Letters – Issue 71

Going for the kill

There are curious contradictions in Guy Somerset’s editorial, “Review and be damned” (NZB, October 2005). Literary life in New Zealand apparently amounts to “rarefied navel-gazing”, supermarket politeness and authorial complaint, all dire “small-country” traits. Yet these are found elsewhere, too, if Chekhov and Mailer are anything to go by, because “overseas literary scenes” are not “so very large” either. Really? While telling his book reviewers to be “bold but fair … honest etc”, Somerset also believes it reasonable to give a book to “someone you know is going to loathe it”. This might be bold but hardly fair or honest, when the text procured will reflect simply the reviewer’s loathing, a spew from a “louse in the locks of literature”.

Guy Somerset clearly knows a great deal, and we should be grateful, in particular, that he knows what it is to be “true to art and literature”. He also knows what readers want and the identity of all those writers “labouring” towards “patriotic ends”; although I appreciate he did not have the space to share their names with us. While claiming book-reviewing as an “art-form”, “something worth labouring over”, he does not think it really has to be paid for. It should be done more for the love of it, presumably, no doubt following his own example as a newspaper books editor.

In lamenting that too much reviewing is left to “retired sheep farmers” et al, he overlooks that, if you pay peanuts, you should consider yourself lucky enough to get someone who can write better than a monkey.

Somerset tells us that the “most important overseas reviewing” is in the newspapers, somehow equating 500 words in the Dom Post with a couple of thousand in the New York Times Review of Books or the Guardian Review. Those might be worth reading and keeping (their reviewers well-paid); 1500 words in New Zealand Books or 5000 in Landfall may also be worth reading and keeping for reference, but today’s Dom Post is tomorrow’s recycling, disposing of the 500 words that rarely amount to more than a notice.

Newspapers and their books editors in New Zealand should devote more space to adequate reviewing, pay for the quality the reader deserves, and choose reviewers who are informative and constructive. This means knowing the subject and context of a book, whatever the genre, and reviewers should be “fair” and “honest” enough to admit when they don’t. Too often their ignorance shows up in bewilderment, uncertainty (“I feel”, “for me”) or lapses into cheap loathing and going “for the kill”. There were examples of all in the last, and earlier, issues of New Zealand Books. 

These comments from Margaret Atwood contain some good advice for books editors and reviewers alike:

I don’t review books I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader. But either the book is bad, in which case no one should review it, or it’s good but not my cup of tea, in which case someone else should review it.

Philip Temple


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