Miffed, maltreated and murderous
In our last editorial we looked at reviewing from the relatively unimpassioned viewpoint of what’s good for New Zealand writing, reviewers and readers. But what, to misapply Freud, do authors want?
The question is nowhere near as simple as it looks because those who write books are also often our best reviewers, and among our keenest readers. New Zealand is simply too small to support an independent covey of critics, so there is an inevitable overlap between readers, reviewers and authors. This issue, for instance, includes reviews by Sue McCauley, Renée, Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Philip Temple.
So what do authors want from reviews? It’s easy to forget that for those published in the big world outside New Zealand getting reviewed at all is the first hurdle, never mind whether what follows is positive or negative. Just getting an overseas books editor’s attention long enough to have them send your work out for review counts as a success. Here, we tend to take being reviewed pretty much for granted. In fact, some authors seem to have elevated being reviewed to a right, particularly when it comes to coverage in New Zealand Books. Our very name reinforces the conviction that we are duty-bound to acknowledge their new book in 1500 words or more.
It’s certainly true that if a New Zealand book isn’t reviewed in this country, it’s unlikely to be reviewed at all – hence understandable author anxiety. But the continuing deluge of new publications means that New Zealand Books cannot review everything. And even if this were logistically possible, the results wouldn’t make for great reading.
No writer enjoys a bad review. Those who say they do are either saints or liars. What most of us want is praise, better still awe. Failing that, we claim to be satisfied with fairness and balance. Unfortunately these qualities are in the eye of the beholder, whereas an author’s vision of criticism is never 20/20. Unless a writer possesses a cast-iron (or insufferable) ego, they tend only to see and remember the negative, and overlook and/or discount the good.
It’s possible, at least theoretically, that a writer might learn from a review. And sometimes this does happen. Reviewing Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life in our next issue, Kathryn Walls observes that “Accused of not being a properly ‘New Zealand’ writer, [Mahy] has become one.”
More likely, the wounded writer will agree with English playwright John Osborne that “Asking a working writer what he [sic] feels about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” And the more aggrieved will not forget, given the overlap between authors and reviewers, that New Zealand offers splendid opportunities for the revenge review or the retributive story, novel or poem. It’s also possible that paying too much attention to reviews will destroy you and your tremulous talent. Or drive you into a new career as an insurance claims assessor.
The bulk of our correspondence is from authors in various stages of suffering, from miffed to maltreated to murderous – although these primal responses are usually ineffectually disguised under layers of urbane prose: It is incumbent on me to point out … For the sake of your readers, I cannot ignore … If your reviewer had only read my book more carefully … .
The stock advice to authors is “Never respond except on matters of fact.” Helpful, as far as it goes, but matters of fact are rarely the real problem. Our advice, as fellow writers, is to adopt a lofty disdain towards bad reviews and channel your energy into your real work. Public complaint rarely does you – or the reviewing trade – any good at all. As editors, though, we are bound to say, keep those letters coming – our readers love them.
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway