Reviewing the reviewers, Gordon McLauchlan

At the start of the first television interview following publication of my A Short History of New Zealand, I was asked why I thought I was qualified to write a history. I replied with something like: because I’m a writer and a reader and I have a great deal of knowledge of New Zealand.

It went through my head to say something like: what qualifications do you have to interview anyone on either New Zealand history or books? But I stopped myself in time. Hell, this was breakfast television and who wants heady cut and thrust over their Wheaties? We know what to expect of the television treatment of books, so we take it in our stride.

The interviewer was Peter Williams – experienced, competent jack-of-all-television-trades from sports reporter to newsreader, and a genuinely nice bloke from whom emanates the kind of personal sheen the medium thrives on. Peter’s is not the blinding sheen that will ever see his image blown up and placed on a billboard but he gets through a steady day’s work in the two-dimensional world of television. But what his question reflected is an increasing tendency for people to be discounted from either practising an art or commenting on it if they are not equipped with a specific tertiary degree or diploma – when gaining such a qualification is only one route to knowledge, and not necessarily, on its own, the most effective one.

In disciplines such as history, academics are increasingly fencing off their areas of activity and trying to drive out the pretenders, much the way nobility in England and Scotland enclosed public land and drove out the peasants: only professional teaching and research historians should be taken seriously when commenting on history. This applies to academics in other fields as well – education, for example – where academics also try to protect their turf.

Condescension is their weapon and special condescension is saved for journalists. In many reviews I am referred to as a journalist (the “mere” implied) or my history is said to have the quality of journalism. What that quality is they don’t explain. This is an especially New Zealand problem. I can’t recall this tone in reviews in the UK or the US where the term journalism is used to describe a certain type of writing activity shaped for newspapers and magazines – and not pejoratively as it is here.

For some reason, academics as well as some poets and fiction writers have got into the habit of deprecating journalism, to protect themselves, I guess, from the reality that some of the country’s best creative writing is done by journalists. And nowhere is this condescension more obvious than in the reviewing of non-fiction books.

The contemporary wisdom is that authors should swallow bad reviews and put up with the indigestion or be seen as churlish in the face of criticism, a policy I have adopted in the past. But some reviews of A Short History of New Zealand have been so silly, I’ve decided to be my cheerfully combative self. But what I will do – unlike so many book reviewers – is explain why I think these reviews were not just negative but wrong-headed.

I could, by the way, have told Peter Williams that I point out in my book (which I’m sure he hadn’t read) that for nearly a century from 1890 New Zealand was very well governed, on world standards, by politicians, almost none of whom had reached secondary school; that George Bernard Shaw learned his trade on his own in the British Museum reading room; that H G Wells was a draper’s assistant who took a degree in zoology before writing The Outline of History, a book still on the “must buy” list among American intellectual Will Durant’s 100 greatest books for an education. They learned by reading and discussion, and I would be very surprised if many New Zealand academics of any sort are better read across the full breadth of New Zealand literature than I am.

I could have mentioned also that I have known oh so many petty fools equipped with PhDs that I have sometimes struggled to have any respect at all for formal education. But then I come upon scholars who have accumulated amazingly detailed knowledge in some specialist sphere of study who make the whole system worthwhile. They are most often scientists and they are usually humble about their work.

A couple of weeks after the breakfast television interview, I talked with Lisa Manning on the Good Morning show and that was more cerebral – if I may use that word in association with television. She homed in on one aspect of the book and asked me to explicate a little and I tried not to be too boring for that mid-morning audience. But if television is pretty remote from our intellectual life, the academics are too – and that is a major worry.

I read reviews in magazines from around the world and I believe that the New Zealand level of performance is slumping for two main reasons. One is that most reviewers simply don’t understand a review should be written around a formula, something like this: what has the author set out to do? What readership is the book aimed at? Was it worth doing? Has he or she achieved what he or she set out to accomplish? Does it have integrity and accuracy, both factually and tonally?

It seems to me that this kind of formula keeps reviewers concentrating on the job in hand and stops them from reviewing not the book they have read but one they would sooner have read or, more commonly, would like one day to write. Another reason, especially in non-fiction, is that reviewers are often chosen on the grounds that they are experts in the same field as the book. And this brings out the very worst in academics when the book is by a non-academic. Condescension is often then swollen by indignation that someone would dare to invade their patch.

Now to be specific. I set out to write a history in 50,000 words. To my knowledge such concision has not been achieved in New Zealand before but it was done in England by professional writer Christopher Hibbert in slightly fewer words, covering the whole of English history. Therefore, he was necessarily much more succinct even than I but the book was intelligently and mostly favourably reviewed for what it was.

I attempted to provide an easily read introductory narrative on our history, something that would perhaps stimulate readers to go further. I discussed our historiography – the various approaches taken over the years, how it wasn’t until the 1950s that history underpinned by scholarship was produced.

Not one reviewer challenged any facts in the book or what might be called an untenable opinion. Believe it or not, I was criticised by historians for what I left out. The most egregious example was by an academic historian from Massey University, Kerry Howe, in a New Zealand Herald review. He wrote: “While entertainingly written, this is not a work of significant original historical scholarship. There are no new insights, no novel or stimulating perspectives or arguments.”

I could have told him that without his needing to read the book. There is no significant original historical scholarship in Michael King’s new history either, although there has been in other books he has written. But Howe continues:

The author would probably argue that this is not his purpose. And fair enough. In his predictive defence, he says that it is a ‘personal narrative’. It is intended to ‘introduce our country’s story to general readers and students’. In this sense, at least, the book makes a genuinely useful contribution. There is currently no equivalent history of New Zealand at around 200 pages. It will fill a market niche and will doubtless sell well.

 

(It has.)

This is typical of so much reviewing in this country. The book does what it set out to do and does it well, he implies, but he attacks it because it doesn’t achieve something else vaguely in the back of his mind, something it could never achieve within the constraints of what it set out to do.

I await with interest a 50,000-word history of New Zealand containing not only an over-arching narrative but significant original historical scholarship, plus what Howe calls “an analysis of patterns of colonial and postcolonial power relationships, of gender roles, of human interaction with the environment, of interactions of global and local economics, of demographic and ethnic composition, of construction and reconstruction of identities.” In fact, I do touch on many of those things in concrete terms, but not just by spitting out mouthfuls of abstract phrases.

Howe also says: “McLauchlan relies heavily on existing historical scholarship, though his particular version is largely purged of any arguments that drive much of it.” Of course I rely heavily – no, I rely entirely – on existing historical scholarship, working from solid secondary sources. And what arguments is he talking about? He doesn’t say.

No wonder a more worldly academic historian wrote congratulating me on a job well done and expressing surprise at how “off the beam” Howe’s criticism was. Likewise, a note from Michael King attempted to console with, “I for one think The Short History excellent of its kind”. A number of other writers emailed me jibing at the silliness of the review.

Last year, Howe’s The Quest for Origins was published, a very good book on the history and historiography of Maori origins, the sort of book I hoped mine would stimulate interested readers to move on to. I read only one review of it, which was deservedly positive and well reasoned. I hope no one criticised him for not making it a social history of the 20th century or perhaps an historical novel, something other than what it is.

And note this. Associate Professor Mark Williams of Canterbury University very favourably reviews Jenny Robin Jones’s Writers in Residence (Auckland University Press) but towards the end he can’t resist:

Jones’s avoidance of academic jargon, post-colonial theory and literary analysis is serviceable in a work which aims to make these neglected writers better known. Yet in a book that aims to take its characters ‘out of the exclusive possession of scholars’ Jones shows sketchy knowledge of those who have been doing the scholarly work.

 

What does that mean? He doesn’t bother to explain. Perhaps he is repelling boarders. The remark is really just a pat on the head, a there- there, well done, but you must understand you are not in the academic sanctum of the all-knowing, the truly wise.

The annual national award for reviewing has had a positive effect among those reviewers who are especially interested in the discipline and who review regularly enough to compile a portfolio of critical work. But they are a small group among the large body of casual newspaper and magazine reviewers. Perhaps the next move to raise the standard should be to regularly review the reviewers.

 

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based writer and broadcaster whose most recent book is A Short History of New Zealand.

 

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