Reviewing the reviewers

Matthew Wright reflects on the ethics of book reviewing.

It’s some years since New Zealand Books published a wonderfully nasty litany of my supposed failures in a book I’d written on South Island settler society where, the reviewer insisted as an opening declaration, his own work had never been challenged in 30 years.

My book, he claimed, should have been that challenge, except I was apparently so worthless and inept at my profession that, among my many other alleged faults, I wasn’t even capable of writing content to match a meaning he had wrung out of the title. He drove his message home by giving my book a sarcastic new title, a 26-word barrage of ridicule that, he insisted, was what it should have been called.

I have, I suppose, “made it” when other historians apparently feel so threatened they are publicly reduced to name-calling in the style of a school bully. It’s happened to me a lot in the past few decades, during which I’ve written about 50 books and well over 500 feature articles, papers and reviews. In fact, it’s got to the point where I view it as sport: I publish a book – usually history – and wait to see which stranger will erupt out of the woodwork, seething with anger at my work in territory they regard as theirs, and publicly portraying me as so personally useless you’d think I couldn’t sit the right way around on a toilet.

Sometimes it’s done by openly misrepresenting my material – the word is “lying” – or by attributing motives or attitudes that I’ve never stated and which misrepresent my character, all without first contacting me to find out what I actually think. This renders the defence of “honest opinion” very thin. It’s done by people who, without exception, have not shown the confidence and integrity to approach me in person first, and who consistently cower behind asserted status or – more usually – silence if I tackle them about their allegations.

Sometimes I find I’m targeted repeatedly by the same person or group. I first experienced that a decade ago at the hands of New Zealand’s academic military-historical community, who exploded into a particular frenzy when I wrote a biography of Bernard Freyberg. This did not go unnoticed. A British-based historian, reading their reviews of my books, described their behaviour towards me as that of circling piranhas.

Curiously, the self-same work that the local military crowd were falling over themselves to run down in public here also prompted the Royal Historical Society at University College in London to elect me a Fellow, on merit of my scholarship.

What concerns me is not my specific story, but the fact that this kind of experience seems common in New Zealand. Many authors have to put up with it. I recall, not long ago, seeing similar “wrong at every turn” allegations published by reviewers about Paul Moon – someone I regard as one of New Zealand’s most capable and innovative historians.

The disappointing part is the way “worth denial” behaviour has been normalised. “Everybody gets bad reviews,” I am told. “You have to put up with them.” Actually, I don’t buy that one. It validates the bullying and perpetuates that culture. To me, a book review should be a discursive, abstracted and reasoned overview that allows readers to judge whether they would buy the book, or to understand the contribution the author has made. If a well-argued review finds egregious fault, or the reviewer doesn’t like the author’s arguments on reasonable grounds, that’s fair. Informed critique that finds fault has to be accepted; and maybe it’s a fair cop.

Personalised denial polemics masquerading as reviews, though, are a different matter. Why do they happen? It is, I think, facile to blame the phenomenon on the fact that New Zealand is such a small place that the only experts able to make informed comment are authors with competing interests. The issue has less to do with overlapping interest than with how the reviewer chooses to respond.

The pertinent point, for me, is what all this says about the nature of New Zealand’s intellectual culture. I’ve always found the terms of denial reflect the frameworks around which the academy seems to pivot – irrespective of whether what I’d written was intended to meet those criteria or not.

It’s also clear to me that status, in this mind-set, is viewed as an exclusive and limited commodity. That was made explicit when New Zealand Books reduced my name to a verb (“ ‘Wrighting’ it”). As far as I could tell from the review, this neologism meant daring to challenge James Belich and – according to the reviewer – trying to supplant him in the public mind, as if the status of academics was an iron throne over which everybody fought for sole possession until dead. This alleged personal motive was news to me; but, as always, the reviewer never approached me for the facts.

I get the impression such behaviour is particularly enabled in academia (a mind-set that runs well beyond the universities) because intellectual frameworks offer a comfortable way to validate personal self-worth. That sense is apparently also obtained by holding a particular interpretation or ideological position. This, of course, renders it personal and emotional.

The irony, from my perspective, is that I don’t validate myself in their terms, still less seek or value the status apparently being fought over. I don’t even label myself a historian. I’ve studied and written the stuff and, as a by-product, have received significant academic recognition in New Zealand and internationally. But I’ve also studied the sciences, writing, and music, among other things. To me, the world is far too wide and interesting to limit my self-identity with a tagline, still less entwine my self-worth to a particular territory. And I don’t see why I should be the whipping boy for the insecurities of strangers who apparently do.

Trust and respect are earned commodities. Inevitably, I have to question the apparent ethics of the intellectual culture and institutions represented by this behaviour.

Is there a better way? To me, all fields expand with their contributors. Everybody writing in New Zealand has something to add, and authors should work together, exploiting their combined strengths to build a greater whole. Everybody, in short, gets a bigger slice of the pie. There is no place for ego, pretension, or malice. However, there is infinite room for enterprise, inclusion, kindness, and reason.

Such is my hope. On my experience, though, I suspect this article will merely provoke fresh public hostility from strangers alleging that I can’t take my medicine. Or maybe others, of integrity, will step up to show that there is a reasonable depth of ethical compass, somewhere in New Zealand’s intellectual culture, and in the largely taxpayer-funded professions that the people who prosper in it represent. We’ll see.

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