Paul Morris reflects on reviewing overseas and at home.
Spending time elsewhere inevitably leads to comparisons. I want to reflect on reviewing and the differences between the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Book reviews form part of what I call “British critical culture”. This includes the academic and literary journals: weeklies like the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator and the New Statesman; the fortnightly London Review of Books and the monthly Literary Review; the newspapers review sections; Radio 4, including Question Time; and, of course, Private Eye. Rendering this quite so inclusively is due to the considerable overlapping of personnel – writers, commentators, politicians and academics – across these outlets and the ways that they set out to create public debate and to respond to each other. While British critical culture can at times seem smart and nasty, it is almost always also serious, informed, and consciously addresses the wider British context.
There has been a plethora of publications marking the centenary of WWI, and these have been extensively reviewed within the context of exhibitions (such as Tom Piper’s ceramic poppy gardens at the Tower of London) and debates about appropriate ways to commemorate Remembrance Sunday and, more generally, WWI itself. The book reviews have been occasions not just for deliberating on literary qualities but also for contributing to public discussions about the meaning of the war and its enduring legacy. The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, questioned the meaning of Piper’s poppies and whether they obscure the horrors of war, thereby generating a debate that has included comments by David Cameron. There have been calls, for instance in the Sunday Express, to rethink the poetry of the trenches not in terms of poetry but in terms of the poets as soldiers. As the headlines report both the end of British involvement in Afghanistan and the real possibilities of increased military participation in the Iraq-Syria arena, the question of the meaning of war, and its consequences for Britain, loom large and urgent.
Russell Brand’s new book, The Revolution, has been widely reviewed, discussed on Radio 4, and Brand, himself a guest editor for an issue of the New Statesman, was recently on Question Time. Reviewers have engaged earnestly with Brand’s diagnosis of what ails the country. In the Daily Mail, Craig Brown, having reviewed the arguments, comments that Brand “translates [Chomsky’s and Piketty’s] thoughts into rambling splodges of Dave Spart GCSE prose, plastered with words like quotidian, matrix, hegemony and post-materialist” and concludes the result is “rambling, half-baked, shifty and unpleasant”. (Dave Spart was the doctrinaire leftie, based in part on Ken Livingston, who featured regularly in Private Eye.) Brown’s fine summary matches my own brief encounter with the book.
Steve Richards in the Independent laments that Brand’s notoriety was not better utilised to foster political concern, particularly among the young, offering them instead only “witty banalities”. Robert Colville in the Telegraph sees the whole as “a rambling, egocentric mess” that he condemns harshly and pointedly as “sub-undergraduate dross”. Tim Stanley, also in the Telegraph, decides that the only way to review Brand’s book is to write it as if Brand were the reviewer, leading to a most perceptive critique. Finally, Nick Cohen in the Observer remarks: “the comedian’s desire to lead a global revolution is undermined by his shallow manifesto ‒ his writing is atrocious: long-winded, confused and smug; filled with references to books Brand has half read and thinkers he has half understood.”
What is fascinating about the appraisals of Brand’s book is not that they might be candidates for the Hatchet Job of the Year award for the angriest and funniest book review, but that political commentators, both Left and Right, used the opportunity to engage with the significant issues so poorly highlighted by Brand and, even more importantly, all raised genuine concerns about the role that celebrity and wealth play in our literary and political culture. Taki, that well known social commentator and columnist for the Spectator, wrote recently of a professional gathering that it was “a thoroughly English affair, full of good humour and good manners”. While British critical culture does seem full of good humour, even if not particularly well-mannered, it has created and sustained a public space where multiple voices engage through critical review in discussing and debating matters of concern to the nation, or at least segments of it.
What has all this got to do with New Zealand? Is what I’ve written anything more than a whinge prejudicially comparing home with overseas, a whinge based on a short trip to this overcrowded, polluted, frenetic island beset with identity issues over being or not being European, with its weekly food scandals, political corruption and nepotism (albeit very frequently exposed), not to mention xenophobic racism? But, just as there is a British critical culture of which book and other reviewing are important components, so there is a New Zealand critical culture with its own resonances and characteristics. There are evident differences in scale and size, so that we have no real parallels to the editorial independence of the Guardian or even the BBC, and nothing approaching Private Eye. We do, however, have our own intertwined social, political and literary critical culture. The oligarchic nature of our media control and the levels of funding do not allow much room for investigative journalism which is so much part of the British critical culture. Our political journalists either attempt to be non-partisan or they are set up as Left versus Right so that they parrot each other oppositionally. The heightened atmosphere of the recent election led to critical engagements with our political leaders with agendas set by the commentators rather than the politicians, but this has proved to be unsustainable, and we have reverted to safe critiques that do not really disturb or challenge. Falling out with politicians or simply being critical beyond norms and expectations can and does have consequences.
This culture is reflected in our book reviewing. Rarely, if ever, are books panned, even really bad ones. We might, probably will, meet the author in the near future, and of course revenge is always a possibility. Recently, we have seen the publication of fiction and non-fiction books by wealthy local celebrities, some of which have been frankly atrocious, but which have been civilly and politely reviewed ‒ and the debate about the criteria for the judgement of the published thoughts of rich celebrities has yet to take place in New Zealand. Had Russell Brand had been a Kiwi, we would very likely have claimed him as our own and loved him and his book. More significantly, we have yet to have our own sustained public debate about the public meanings of the 1914-1918 war, and the poppy.
We have good and bad poets, ditto novelists, short story writers and historians. But these differences are seldom (ever?) reflected in our reviews. Why? Is it simply size, as I suggested above? Yes, that is part of it, but we also have a particular code of civility. At Victoria University of Wellington, where I teach, we have received a number of enquiries from Asian students wanting to come to study “New Zealand civility” and learn how it works. Little has been written on our own particular, and perhaps peculiar, code of politeness. Perhaps our colonial legacy led us to maintain relations civilly at almost all costs, due to interdependence and the levels of firearm availability and ownership. Can such civility go too far and become an ordeal that prevents the full development of a critical culture? It is not that we cannot be critical, but we do tend to go for the man and not the ball, as we saw during the election with blogger Slater and the prime minister’s remarks on the size of his opponent’s bottom.
When Arthur Koestler visited Japan, he was told that there were millions of registered haiku poets. He asked his host how you could distinguish the good from the bad. There was a long silence before his host replied that perhaps they were all good. We need to debate our public civility, its relationship to a critical, participatory, democratic culture, and the essential role that reviewing plays in this. The alternative is that “Perhaps we are all good.”
Tim Stanley in the Telegraph decides that the only way to review Brand’s book is to write it as if Brand were the reviewer.