Monday, August 3, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

I have been writing Reid’s Reader for just over four years. This blog first appeared in June 2011. I would have produced a note on this a month ago, except that I was off on a European holiday at the time, and the blog was taking a break. So I now commemorate this august 4th anniversary by reproducing my answers to a questionnaire which I filled out in early June. The questionnaire was sent to me by Elizabeth Heritage, a publicist for the New Zealand Booksellers’ Association, as she was researching an article on book blogs in New Zealand for the booksellers’ own blog The Read. Inevitably (and as I had been advised in advance), the detailed answers I submitted became a mere one or two brief quotations in Elizabeth’s article, for which she had sent her questionnaire to five or six other bloggers and critics as well.
To celebrate the 4th anniversary of Reid’s Reader, I therefore reproduce in full below the answers I gave, which might once again remind you why I devote many unpaid hours a week to producing what you are reading. Here we go:

Why is book reviewing valuable?

            Book reviewing has two separate and equally valuable purposes. First, simply to INFORM potential readers of the existence, subject matter, genre, and quality of a book. I do not believe that reviews are of much value unless they spend at least some time giving this sort of factual information. Second, book reviews should give an INFORMED [and preferably detailed] OPINION of the given book’s worth. This should always be a measuring of the book against whatever can be perceived as the author’s intention, or whatever the perceived genre is. Obviously, you do not review a thriller as you would an historical treatise. A really good review will also consider the moral, ethical or social implications of a book and its STYLE (the last of which is usually forgotten in brief newspaper reviews).

What role do you see blogs (in general) playing in New Zealand's literary culture? Your blog in particular?

            First and most clearly, not all blogs concerning books are equal. Some are simply platforms for publicity – especially those run by publishers or booksellers or other people in the book industry. One would have to be very naïve indeed to go to such blogs expecting to find impartial analysis or comment on any book. The role of such blogs is to SELL books, not to evaluate them. Then there are blogs about books, which are in the nature of author support groups. These are those in which a group of people decide to write about a particular writer in order to promote (or console) such a writer. I am always very wary when I see a blog which claims to have been set up to “discuss the work of” any given living writer. Again, this really means that it will be providing publicity, even if of a more pretentious sort. Finally, genuine review blogs. Those that are run conscientiously are doing what all reviews and critiques should do – they are providing analysis and comment. They are raising the level of literate culture. At least I hope so. One reason I see for their proliferation (apart from the fact that many people like to have a say) is that there are big gaps in detailed book commentary in the existing print media. As for my own blog, it is for others to say how effective it is, but at least one reason I set it up was the frustration of not being able to analyse books in real detail in the existing New Zealand outlets. I hasten to add that I was, and still am, a regular reviewer in “Landfall”, the “Listener”, the “Sunday-Star Times” and (more occasionally) “New Zealand Books” – and on these platforms detailed comment is possible. But I wanted to be able to make detailed, analytical comment on books more regularly than my participation in these outlets allowed. There certainly is a place for the shorter newspaper review – well written it can give an indication of both a book’s contents and its worth. But I always crave being more analytical.

How do you choose what you will write about on your blog?
I have got to begin by saying unashamedly that the focus of my blog is on the highbrow. Every week, I use my own mailing system to send links to my week’s postings to academics in universities (especially those teaching history, languages and literature) and to people whom I know in the creative arts. My weekly posts have three sections. Firstly, in “Something New”, I analyse in detail a newly-published book. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of my choices are New Zealand books, and I often choose quite academic histories, collections of poetry, books on literature and culture from our university presses. Much of the New Zealand content I consider is scarcely dealt with in the mainstream press. I hasten to add that I do sometimes review thrillers and popular novels on my blog. I’m not a snob and I occasionally enjoy a good yarn. But these tend not to be my focus. The second section of my blog is called “Something Old”, and is the detailed consideration of an older book – anything from a classic from centuries ago to a book published four or more years ago. This allows me to make detailed use of the personal reading diaries that I have kept for years. My more general rationale for this is that a genuinely literate culture is one that is NOT tied to what has just been published or what is currently fashionable. Libraries are filled with books that are worth searching out. Finally, I have a section called “Something Thoughtful” which, basically, is my excuse to write a weekly essay or memory or diatribe or editorial on whatsoever I please – literary or otherwise.

Do you have any sense of whether/how your blog contributes to book sales?
Whenever I review a new book on my blog, I send a link and notification to the publishing house that provided the review copy. I emphasise I am NOT in the business of providing publicity, and the publishers I deal with know this. If the review in question is a largely favourable one, then the relevant publishers usually say how pleased they are; but if it is not so favourable, most are sophisticated enough to understand that my purpose was to review, not to publicise, and some even say that they quite agree with my viewpoint. How does all this affect sales? I really do not know, but the mere fact of being reviewed (favourably or unfavourably) draws some attention to books and must have some impact.

On average, how many visitors does your blog get per month and how long do they stay?
At the moment, I get approximately 3,000 page-views per week, so that adds up to about 12,000 per four-Monday month. (My blog has a new post every Monday, except twice in the year when I give myself a five or six week break).

Which other New Zealand book blogs do you read?
NO COMMENT – or I would be inclined to comment on them!

Any other thoughts/comments/anecdotes?
A simple statement – unless your vocation is really to write puffs and to be a publicist, then do not expect to make friends by writing honest and balanced reviews. New Zealand is a very small country with an even smaller pool of authors. It is hard not to meet or know or bump into the people whom you review. One Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure told me that he once ventured to review honestly a New Zealand book, and it caused him so much trouble in terms of feedback that he vowed never to review another New Zealand book again. I’m not in that position, but I do know that authors can be quite effusive when I have praised them, but a few get genuinely irate when they don’t get the praise they think they deserve. I NEVER sit down with a negative attitude towards any author. I at least attempt to judge each book on its merits. I am judging the book, not the author, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant he or she may be. But over the years I have had pompous novelist ABC and frankly neurotic novelist XYZ sending me screeds of e-mails accusing me of “malice” because (in fair, detailed and balanced reviews) I failed to recognize the overpowering genius of their efforts. Yes, impartial and well-documented reviews can be a perilous business.

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