Hares and tortoises
Readers, reviewers and authors may have noticed (and perhaps even grumbled) that NZB reviews tend to run rather later in the life of a book than those broadcast, or appearing elsewhere. Newspapers, magazines and radio usually feature titles a week or so either side of publication date. If there’s a race to review, these outlets win hands down every time. They are the hares of the reviewing business.
But is reviewing a race? And if it is, who says tortoises can’t take part?
Later is a value-neutral term. But how easily it morphs into late. And late is never good, carrying as it does an element of regret, if not reproach. Later and late aren’t at all the same thing, but that’s hard to remember when all around us lack of speed is seen as a social peccadillo, even a serious sin.
“Hare” outlets are publishers’ first and favourite targets, a key component in marketing plans aiming to build pre-publication buzz. A profile is the best way of doing this (all personality, and never mind the book), but failing that a short review. Always a risk, of course, that the books editor will commission a reviewer who pans your product, but anything is better than being ignored – as Oscar Wilde nearly said.
We don’t mean to be dismissive. Publishers are in the business of selling books, and few authors – or readers – would want to argue with that.
To their credit, most publishers continue to send us titles for review, valuing, presumably, the thoughtful treatment their books will receive. They seem to accept that, although we operate outside the short-term publicity machine, our pages still have something to offer.
It’s different for writers with new titles. Simultaneously nervous and proud, they are understandably impatient to be reviewed (and – it goes without saying – reviewed positively). They long for recognition probably as much as they hope to reap the fruits of success in their royalty statements. How frustrating, then, to know any review is unlikely to appear in these pages within a month or two of publication, and that it can take up to a year. By which time the book might even be out of print.
That books do go out of print so fast these days is disturbing. It’s a galling fact that the shelf-life of most titles is 12 months or less, with the author likely to hear their book has been shredded or remaindered inside two years: a side-effect of the books-as-units-to-be-shifted scenario that has little to do with any literary merit. Serious readers and writers dislike this trend, and it’s something we should all be working, somehow, to change.
But this is not a situation of our making. As we’ve said here before, NZB is not an arm of the book trade and doesn’t aspire to be. It is not our role to act as compliant cog in a wheel whose direction we take issue with.
So what does this “tortoise” do?
NZB is primarily a journal of record. Our reviews are almost always longer than those you’ll find anywhere else in this country, sometimes running to 2000 words, and often to 1500. Reviewers have space to develop their ideas, to follow trains of thought beyond the tight parameters of mainstream reviews: “tell-’em-what-it’s-about-and-get out”. We never run profiles, only ever review New Zealand or strongly New Zealand-related books, and never lift reviews from overseas periodicals.
There’s a great deal to be said for reflecting at length and leisure – which is what NZB allows reviewers and readers to do. And, speaking of shelf-life, this journal has a longevity that “hares” can’t even dream of. When our children or grandchildren want to know, decades from now, what critics thought of our books, it’s NZB they’ll turn to. In short, we do a job that needs to be done if this country is to have a vibrant literary culture.
So are we saying, “Down with hares!”?
Not at all. Radio, newspapers and magazines alert readers to new books. Some do it very well indeed, considering their managers so often treat books pages as a poor relation and, in spite of returning healthy profits, pay reviewers joke fees (or, in some cases, none at all – “you get to keep the book”). These outlets tell you what’s new, give you some idea if you might like it. Why wouldn’t you want to keep in touch through their reviews? We certainly do.
The thing is, it’s not an either/or choice – it’s both/and. As a reader, you can run with the hares and stroll meditatively with the tortoises. The eco-literary environment needs both creatures, and we continue to be grateful to those who understand this.