The Sharp end of the stick, Catherine Robertson

Novelist and reviewer Catherine Robertson takes the pulse of local book reviewing

“Tame, dull, lazy, cowardly and predictable” is how Iain Sharp described New Zealand’s book reviewers in an opinion piece for website The Spinoff (March 23). He called for us to be less “gutless”, more “mean-spirited”, and to stop “talking tactfully through our rear ends”. He singled out round-up reviews and certain blogs as especially pointless, and called for an end to the bland and saccharine “Age of the Timid”.

Sharp was more moderate on RNZ’s Arts on Sunday (April 10), clarifying that he was not in favour of “cruelty for cruelty’s sake”, but that he wanted, above all, more honesty. A reviewer’s loyalty, he said, is with the reading public; their job, in the words of Evelyn Waugh, is to chastise publishers for trying to foist on us shoddy products.

Are his accusations fair? Are New Zealand reviewers failing readers by being weak, serving fluffies with sprinkles when we should be putting hair on chests with double-shot espressos? Are only negative, mischievous reviews honest, and positive ones destined always to be bland and anodyne? Is there only one correct way for reviewers to write – should we all conform to the Sharp template?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by reviewing. We don’t mean literary criticism, which is a long form, deep-dive analysis of a text. Criticism is generally written by authors and academics, and they, plus a few highbrow readers, are the audience. A book review can certainly contain aspects of literary criticism, but it is a different beast. It is shorter, from 100 to around 1000 words, and with a different audience – readers. Its purpose is simple: to help you decide whether or not to read a book. You read literary criticism after you’ve finished a book (unless cribbing for essays). A review you read before, which is why any reviewer who includes spoilers should have bits cut off them. And it serves its purpose – librarian friends see marked surges in demand after books are reviewed, in particular on RNZ and in the New Zealand Listener.

The short-form review, as critic, Marilyn Butler, observed in 1981, “is a literary discovery of the last two hundred years or so – the age of mass literacy and the mass-circulation newspaper”. While Butler went on to say “A good review column is read by more people than any criticism at book length, and often deserves to be”, fellow literary critic, James Wood, is a tougher crowd: “Reviewing is a kind of rapid-eye-movement of judgment, which barely lasts the night and is promptly forgotten.” Mind you, he is now professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard.

English author, A N Wilson, complained:

The days have vanished when reviewing was a “serious matter”. The articles in the Sunday papers are far too short to be able to do justice to a book. The New Statesman has collapsed, so has the Times Literary Supplement. Very occasionally one gets a good article in the London Review of Books. The Spectator has never, since the days of Mr Gladstone, made any claims to take literature seriously.

While we lament the ever-decreasing space allotted to book reviews in mainstream media, it’s some comfort that Wilson wrote the above in 1985. Point being that folk have expressed dissatisfaction with the short-form review since, I imagine, the day after the first was published. Let’s just agree that the short-form review is our subject, that it appears less often than we’d like, and that its purpose, as stated above, is to help readers decide whether or not a book is for them.

Now to ask: who are our reviewers? Here’s an entirely unscientific analysis.

Paid reviewers: commissioned by mainstream media, such as the New Zealand Listener and RNZ, as well as New Zealand Books and those rare websites with funding like Landfall Review and The Spinoff. Most are writers, journalists, academics or experts in certain fields, and a handful who’ve made reviewing their career, like David Larsen. I would also include here those with their own dedicated websites, such as Nicholas Reid, Pip Adam and Paula Green. They may not earn much, if anything, but their approach is professional. And not everyone who commissions reviews pays in actual cash.

Unpaid reviewers: contributors to unfunded blog sites; casual reviewers, often people in the community, teachers, librarians etc, who write for the smaller local papers, and (rumour has it) staff of mainstream media cutting costs. We should also include readers, who contribute to Goodreads and Amazon. Often memorably; there’s an author Facebook page called My one star review is better than your one star review.

Given this range, it’s no stretch to conclude that the overall standard of reviewing must be patchy. Not every reviewer is committed to the craft. The worst talk about the book they wanted to read and not the one they actually did, or dump down great chunks of plot followed by a half-arsed summation (“I didn’t really enjoy this book”). And there are reviews in some women’s magazines that must surely be lifted straight from publisher press releases.

But I don’t believe Sharp was criticising the obviously substandard reviewing. Why bother? Unless we form some kind of vigilante group and beat people about the head with Updike’s Rules, terribly written reviews will persist. No, Sharp’s barbs were aimed at the regular, professional, mostly paid reviewers. Us gutless wonders. His accusation of relentless positivity wasn’t accurate, but when you’re all het up, you do tend to find confirmation everywhere. But rather than defend, I’m more interested to ask: why would a reviewer choose to write a positive or a negative review?

Another unscientific analysis.

Reasons to be positive: they genuinely enjoyed the book; there’s some partiality at play (the author is a friend); they lack confidence; they’re unwilling to make enemies (Sharp warned that New Zealand authors can be “vain” and “vengeful”). For some, it is the style that fits their perceived role. Bookseller John McIntyre, for example, considers himself an advocate for children’s books and sees no point in reviewing books he doesn’t love when there are so many he does. Paula Green aims to perform the same role for New Zealand poetry, so it’s no surprise that her approach is similarly enthusiastic (in fact, she is more of a curious dissector than a reviewer – opening poems up to see how they work). Even the famous, and infamously sharp-tongued, can choose to be positive. A 2015 biographer of W H Auden observed: “He declared that he saw no point in reviewing books he didn’t think well of … though we know nothing of the commissions he turned down.”

Reasons to be negative: they genuinely disliked the book; they dislike the author (vengeful!); it’s the style that fits their perceived role, this time as barrow-pusher, rebel, lone arbiter of taste, or troll. And we can’t discount the wish to seem more intelligent. Stanford academic and author of The No Asshole Rule, Bob Sutton, observed that “independently of how smart a person actually is – when they act like an asshole, they are seen as smarter”. This is the “Brilliant but Cruel” effect, demonstrated by Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile in a controlled experiment with book reviews. Amabile found that negative and unkind reviewers were seen as less likeable but more intelligent and expert than those who were kinder and gentler. She noted, “Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial.”

I believe style is the choice of each reviewer. We may decide that our audience is best served by being positive: why bother telling people about all the books they shouldn’t be reading? Or negative: enjoy the frissons of Schadenfreude evoked by my excoriating hatchet job. We can decide to use humour, or to be earnest. We can write in plain, unaffected prose, or use words like “excoriating”. Auden was “practical and sensible in his recommendations”. John Mortimer’s reviews were described as often more entertaining than the books he wrote about, while F R Leavis was uncompromisingly serious. Sharp may well want to see more “mischief”, “sparkle and flair”, but that’s his taste, his preference. It is not a mould into which every reviewer should be forced to squash.

Sharp does make a fair call for honesty. A good reviewer is one readers can trust. If the reviewer’s style becomes a schtick, a platform from which they won’t budge, then it can become not only tediously one-note but also unreliable. If all they do is knock, then how can readers be sure the books always deserve a knocking? And vice versa?

Honesty, and this is my neck out now, also requires a commitment to taking a position on a book’s merit. In his review in The Atlantic of A O Scott’s recent book, Better Living Through Criticism, Leon Wieseltier decries Scott’s unwillingness to pick a side: “A sense of correctness about one’s considered opinions is not mental dogmatism – it is mental self-esteem … and it is thoroughly compatible with an awareness of one’s fallibility.” In a 1972 article for The London Review of Books, Claude Rawson commented that “The commonest style is one of ironic defensiveness, a style which might tell us almost anything except whether the reviewer will commit himself to a novel or not, whether it matters or not.”

Sharp is right: we write reviews for readers, and they deserve our honest, reasoned opinion. Whether that is positive or negative, I believe, is down to us, as is our style of writing. But while it’s up to readers to decide whether they enjoy our reviews and find them useful, ultimately only we can know whether we have given our best within the restrictions of word count. Only we know if we’ve written a piece that makes us proud.

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