Taking it personally
Recent conversations about the state of reviewing in New Zealand have been dominated by demands, sometimes pleas, that reviewers be brave and honest. Of course. We, too, at New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa look for bravery and honesty in critical judgments, and very rarely do we see those virtues used as veils for the vice of malice or for the purpose of attack.
Only a few of those who advocate courage in reviewers also acknowledge the correlating point: that for every brave and honest reviewer we need an equally brave and honest reviewee. Because reviewers are not wrong to fear offending writers if they give even the most well-deserved, fairest, most gently couched criticism. Writers do take it personally. Their feelings do get hurt by negative criticism which – let’s not forget, writers don’t – is both public and on permanent record. In addition, this criticism is usually made by people they are likely, in a small country like ours, to run into quite frequently. A writer’s relationship to their work, and its reception, is inherently different from the relationship an engineer has to their drawings or a surgeon to their sutures. So perhaps writers should just harden up, take it on the chin, be professional, and recognise that one person’s critical judgment of a text is a (mostly) educated opinion which may not only have merit, but which is also neither personal, nor absolute.
Yet, perhaps that, too, is to miss the point, or at least to forget a point those of us working in the literary sector should know all too well. Writers, by and large, don’t write for the same reasons that engineers and surgeons practise their professions. They receive neither the same financial rewards, nor similar job security or professional training. Writers write precisely because they take it personally, and their texts are produced from a very personal place, driven mostly by very personal motives.
And isn’t that, in fact, also precisely why readers read? Because reading a book is personal for a reader, too, is meaningful to each in a way that another might not understand or share. Every reader will have books which have a special, highly personalised meaning for them, be they Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Maurice Gee’s Plumb, Bill Manhire’s My Sunshine or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, to take a few obvious examples. And surely we wouldn’t have it any other way, even if the resulting tension between the private and personal worlds of reading and writing, and the public and professional world of reviewing and critique, continues to preoccupy and frustrate us.
Louise O’Brien and Harry Ricketts