and local – in a broader context.

NZB also endeavours to attain something of the same range and eclecticism as the TLS. This means that our reviews span fiction to photography, economics to education, management to Maoritanga. Just within this particular issue, we have included reviews of books on young adult fiction, seafaring, rugby, economic history, business, and Polynesian myths. However, because we appear only five times a year (as against the weekly TLS), and because we are unique within New Zealand (as against the multiplicity of high-quality reviewing outlets in the UK), there are limits to what can be covered. A consequence is that, unlike the TLS, we do not give space to books that are likely to be only of academic interest, nor run reviews that cater merely to in-group discussion. Not that NZB doesn’t welcome academic reviewers and readers; it’s just that we want to maintain a particular balance: between writing that, as John Sturrock observes, strikes “academic readers as journalistic and journalistic readers as academic”. In other words, the best kind of literary journalism.

For, as with the TLS, good writing is at the heart of our matter. We strongly agree with A N Wilson’s remark that “Of course we would rather read a well-turned review than a dull book”, and we suspect that our readers would too. So the best of our reviews should be as engaging and satisfying as a first-rate short story or poem. By good writing, we mean vigorous prose and rigorous thinking, crisp as a fresh salad, robust as a kahikatea: something as entertaining as it is informative – and, if appropriate, with a dash of humour. The sort of writing we find, in this issue, in Jane Westaway’s review of three recent novels. And, as editors, we see it as a significant part of our job to act as literary midwives, who – miraculously – are not only present at the conception by commissioning work and suggesting angles, but also clean up after delivery to the point occasionally of “disinfecting reviews of jargon”, as Ferdinand Mount so astringently puts it.

Finally, NZB aims for the same kind of pluralism and fair-mindedness as the TLS. Though, naturally, like the TLS, we don’t always get it right. However, we like to think that, as with dodgy umpiring decisions in cricket, things usually even out in the end. What a good author loses in one review, he or she will most probably gain in another. It is impossible to remove the subjective element from our enterprise; what is more, it would be wrong to – because, without it, the reviewing would lose its zest. Nevertheless, the subjective element must not be allowed to run wild. There needs to be a principle around which all of our reviews should gather: the principle crystallised by Mount in the splendidly oxymoronic phrase, “impersonal sympathy”.

 

Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts

 

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