The dispraise problem
Witty essays by Iain Sharp and Paula Morris in recent issues of Landfall (May and November 2004) have again brought up that perennial hot topic – literary reviewing in New Zealand – and prompted us to chip in our two penn’orth.
Sharp concentrates on what he dubs our “praise problem”, examining mainly blurbs, puffs and endorsements and contrasting equivocal local offerings with the fulsomeness of overseas accolades. Morris, in her more ambitious piece, compares how local and overseas writers respond to negative reviews, asks what responsibility reviewers have to their readers, and explores local literary politics and paranoia.
We agree wholeheartedly with Sharp that, when it comes to reviewing here, “botched rapture is less common … than hedging.” (Although, like Sharp, we think it no bad thing that our national character makes us wary and chary of praise-with-fries American-style.) Pace Sharp (himself once famous as an acerbic reviewer who took few prisoners), our problem tends to be (sic) “the dispraise problem”. We find that reviewers hedge just as much when finding fault as when dishing out approval. While this is understandable in a literary community where everyone quickly gets to know everyone else, it is not a healthy symptom. What we need are reviews that are not afraid to offer a well-argued, forthright critique of a new book – whether in praise or dispraise.
As Morris points out, books editors are always open to accusations of mischief or malice in their matching of reviewer to book. She suggests that this probably happens much less often than aggrieved authors might think. Again we agree – though, as writers ourselves, we know exactly what it’s like to suspect you’ve been vindictively set up. (All writers have a skin too few.) But we would like to take this opportunity to say that we have never knowingly paired X’s new novel with their ex-lover nor Y’s first poetry collection with their former creative writing tutor nor Z’s latest war history with a volunteer reviewer egregiously thanked in the acknowledgements. More buried connections – positive and negative – are of course less easy to detect, and we will inevitably have stumbled on occasions.
Our primary responsibility, as editors, must of course be to our readers. And this goes back to the whole raison d’être of New Zealand Books: to offer informed and lively comment on a wide range of significant local publications, something the mainstream media is generally unable or unwilling to provide.
An informative review requires not just the right reviewer but space for that reviewer to develop and back up their opinions. Morris cites Martin Amis’ remark in The War Against Cliché that “Quotation is the reviewer’s only hard evidence.” Exactly so. But to lay out that hard evidence a reviewer needs more than the usual 400-500 word newspaper or magazine slot. Which is why – though the post-millennial publishing deluge here continually puts it under pressure – the 1500-word review remains our gold standard.
As for liveliness: that is harder to pin down and procure. But, like The Dominion Post books editor Guy Somerset (whom Morris also quotes), we hope – expect – reviewers to turn in “reviews that are a good read in their own right”. In our experience, such reviews usually come from reviewers who remember to put the reader and the book first – not themselves and not the author. Writing a proper review, though nothing like as hard work as writing a novel or a biography, requires (as a minimum) perceptive reading, intellectual effort and several drafts to shape and polish not just the argument but also the review’s appeal on the page. A good review should reward more than one reading.
But that is not, we know (and our Letters column regularly reminds us), the end of the matter. So we’ll return to the question of reviewing in the editorial to our August issue.
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway