Monday, September 8, 2014

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.

Recently I opened a magazine devoted to book reviewing and read a joint review of two books. I will not give you the names of either the magazine or the books, as I do not wish to sidetrack my comment into matters of personalty.
The reviewer had been allocated a generous three-column page to deal with the two books in question. [Both books, by the way, have been reviewed at length on this blog – but again I will refrain from giving you their titles.] I read his review and was mildly appalled. For the first three-quarters of the “review”, the reviewer did not discuss the books at all. Instead, the reviewer sounded off with his own opinions on the general issues with which the books dealt. Only in the last quarter of the “review” did the reviewer mention anything specific about the two books, and then in terms so general that such information as he mentioned could have been gleaned from the blurb of either book, with perhaps a quick and cursory glance through the text. In a “review” that had been given generous column space, the contents of one of the books were dismissed in two short sentences.
Where the reviewing of books is concerned, I have been around the block a few times and I think I am fairly good at spotting the false review. This was a prize example. The person who wrote it had, I suspect, not actually read the two books in question at all, but had decided to bullshit his way through by drawing on his own knowledge of the general subject considered and thus filling out a page. I mean, it’s so tiresome actually having to READ what you’re meant to be assessing, isn’t it?
I have met this phenomenon before. Some years ago, in a glossy magazine, one of my own books was reviewed. The review was a favourable one, so I almost blush to admit that I could see it was a false review. ALL the information the (positive) review contained had clearly been culled from (a.) my ten pages of introduction; and (b.) the extensive back-cover blurb. There were a few comments on the photos in the book, but the other 300-odd pages of text were virgin territory as far as the reviewer was concerned.
“Not reviewing” books like this is a fairly widespread phenomenon. It is quite regularly practised in newspapers, where reviews tend to be short and are therefore easy to fake from the blurb and a quick flick through the text. Most (but not all) newspaper reviewers are jobbing journalists, who tend to think of books in terms of “news” rather than as texts to be read and decoded. This also feeds into the newspaper culture that will play up books with “controversial” issues rather than books of literary merit – hence the dominance of topical (and usually ephemeral) non-fiction books in such review pages as most newspapers provide. There is also the fact that remuneration for a newspaper book review is not great, and there is the strong temptation to avoid the many hours of (unpaid) reading that an honest review should entail.
There is another way of avoiding reviewing books. I note with alarm the tendency of many magazines and newspapers to substitute celebrity interviews with authors for real criticism. I suppose interviews with authors can reveal some important things about a new book, but it must be understood that, no matter how illustrious or worthy of note the author is, such interviews are (like the appearances of authors at literary festivals) always exercises in self-advertisement. They are not reviews and they are not real critcism. They always partake of the “intentional fallacy”, for while an author might be good at telling us about what he or she MEANT to achieve, this is by no means that same as what he or she actually DID achieve in writing a particular book. A newspaper or magazine may think that it has “covered” a new book by running such an interview. But unless a real review of the author’s new book also appears, such interviews are simply a means of filling column space.
All of this implies the question of what I regard as an acceptable book review. The most basic requirement is, of course, that the reviewer has really read from cover to cover the book under review. The only exceptions I would make to this rule would be for encyclopedic publications, anthologies or reference books, where the reviewer is always implicitly giving readers a “taste” of the contents. Further (apart from said reference books) the reviewer should be able to provide in the review evidence that he or she has read the whole book. This should come in the form of quotations, specific citations of plot points or ideas raised in the text and so forth. Only when the reader has such assurance that the reviewer has actually read the book should the reviewer venture on to make his or her assessment.
I appreciate that this may sound like the formula for plodding “summaries” of books. A review should certainly be more than that, but I would much prefer a plodding “summary”, which would at least give me factual information about the book, to a dishonest non-review.
In writing all this, I am aware that I could be charged with hypocrisy. After all, I am a regular newspaper and magazine reviewer. I often (as rquired by the publications for which I write) turn out reviews that are brief and constrained to give little information because there is not enough space in which to give it. I am sure that over the years I have written many reviews that are glib, wrong-headed, poorly-conceived and off the mark. But at the very least I can say that I have never written a book review without first reading all of the book. When, in the case of some anthologies, encyclopedic publications or reference books, I have not read all of the publication under review, I have clearly said so in my review.
Part of my reason for setting up this blog in the first place was to provide reviews of greater length than can be provided in a newspaper or in most magazines – reviews in which, by my own rules, I am constrained to give you much factual information. In the “Something New” section of this blog, even my shorter reviews are longer and more detailed than reviews of the same books are in newspapers and most magazzines. [Exception – when I review together two or three new collections of poetry, I deal with some volumes very briefly; but then poetry is hardly noticed at all in newspapers so even there I am giving more notice than a newspaper would].
There is the danger, which has been pointed out to me, that some lazier newspaper “reviewers” use this blog, and other sites containing genuine reviews, as a “source” for their own “reviews” rather than doing the hard work of actually reading the books that have been assigned to them. I am aware of this danger, but still think it is a necessary service to provide real reviews in a media-world awash with fake ones.

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I must finish on something cheerful. In the week that I am writing this, the winners of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards were announced. I heartily endorse the judges’ choice of the year’s best book of poetry, Vincent O’Sullivan’s Us, Then. You can find my review of it on this blog via the index at right. The winner of the fiction category was, in a very good field, almost a foregone conclusion, being Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. My detailed review of it, written before the novel was long-listed for the Booker, let alone the winner, appears at pp.168-172 of Landfall issue #226.
I have not read the biography which won the Book of the Year Award but then, as you know, I do not comment on books I have not read.


  1. I wonder how many MPs and members of the National Party read Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics before consigning it to the garbage bin?

  2. Of course other reviewers will use your blog as source material. The difficulty is not in reading the book but in formulating opinions about the book and providing evidence for why those opinions have been formed. Your reviews are far longer than a typical printed review. There's plenty that could be borrowed without anyone noticing.

    This isn't restricted to reviews. A few times in the dry world of my academic field, I have read sections of research articles that sounded familiar. A quick google search has confirmed that they have been borrowed virtually verbatim from other sources, including myself. It does not upset me. I get an odd satisfaction that someone can't express what I have said in a better way.

  3. I appreciate longer reviews, especially of non-fiction,as found in publications dedicated to reviews, even if they are extended summaries of the book's content rather than comment. They can prove informative and point the reader to something they may not necessarily want immediately but could need at a later date. I share your concern that many reviews, so called, are really promotional blurbs for the author.