1992’s reviewer of the year and the best review pages, Fiona Kidman

We are delighted to be able to publish a condensed version of Fiona Kidman’s invaluable report on the 1992 competitions:

Having been both reviewer and reviewed over many years, I have a fair idea of the importance of reviews, rejoicing in those that have enhanced my reputation and suffering the devastation of those that halted sales in their tracks. Before I sit down to write a review, I can’t help thinking how much they have mattered, and what effects my words will have. A reputation and the capacity to earn a living are at stake. Yet alongside these considerations must be placed some substantial appreciation of what is quality and what is not. It is a serious business.

A review should be, at once, brave and honest, yet courteous; it should be supported by sound reasoning, and a fair indication of how a judgement has been arrived at. The critic should have read widely in the same field, and, preferably, have read some of the author’s previous works. On approaching the book, critics need to abandon their prejudices, the desire to settle old scores, and any inclination towards mockery for its own sake. It is very easy to send up a book, it is harder to praise. The book and its contents are the object under review; the critic is there to serve its interests, to deliberate conscientiously and knowledgeably as to whether or not the author has performed the work well, and whether it is worth the while of the would-be book buyer, whose needs must also be represented, to go out and buy the book.

Yet all of this must be done within a tight and succinct framework of words, the number pre-ordained by a literary editor, and the writing must be good, a literary entertainment which will satisfy the browsing newspaper or periodical reader and, so help us, attract publishers’ advertisements, so that everyone who works on the page may be paid.

Well, there’s the rub. The editor (usually), the newsprint suppliers, the typesetter, and the paper’s distributors get paid at the going rate, but the author of the review may get paid a pittance or nothing at all.

Fiona Kidman proceeded to give an overall view of the current rates paid to book reviewers in New Zealand. These ranged from the $10 per hundred words paid by the ‘Dominion Sunday Times’ and indeed ‘New Zealand Books’, to the $20 of the ‘New Zealand Herald’, and approximately $7 of the Christchurch ‘Press’, to the non-payment of the ‘Otago Daily Times’ and the ‘Listener’s’ $25 per hundred words. ‘Metro’ and ‘North and South’ offer higher rates.

Looking at these figures, alongside my requirements for a good review, it can be seen that, except at the upper level, many people work in a skilled job for very little money at all. Many reviewers feel that they cannot spend less than five to six hours reading, say, an average (80,000 word) novel. Then comes the labour of making notes, assessing, re-reading portions, and finally sitting down to write a well-turned and balanced review. Curiously, the length of the review is almost immaterial, even though the long review is a particular skill of its own. But the same groundwork has to be done, regardless of length. For a 300-500 word review you are looking at around eight to ten hours work all told. How many people do you know who work for between $3 and $5 per hour? Or nothing at all? Even life on the dole looks attractive.

The simple fact is, many people cannot afford to write book reviews. It’s the kind of money which may be a small bonus if you have a job, or, if you’re desperate, something is better than nothing, but by and large, the task is so large, and the rewards so small, that reviewing seriously inhibits most people from getting on with their regular lives. As a result, the best people often refuse and the reviews can get handed over to people who jot a few lines about a half-read book while they wait for a taxi or at the end of the day of ‘real’ work. At best, it is cottage industry stuff.

So why do people do it at all? Here are some of the reasons I either found or have perceived over time:

a.) For the love of books, and an altruistic belief that they should be promoted in the community

This is why the reviewers of the Otago Daily Times tell me they have continued with their work, threatened all the while with the abolition of their local book page if they ask for money. I believe them, and I admire them. I also believe they are being blackmailed. I cannot see a book-loving city like Dunedin taking the cancellation of their pages lying down. I doubt that the newspaper proprietors, for the sake of at least a token payment, would abolish book reviews.

b.) For the books

It is the only way to get to own them, some hard-up writers say. And if we don’t like them, we can sell them, and make as much again as we got for the review. Fair enough, but isn’t this about book reviewing, rather than book collecting?

c.) In order to enhance one’s reputation as a writer

A proposition I’ll buy. Having a list of published work often helps a writer to get accepted elsewhere. Editors need reviewers so badly that they are bound to try out pretty well anyone with a reasonable qualification, and if they are good, it’s a bonus for all concerned. But quality should attract its own reward, and bad work should never be acquired simply because it is cheap.

d.) In order to promote awareness of specific ideas and fashions in writing

Editors may deny this proposition. What a lot of rubbish! Literary circles the world over are full of cabals and groups and entrepreneurial activity which operate on behalf of collective philosophies. The promotion of an idea is always legitimate of course, but it is useful, if you are a reader, to know what it is you are being sold. Editors may not always realise that they are hosts to a private gathering, but they should. It’s up to them to know what perspective their reviewers bring to bear on their criticism, and, for the most part, despite a sometimes bewildered air of innocence, I am sure that they do.

This leads me to the overall consideration of review pages and the editors who run them. The author Jonathan Raban has spoken of ‘critical predestination’ which echoes the comments I have just made. This is the art of knowing roughly the tone that a reviewer will adopt in dealing with the work of an individual writer.

Many, many more books than there is space to review, will be sent to the editor each week. It is his job, first to select which books s/he thinks are important enough to warrant space, and then to find the reviewers with the proper experience of the author’s work or field to take the book on. This often involves telephone conversations in which the editor will by turn cajole, plead and exhort the reviewer. Reviewers may respond with lengthy explorations of their relationship with the author, the author’s friends, the publisher, the author’s last unfavourable review of the reviewer’s own book and how comments might be construed in the light of past events, and so on. It must be a tedious and difficult job; certainly it requires tact, and the ability to remain silent so that would-be reviewers can persuade themselves that they are making up their own minds. The truth is, the editors, if they have an ounce of nous, will be storing up their comments for future reference when they come to offer another book, maybe to this person, maybe to another. I would describe it as literary reconnaissance.

Thus, by deciding what books will be reviewed, and then on the choice of reviewer, the editor has already despatched the book on a course that has been partly predetermined by the time the review is written. The editor’s job carries awesome responsibility in terms of its outcome for the writer. In vain, should editors try to shift all the responsibility onto the shoulders of the reviewers they employ. While they may sometimes be surprised or concerned by what comes back, it is their initiating actions which have set the process in motion. It is they who decide, and they who publish.

However, once reviews are commissioned, while editors are of course entitled to seek improvements to bad writing and insist that carelessness be rectified, reviewers are entitled to expect their views to be published as they have been written. Editors are only entitled to intervene when personal attacks have been made on an author. Then, not only are they entitled to, I believe that they must.

Mud sticks, and there is some that, short of action for damages which is far beyond the purse of most writers, is not going to be washed away in a hurry. The stain may remain for several books, and many years. A careful discussion between the editor and the reviewer may help to clarify whether the comments that have been made are truly justified. If that fails, then editors have a duty to ask themselves whether they are defending freedom of speech or merely instigating a delicious controversy.

Recently, there has been a move by New Zealand writers to redress some of the wrongs that seem to have been so lightly undertaken against them. It is interesting to note the response of some of the editors, their anguished howls of outrage, as writers respond. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Overseas, authors fill the letters columns of journals such as The New York Times Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and the like, with letters debating critical views. This is as it should be. An issue, once raised, should be open to question.

Of course, writers should respond through the avenues available to them; of course, if critics get it wrong, or their views require clarification, they should be told. Reviewers are not above writers, and the mythology that theirs is the last word is a dangerous fabrication. Editors who refuse to run letters in response to reviews are like the introduction to a debate without the speakers.

It is within the context of these views that I drew up the shortlists and winners of the two competitions I was asked to judge.

 

Winners of the New Zealand Book Awards 1992, Wellington, 3 June 1992:

Suzann Olsson won the Reviewer of the Year Award, in which the other finalists were Heather Murray and Stephen Stratford.

The Evening Post won the Review Pages of the Year Award, the other finalists being The Dominion and New Zealand Books.

The judges comments on this journal included the following:

‘New Zealand Books is the country’s new miracle. …. [It] promises to be the definitive voice of New Zealand literature … Our hope, in the long run, must be for a periodical equal to that of the major overseas papers like the New York Review of Books (only on much nicer paper).’

 

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