It’s been a good day. I read the last 20 pages, the treat I’d saved myself for the morning, then I got out of bed and wrote the review. Four hundred words in less than half an hour. The thing was, I’d loved the book. The thing was, it had the most memorable characters you could ever hope to meet, the style fresh and zappy, the dialogue accurate and funny. “Seinfeld crossed with the subtlety of Austen,” I’d written, not particularly originally, but it was how the book had struck me, a lovely combination of New York Jewish and late 18th-century irony. Should you be interested – and I recommend it without hesitation – the book I was
reviewing, for The Evening Post, was Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine. I’ll be sucking up to my favourite book page editors for more. She’s terrific, and she’s American. If she’d been a New Zealander, chances are I wouldn’t have been reviewing her to start with.
Why not, you may ask. It’s not that I haven’t been asked to stand in judgement over my peers. It’s just that lately I’ve come over all craven and said, “Um – well – let me think about it – ah – actually – no.” There’s a remote chance I’ll say yes if I know I’m going to love it. I am a fan of a small, select bunch of local writers. Writers reading this – of course I mean you. Trouble is, it’s a minefield out there and I don’t feel like darting between the landmines in my slippers.
The longer I’ve been involved with what could loosely be called the New Zealand literary scene, the more reluctant I’ve become to review. I know nearly everybody in it now on some level. Many of these people are my friends and some of these people are close friends. To review their novels carries deep implications. Whereas I’m perfectly happy to talk about people behind their back (don’t you tighten your lips at me like that, you do it too!), I’m a bit more reluctant to put it down on paper. There’s something rather lasting about that.
Do you say to your friend – more to the point, do you publish in the paper about your friend – “I normally like what you wear, but what you’ve got on today does nothing for you”? Do you say, “Your house is nice but your kitchen unworkable”? How much more callous it would be to say, “I like your plot but your characters suck. Can’t tell one from another.” Or, “Your characters leap off the page, but how about a story for a change?” Or, “That’s set in the fifties? You had me fooled.” I care about my friends. While I’d never lie to them about what I think of their work, I do choose my words carefully. In talking to them, I can happily pick out all the best bits. A reviewer shouldn’t do this. A reviewer should tell the truth as the reviewer sees it. A reviewer – this cowardy custard, anyway – should review the books of people who live safely half a world away.
There’s one’s own reputation to consider as well. What are the ramifications of coming over all honest about New Zealand fiction? As a population, we’re far too inclined to ascribe jealousy as a reason for an opinion. If middle-aged women writers find it hard to like – let alone read – the work of some of the young and beautiful proliferating in our bookshops at the moment, it’s all too easy for others to assume it’s because our time is past. I might not think that, or I might be working hard at not thinking that, but I’m nervous of others thinking I think that. If I find the work of others writing in my genre less than satisfying, is it because I’m jealous that their books sell better than mine?
Wouldn’t I rather leave the comments on their books to others, so I can commiserate over coffee, suppressing (not always successfully) the odd unseemly buzz of schadenfreude?
We writers are fragile flowers. I have been glared at by writers whose books I have praised lavishly, apart from some small reservations. The trouble is, it’s the small reservations that leap from the page when one’s own book is under the knife. And, as a writer myself, I know how much a bad review hurts. Or some do. I’m sure I’m not the only writer afflicted by the “any moment someone is going to suss I’m a fraud” syndrome, falling like a grateful, masochistic puppy on any comment that seems to have noticed this. Fair criticism, however negative, just feeds the attention-seeking section of an author’s psyche. He got me right! I am hopeless!
No, it’s the unfair stuff that rankles long-term. Still simmering away in the back of my mind is a reviewer’s comment about my second novel, On the Grapevine. Okay, so that was more than five years ago. Why I will never forget it, is that it wasn’t about my novel. It was about me. To summarise, the reviewer could tell from my friendly, smiling photo on the back of the book that I never intended to write anything that wasn’t deeply shallow. Excuse me? Do I have to have the hooded glare of a Salman Rushdie to be taken seriously?
My friend Fiona Farrell agrees that while much criticism is forgotten as soon as it’s been read, it’s the comments that feel personal that hurt the most. Asked to write for an anthology on being brought up Catholic, she finished her essay by saying that while no longer having a religion as such, she finds standing on the headland near her home at Otanerito akin to any religious experience. “Well, bully for her,” wrote a North Auckland reviewer. Smug little smartarse. And yet one is powerless to do anything about it, unless one wants to become part of the sort of cringe-making public correspondence between critic, author and author’s loyal friends that will eventually cause a tired editor to write, “This correspondence is now closed.”
Furthermore, an irony is that, knowing the authors personally, I simply cannot put a distance between them and their work. I’m constantly on the subtext hunt. I find them in their heroines; their husbands or ex-husbands in their heroes and villains. I see their houses, their teapots, the tricky cisterns in their bathrooms. I see their car pull up in front of their hydrangea at their front gate. I do to them what I loathe others doing to me: I strip them of creative imagination, the ability to “make up”.
I’m bad enough with overseas writers. I couldn’t read Nick Hornby’s latest novel, How to be Good, without feeling deeply sad that everything for Hornby must have lost its gloss. His novel told me – or at least I thought it did – that the thrill of being famous is well over. What’s he got to show for it other than money? A broken marriage, an autistic child. Well, the money does help – he funds his son’s school virtually single-handed. I simply couldn’t remove the novel’s theme – is it really all worth it? – from what I know about Hornby the man. Yet there I was only extrapolating. Closer to home sometimes I really do know too much about the writer.
And finally, there’s that good old New Zealand thing – mateship. Suppose I do rave about a book – will people think I really mean it? I know enough about who’s friends with whom for the “my favourite books for Christmas” lists in various periodicals to have an added level of interest. I’m not alone in this. A friend who has been an assistant judge in a major literary award tells me that while supplied with reviews of the books under consideration, she and her colleagues were also warned to be on the lookout for those written by the writer’s friends. It’s as if friendship carries with it a promise of a dishonest appraisal.
Oh dear. This is all a bit sad. None of this should matter. None of this should matter at all. A reviewer should be able to get on with her job, which is, I think, to both inform and entertain, to have a strong and visible point of view, to show evidence of wide reading, and to show a willingness to place the book under review within a larger context. It’s all very grand and important until one remembers how small our country is. That just a suburb or town away someone we care about is going to read what we write about their book.
So, excuse me, but I’m off. I have a wonderful-looking book to review (English writer – lovely cover) and then it’s tea and sympathy with a friend who’s just had an awful going-over at the hands of one of those bloody reviewers. That reviewer’d better watch it, that’s all we can say. Just remember: we know where she lives.
Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer. Her most recent book is Allons Enfants, reviewed in our October 2000 issue.