“Considerate autocrats”, Bill Sewell and Harry Ricketts


Writers can get paranoid about editors. We know; we’re writers ourselves. Like many others, we’ve imagined editors to whom we’ve submitted work flicking through it in a spirit somewhere between malice and mischief. A number of masochistic scenarios spring all too readily to mind, only tightening the screw on one’s vanity and self-pity. These feature the embittered books editor, who wearily commissions reviews, quite as much as the editor of the literary magazine enthusiastically reaching for the rejection slips.

To mention just two such scenarios: first, there’s the “booby-trap review”, designed to sabotage an established reputation, or to ensure that the poppy doesn’t grow too tall too quickly. Then there’s the “wilful mismatch”, starring the Mephistophelean editor who holds the book out as a lure to the author’s vengeful ex-lover, disaffected disciple, neglected rival – or indeed to the serial iconoclast reviewer, always willing to have another go.

The truth is that we inundated and absent-minded editors don’t knowingly set up a book or its author for a hiding. Frankly, we already have far too many other editorial worries to deal with. As with so many other paranoid fantasies, if authors do get shafted, it’s most likely to be the result of cock-up, not conspiracy.

In fact, our policy and practice at New Zealand Books is to be as inclusive and eclectic as possible. We also aim to be non-ideological (although we don’t especially welcome political, economic and social views that stem from the now long discredited New Right). New Zealand is still a village: we don’t believe there’s room for schools or cliques (although several cabals are popularly thought to exist). Such openness is all the more important because New Zealand Books remains the only magazine where local publications regularly receive in-depth treatment.

Our reviews, some of which extend to 2500 words, demand a balanced discussion and preclude lazy reading and snap judgements. We actively seek out a wide range of reviewers, of all age groups and persuasions. This includes the occasional overseas reviewer – represented in this issue by the American Robert Onopa’s analysis of Elizabeth Knox’s Black Oxen. We also like to think that we reflect this diversity in the subject-matter: from fiction to film, from sociology to surfing, from biography to blokemanship, from Treaty issues to the TAB. All of this we endeavour to frame within robust debate, but without inciting reviewers – or indeed readers – to gratuitous violence. As we put it in the introduction to Under Review: A Selection from New Zealand Books 1991-1996 (1997): “a healthy culture looks at its own performances in a spirit of discriminating engagement, of generous tough-mindedness.”

Of course, every now and then we inadvertently find ourselves in the editorial equivalent of Taranaki Gothic. For instance, there’s what we call “the mistaken mismatch” – where we commission a review from somebody who, unknown to us, is at daggers drawn with the author. Or there’s the “volunteer reviewer”, whose name subsequently just happens to turn up in very small print in the acknowledgements. Or there’s “the untouchable (and unreadable) author”, whom nobody wants to review because it is more than their life is worth. Or there’s the dud review, and where to put it. Or there’s the wanting review – the one that never appeared at all (and, by the way, L and M, we’re still waiting!). Seriously, though, this is the reason why some books don’t get reviewed.

Finally, there’s the letter, phone-call or e-mail from the irate author and/or partner, friend or fan. To such unhappy readers, we can only say that “thems the breaks” and we will not censor the well-argued judgements of our reviewers; nor should we. It is after all our job to exercise editorial authority, not to massage potentially wounded literary egos. Similarly, we shouldn’t shrink from making judicious cuts or smoothing out rough edges. Like Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and first editor of the (English) Dictionary of National Biography, we do do our best to be “considerate autocrats”.

That said, editing New Zealand Books is an enjoyable task. It provides a variety of pleasures. We get a huge kick out of making the appropriate match between book and reviewer (and we increasingly find that the reviewers we approach are flattered to be asked). We also like being an integral part of a lively literary and intellectual culture, and showcasing its wares. It means that we inevitably spend a lot of time dealing with writers of many kinds, most of whom, we are happy to report, are decent people (if only they wouldn’t write quite so many books!). We always look forward to calling in to our office at the New Zealand Book Council in Featherston Street, where the administration of the enterprise, under Director Karen Ross, is run with great efficiency and good humour. We derive a particular satisfaction from making a self-sufficient product over a period of 3 to 4 months, fashioning something concrete out of the inchoate. Along the way, there’s the pleasure of anticipating and receiving the copy; the collegiality of the editorial process and the serendipitous decisions that arise; the intricacies of layout, with the expert participation of our typographer Walter Walraven of Matrix Typography; and, finally, holding in our hands the finished article, with the sense of closure that brings.

Putting together this 50th issue of New Zealand Books, we are reminded of the distinguished tradition established by the founders John Mansfield Thomson (the journal’s first editor), Lauris Edmond, Vincent O’Sullivan, Shelagh Duckham Cox, Pat Hawthorne, and Martin Bond. They articulated the original aims – in John Thomson’s words, “to provide a forum for the finest available writing and criticism of books, [and] for general issues concerning the quality of New Zealand life, and the preservation and enhancement of its artistic traditions” – and set out to live up to them. Together with our predecessor Colin James, who was at the helm from 1994-1997, the founders laid down the solid base from which we produce the journal today. We, in our turn, have a clear sense of our role: to build on that solid base, and in particular, to enhance readability, to introduce variety, to encourage debate, and to maintain the highest editorial standards.


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