Brian Easton considers reviewing as New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa turns 25.
New Zealand Books was founded a quarter of a century ago, responding to a fear that The New Zealand Listener’s book pages were ending. I do not recall that there was then a concern that newspaper book pages would also be cut back. Once, a weekend newspaper devoted a whole broadsheet page – typically opposite the editorial page – to (shorter) book reviews. Today, you are lucky to get in their magazines two or three pages, at least one of which looks like a personality profile of the author issued by the publisher. Sometimes, the review is of a New Zealand book. So the annual award for review pages has been abandoned. (The death of newspaper reviewing is not peculiar to literature. For example, the gap in Wellington music reviewing has had to be filled by the Middle C website; local obituaries have all but disappeared.)
There are still specialist journals which review their own, such as Landfall, The New Zealand Journal of History, and The Journal of New Zealand Studies. (It is alleged that there is a New Zealand Journal of Literature; I have a friend who recalls seeing an issue.) Short reviews of local publications will be found in monthlies such as Metro, while Radio New Zealand (now RNZ) does sterling work, and there is some book reviewing on Radio Live (but not, as far as I know, on television). A new online magazine, The Spinoff, occasionally has reviews of local books. Beattie’s Book Blog recycles some reviews. There have been other attempts to fill the gap, memorably Quote, Unquote, but the financials did not work. (New Zealand Books receives an annual grant – thank you Creative New Zealand.)
In summary, without New Zealand Books, serious readers are less well served today than a quarter of a century ago.
Why has so much of the mainstream media lost interest in serious readers? It would be easy to say that their editors were airheads, or, at least, not serious readers themselves. In which case, why do the media publishers choose them? The answer must be that good review pages do not turn a profit.
Perhaps they never did, but media publishers only noticed under the pressures generated by electronic media. A quality books editor is relatively expensive, and then there are the review fees; far cheaper to publish handouts and foreign imports. There is not a lot of advertising for books; look at all the advertising that does not appear in, say, New Zealand Books. Perhaps serious readers do not take a lot of notice of adverts. (Even so, I am puzzled at sports or business coverage which is not advertising rich either. Apparently it sells newspapers; books don’t. Would it be that their news is more immediate?)
One of the traditional functions of book pages was to alert readers to new books. I am finding myself missing some important books – even in my own professional areas. (No, book publicists, please don’t email me – typically your handouts are badly written and incomprehensible.) Aside from serendipity, I am increasingly relying on a visit to my local quality bookshop (in my case, Unity); those isolated from one might try Helen Parsons’s regular newsletter (although its layout is clumsy).
When I drafted the terms of reference of New Zealand Books all those years ago, I had in mind imitating the long reviews of The New York Review of Books. That was over-ambitious; the publication is more like The London Review of Books. Few New Zealand books are weighty enough to justify more than a 1400-word (i.e. one page) review, and rarely are there sufficient New Zealand books in one area to generate a dialogue.
A further difficulty is that we don’t have the reviewers. Reviewing is a craft and only some will learn to do it well. There are not a lot of paths for the apprentice. It is, of course, harder to write a good 400-word review than a 1400-word one, even if it is paid less. But the 400-word-or-less reviews of the newspaper book page were a way to learn how to do it and, if one got it wrong, how to do better the next time. They were also examples – good and bad – for potential reviewers; I have read reviews where the reviewer does not seem to have ever read a review. (But editors have to experiment, bringing in new blood; just don’t invite her or him back until there is other evidence of a vast improvement.) Writing good novels is not a necessary qualification for becoming a good reviewer; English 101 essays certainly are not.
New Zealand’s small community does not help; often editors seem unable to find an appropriate reviewer. The rule is that, for every New Zealand candidate, there are 20-odd in Britain (one of whom is probably an expatriate New Zealander). Smallness may not necessarily generate bitchiness, but where it occurs it is more difficult to manage, as the controversy which followed a recent article by Iain Sharp in The Spinoff illustrates. Even so, those who have reviewed for New Zealand Books reflect a galaxy of New Zealand public intellectual life.
All of which leaves one a bit gloomy for the future of reviewing in New Zealand and, indeed, the national conversation among serious readers that it underpins. Perhaps the one light in the gloom is New Zealand Books. I was not a founder, so allow me to salute them and those who have carried on their vision.
The Roll of Honour
Founding Peppercorn Committee: Martin Bond, Shelagh Cox, Lauris Edmond, Pat Hawthorne, Vincent O’Sullivan, J M Thomson.
J M Thomson: Autumn 1991 (1) – Winter 1992 (5)
Lauris Edmond: Spring 1992 (6)
Andrew Mason: Summer 1993 (7)
Nelson Wattie: Autumn 1993 (8)
Jane Stafford: Winter 1993 (9)
Paula Wagemaker: Spring 1993 (10)
Colin James: Summer 1993 (11) – December 1997 (31)
Harry Ricketts: March 1998 (32) –
Bill Sewell: March 1998 (32) – December 2001 (56)
Jane Westaway: March 2002 (57) – Summer 2013 (104)
Louise O’Brien: Autumn 2014 (105) –