Review and be damned
There is in Britain a financial journalist called Peter Jay, who, when he was economics editor of The Times, famously dismissed a sub-editor’s querying of his incomprehensible copy by informing him haughtily that the article was only meant to be understood by three people in the Treasury and the Bank of England.
Since arriving in New Zealand from London in 2001, I have had occasion to wonder whether literary life in this country – with its rarefied navel-gazing, its conferences, its quarrels and its exchanges in Landfall and the letters pages of the New Zealand Listener – isn’t conducted along similar lines: a private conversation between writers among themselves, with the occasional academic tagging along, upon which the rest of us can but eavesdrop in silent wonderment.
The rest of us being, you know, readers. Remember us?
At the same time, though Creative New Zealand doesn’t yet dole out dachas in the countryside, the drive for a national literary identity and to boost literary self-esteem, with rewards for all those labouring toward these patriotic ends, is such that to apply the same standards to local books as you would to overseas ones is regarded in many quarters as an act of high treason. To which one might add that other perennial “small-country” cop-out – the fear of offending anyone lest you meet them in the supermarket. (As if overseas literary scenes are, when you come down to it, so very large.)
Why call a spade a spade when you can shovel on the plot description and hope that no one notices you’ve not really said what you thought of the book? A “non-review review”, as it was once put to me.
That’s if you agree to review local books at all, of course. Some do, and some do so very well. There are at least half-a-dozen New Zealand reviewers who knock into a cocked hat the dreary drudgery of much overseas reviewing. So we are not talking absolutes here. But we are talking tendencies. Unhealthy tendencies that devalue criticism. Not least of these is the tendency toward politeness. As American critic James Atlas once observed: “Good manners are the sign of a dull literary era.”
Enough, please, of authors bleating on about how hard done by they are by reviewers. To my mind, they are seldom hard done by enough. This culture of authorial complaint is not just a problem here, either: witness Norman Mailer badmouthing New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani.
What was it Anton Chekhov wrote in one of his letters?
Criticism, even of the most abusive and illegitimate kind, is usually met with respectful silence – as is demanded of literary etiquette. It’s simply not done to answer back, and those who break this rule run the risk of being justly condemned for overweening vainglory.
(I’ve been dying for the chance to use that.)
Excuse me if I can’t find it in me to worry about the feelings of Norman Mailer. Norman Mailer! I’m with Gustave Flaubert on this: what, ultimately, are thousands dying for their country in a war compared with Horace getting the iambics right in a poem? Well, perhaps not quite that much with Flaubert, but what are a few authors’ noses out of joint compared with being true to art and literature – being true (if art and literature are too high falutin’ for you) to readers. Being true to yourself.
Enough, too, of the conspiracy theories. The day can’t be far off when authors start lobbying for the right to subpoena all correspondence between book-page editors and reviewers under the Official Information Act. (God, I hope I haven’t given them any ideas.) In my own case, they would be disappointed. My last email exchange with novelist and reviewer Paula Morris was largely given over to the BBC comedy Little Britain.
Not that I’m against what others might consider mischief-making. Why not give a book to someone you know is going to loathe it? Non-receptiveness to a book is as valid a perspective as receptiveness, and one warranting equal airing. However, once I’ve paired a book off with a reviewer (sometimes I feel like a glorified pimp), all I tell them is to be “bold, but fair . . . [to] be exact-ing, honest, incisive, provocative and polished. Be entertaining.”
Boldness, especially, is to be valued. There is an awful lot of tentativeness in New Zealand book reviewing (“I feel”, “for me” etc). Reviewing should be emphatic – and should, when necessary, go for the kill. Why should readers pay – literally – the price for your equivocation?
If – as is so often the case – writers are going to be sniffy about local reviewing, they need to accept the culture that goes with the reviewing they so admire overseas, which means being prepared to take part themselves (rather than leaving it to retired sheep farmers in North Canterbury or whoever happens to be passing the book-page editor’s desk at the time), and adhering to critical rigour without fear or favour.
They need, too, to show that they value book reviewing as, dare one say it, an art-form, or at least a craft, in its own right – something worth labouring over, something over and above the purely functional. (I know the pay’s appalling, but, really, has that ever been the point?)
It should, finally, be noted that the most important overseas reviewing – and literary conversation in general – takes place not on the periphery, but in the newspapers at the heart of the mainstream media. Sure, we in that mainstream media have our own ground to make up here, and the space and effort devoted to books by our only national broadsheet newspaper is nothing short of a disgrace. But writers need to weigh up the real relative merits of 500 words in a newspaper read by hundreds of thousands compared with 5000 words in Landfall or, sorry, 1500 words in New Zealand Books.
Commanding the attention of your literary peers is all very well, but what about the attention of readers? Yes, you know, readers. Remember us?
Guy Somerset is books editor of The Dominion Post.