J M Thomson: The longevity of books
Sixty-six publications are reviewed in this issue, some by necessity at shorter length, and a number of others are mentioned elsewhere in articles such as Ron Palenski’s survey of sports writing in New Zealand. George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review since 1973, recently commented in a symposium in the Pacific Journal Manoa that he reviewed around 50 books each quarter and thought it important to set new publications alongside some that were a year or two older or even considerably more than that.
This view strikes at the heart of the current philosophy held by publishers on the subject of their backlist. In the old days Oxford University Press could announce with pride that it had just sold the last copy of an 18th-century volume on theology. Such a paragon of excellence would be hard to match now when six months of shelf life is often considered adequate. Having gloomily consulted the falling sales graphs, the accountant despatches the title to the discount shops where many a reader of slender means snaps it up, being prepared to wait for such bounty for up to a year or so following publication.
Books cannot be shuffled around like supermarket commodities but are part of a continuous dialogue that changes its rhythms and patterns over the decades ‑and takes on new accents. It is central to the role of a reviews journal such as this to create a climate of appreciation in which books flourish beyond the notion of instant publication and just as quick depreciation so that in two to five year’s time it should still be possible to buy outstanding volumes reviewed in this issue. To purchase a book is to help usher in a more literate future.
Fiona Kidman’s report on judging the 1992 Reviewer and Book Page of the Year Award (p10) may perhaps lead the Otago Daily Times to abandon its pinchpenny attitude and decide to pay its reviewers. It has a long tradition of generosity towards the arts and its highly articulate community deserves the best possible service. Should ODT reviewers now respond to the national publicity accorded them and marshal a deputation to their literate editor to be passed on to the proprietors?
More words on reviewing
George Core, editor of the quarterly Sewanee Review further commented in his essay on Manoa: ‘Who are these reviewers, these paragons of virtuous efficiency and of perspicuity and perspicacity, you may be wondering. We don’t want bitter failed poets, historians, biographers and so forth – the kind of people Coleridge, himself a better critic than poet, inveighed against. Nor do we want desperate academic and academical types. The reviewer proves himself with each book encountered. We should always remember Lichtenberg’s law: A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out‘.
George Core concluded his contribution to the symposium in Manoa with the following: ‘There are plenty of other matters that I might consider – whether or not to publish unsolicited reviews, the relation of a magazine to the advertisers who publish books, sending out books for review to regulars on speculation, whether or not to review books written by regular contributors and advisory editors, whether to have persons who are writing fiction and poetry for your magazine review the fiction and poetry of others, how to treat the relation of friends and friends, or friends and enemies, when it comes to reviewing and being reviewed… What we editors are chiefly trying to accomplish, other than having as many books reviewed as fairly and intelligently as possible, is to make reviewing a department of criticism – and part of [a] magazine’s critical programme’.
Salute to Anthology
Under Elizabeth Alley’s direction, her Anthology programme on Concert FM became a national institution, notable for its breadth, fluency, skilled editing and a host of other virtues. An outstanding advocate for writers and their work, Anthology will henceforth be edited by Ross Stevens. Elizabeth Alley has recently launched a new six-part series, Talking of Poets, in which, typically, she edits herself out of the programme to produce ‘a seamless flow’ of poet’s narrative, the work itself and music. The six poets are Bill Manhire, Alan Riach, Jan Kemp, Lauris Edmond, Fiona Kidman and Allen Curnow.
[Editorial note on illustrations]
The illustrations used throughout this issue are by Mervyn Taylor (1906-64) from his first published collection A Book of Wood Engravings (Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1946). He was a prolific designer of bookplates, and his work in this genre forms part of the forthcoming exhibition Ex Libris, New Zealand bookplates 1925-1945 to be held in the National Library of New Zealand from 17 July – 19 September 1992. The exhibition is drawn from the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.
A bookseller’s response to reviews
Carla Cohen, a Washington DC bookseller, considers reviewing, again from Manoa, a Pacific Journal of International Writing: ‘Reviews can help to bring a book to the attention of an audience, but reviews alone will not sell books. Ads can help. Prizes will produce bestsellers instantly. Word-of-mouth keeps books selling. We all can contribute to inspiring readers to select books that need to be read.’