Moments of brilliance — Mary Varnham

Mary Varnham surveys the reviewing industry from behind the publisher’s desk.

Save me, please. A publisher writing an article about book reviewing and reviewers is akin to a chef writing about restaurant critics: may as well stick your head in the oven or printing press and be done with it. Further, writing a critique of anything in New Zealand is always a mammoth risk, given that most of the population share or have shared a bed, a workplace, a Pilates class or an aunty. Perhaps this is why honesty has long been the casualty of criticism.

When I returned from the States in the early 1980s, someone had forgotten to tell me that book reviewing was not about the book: it was about the delicate feelings of the author and their family and friends. Asked by The Dominion to review a simply hopeless novel a young woman had written about a family in Japan, loosely based (this much seemed pretty obvious) on a family she had lived with in Japan, I did not dissemble. The only interesting plot line I could discern was off the page: why had the book been published at all? (Presumably a grant was involved.)

Soon afterwards I ran into Sharon Crosbie, then the golden voice of National Radio and – although the term had not yet been invented – a cultural icon. “You were very rude about that book,” she scolded me. “Don’t you know the convention about first novels?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you never give a bad review to a first novel. It may discourage the writer from writing another book.”

That had of course been precisely my intention, and, as far as I know and hope, it worked.

The fact is many books deserve the drubbing or ignoring they get. As George Orwell observed:

Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’

Doubtless, however, an avid reader of this publication will write a letter pointing out that so-and-so wrote seven unlamented duds before their next effort won the Impac or Pulitzer. Publishers are well-used to a variation on this theme from writers who, on being politely informed that hell will freeze over before their manuscript is worth publishing, triumphantly respond: “Don’t I know J K Rowling had six books turned down before Harry Potter saw the light of day, or, more recently, that 60 literary agents rejected The Help, which has now spent 24 weeks on The New York Times’ best-seller list and been made into a Hollywood movie?”

Such extraordinary things do occur. At Awa Press a few years ago we published a book, Inside French Rugby: Confessions of a Kiwi Mercenary by John Daniell, which a London literary agent claimed to have presented to at least 30 publishers, only to have it rejected by every one. We loved the book, published it in New Zealand, and sold rights to a UK publisher, on whose behalf it then won a prestigious British sports book award and was shortlisted for another. The author narrowly missed out on winning £25,000. But such a scenario is rare.

“Whenever we find a late bloomer we can’t help but wonder how many others like him we have thwarted because we prematurely judged his or her talents,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an essay in The New Yorker on the phenomenon of delayed authorial success. No such worries in New Zealand, where alarmingly few local books ever receive a serious, intelligent review in mainstream media, and if they do, with the occasional exception, the book is subject to only a few cursory paragraphs heavily laced with evasive action. (To suss out a book that’s probably not worth reading, look for the plot to be exhaustively relayed without critical comment. Other giveaways are words such as “a writer to watch” and “moments of brilliance”: the rest of the endless moments could curdle milk.)

It was only after I became a publisher in 2003 that I came to realise just how disdainfully local books are treated by much of our media. The space devoted to books in general is shrinking to the extent where literature-loving journalists must resort to subterfuge to sneak in stories. (One sympathetic journalist asked me if an author had an interesting home they could feature. The person could be photographed holding a copy of their book.)

And even when there is space, the bulk of it is devoted to reviewing overseas books and profiling their much-profiled, done-to-death overseas authors. As well as the obvious cultural cringe, this fixation on the world of literature everywhere else defies common sense. Every day, online, I receive a welter of overseas book reviews, from The New York Times and The Guardian to the eclectic Shelf Awareness: Enlightenment for Readers, which has alerted me to many new and interesting American books. (Today it’s Héctor Tobar’s second novel The Barbarian Nurseries – this time “the help” is a Mexican maid – and The Man Who Lived in an Eggcup, a memoir by an erudite ophthalmologist, John Gamel, author of a highly regarded essay called “The Elegant Eyeball”.)

Anyone with a computer and an internet account can read a dozen reviews of any new foreign title they choose. Take Michael Ondaatje’s new novel The Cat’s Table. Annie Proulx reviewed it in The Guardian, Philip Hensher in The Telegraph, Canadian poet Sonnet L’Abbé in The Globe and Mail (“a grinning book, winking and cheeky”), Roma Tearne in The Independent, and Ángel Gurría-Quintana in the Financial Times. All these insightful, well-written reviews, plus dozens more, are free online. Why on earth waste precious space on the book, let alone the author, in a New Zealand publication – or for that matter a radio or TV programme – when there are local books and authors begging for attention? Yet both Ondaatje and The Cat’s Table got star treatment almost everywhere, from The New Zealand Herald  (a reprint from The Observer, available online) and the New Zealand Listener to Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon and even TVNZ’s Good Morning show. Ondaatje’s a fine writer, even if this isn’t his greatest work, but to state the bleeding obvious, New Zealand books need the exposure more. This is where their readers are, their one conceivable market. With the rare exception, they have no place else to go to get noticed.

New Zealand books not only get a raw deal with coverage but here’s another problem: insularity. In a literary variation of épée, authors frequently review each other’s books. Because of the small pool of authors, land someone a jab and in no time they’ll be reviewing your next book. If you’re a publisher, there’s another twist: the rejected author. Reject someone’s manuscript or book idea and sooner or later the person will pop up gleefully reviewing your latest release. Literary feuds and vendettas exist everywhere, but somehow the chances of avoiding the revenge attack seem appreciably less in our small society.

Are things changing? Fortunately yes, if slowly. The burgeoning number of local writers’ festivals, aided by active publicists, are bringing many New Zealand authors, both new and established, to the attention of readers. These festivals have shrewdly recognised the growing hunger that exists among readers of New Zealand books to see and hear their authors tell their stories in the flesh. At the annual Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, it used to be that New Zealand authors, relegated to a downstairs room, attracted embarrassingly small audiences. At recent festivals many have had sold-out sessions.

And more good news, The Good Word is up for a fourth series in 2012, even if it too often wastes time reviewing overseas books. Nine to Noon continues to cover at least a smattering of local titles, and the brilliant Kim Hill has been known to magic a local writer into overnight fame. North and South has steadfastly maintained its New Zealand book review pages, and, as I write, the latest issue of the Listener has its book pages devoted almost entirely to local books. And this august journal, New Zealand Books, is celebrating its 20th birthday as the flag-waver for our literary sovereignty.

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