To review or not to review

kyd_cover_fcaWhen Gideon Haigh wrote about the demise of literary reviewing in ‘Feeding the hand that bites’ last year, he was unforgiving:

What is perhaps just as troubling as the lacklustre infomerciality of so much Australian reviewing – gushing over the latest vogue, avoiding anything that cannot readily be pigeonholed – is that the situation suits so many vested interests in Australia’s small, snobbish, fashion-conscious, self-celebrating literary scene. It veils the publishing industry’s lazy, parsimonious, hidebound practices.

It was harsh, although not entirely unwarranted. Amongst other things, the argument accuses writers of writing the kind of reviews they themselves would like to receive one day (should they ever make it past the point in their careers where they are writing reviews as a means to build their brand).

But it failed to take into account the damage a bad book review can do to a writer in a small publishing industry. It also failed to take into account the genuine and very human element (for better or worse) behind a decision to be kind to a book by a new Australian writer in order to achieve a greater good.

Last week’s Tuesday Night Book Club on the ABC saw a discussion of Favel Parrett’s Past the shadows that touched on these difficulties:

MARIEKE HARDY: I think ‘fine’ is the word for it, for me. It is a fine book. I don’t mean fine in a tepid sense. It’s just a fine, solid book. I find it very difficult on here, I think, when it’s first-time Australian authors, I feel a bit stymied. I wouldn’t tear this apart anyway, because I do think it’s a fine book, but I did worry that even if I hated it, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable coming on here and being as, you know, robust about it.


JASON STEGER: A book is out there, a book is published, and people talk about books. So there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t talk about a first novel.

JENNIFER BYRNE: Even if it’s not good, it’s tough, but you’ve just got to say it.

MARIEKE HARDY: I feel stymied.


JASON STEGER: We all read books and have different responses to them.

MARIEKE HARDY: I agree with that. It makes me feel a little bit that both hands are tied up behind my back.

CHRIS WOMERSLEY: So you wouldn’t go the hack?

MARIEKE HARDY: Not on a first-time Australian author. […] I would say if I didn’t like it. I did think it was fine. I didn’t love it. I don’t feel as moved. […] I didn’t cry on a plane or anywhere else. I felt, a little bit pedestrian. I felt, you know, it was a fine book. But it’s not one that I would rush out to give to other people. I even feel terrible saying that.

JENNIFER BYRNE: No, it’s alright! You’re allowed!

But are reviewers allowed, knowing what they know about the impact of a bad review, and knowing what they know about reviews being one of very few ways to garner publicity for a new writer in a small publishing industry and a soft retail market?

Marieke Hardy knows the impact her words have; she knows that the show guides readers and influences sales. Just because she, as one single reader in a country of readers, happens to be unexcited about a book, does that mean she should pass comment that will have a negative effect on the success of that book and ultimately on the success of that writer’s career?

To answer, I return to Haigh’s opening argument: ‘a competent book review should be a form of inquiry into what makes good books good – an inquiry with, as unfashionable as it sounds, the courage of its elitism. Without a benchmark of what constitutes excellent writing, scrupulous research and intelligent discussion, a reviewer is locked into a world in which “liking” and “not liking” are the only options.’

I agree, but I worry about the eggs along the way that will be broken to make that omelette. Can we manage to move to a stronger, more robust reviewing culture knowing that there will be sacrifices along the way? If we have a culture where reviews are not PR tools but are in fact launching pads for discussion, then we get to a place where involvement and interest in that discussion encourages readers to seek out these books with a desire to make up their own mind. But as we’re making that shift, we have to accept that there will be bad reviews, and that those bad reviews will still be acting as PR tools, and that reviewers will be actively participating in driving down sales and discouraging engagement with such books.

I wouldn’t want to be releasing a book today, knowing the battle faced by reviewers seeking more than what Haigh terms ‘beer money’. Reviewers often review because it’s a way to be a part of the literary world. They write because they love to write, but beer money doesn’t pay the bills. Yet, if they can help to grow a small Australian publishing industry that supports the publication of new writers (by ensuring works are given some air time among the big names), and encourages readers to read stories written by Australian writers, then they are at least doing some good.

Still, if we want to get to a culture where considered and well written criticism is a help rather than a hindrance, we need to toughen up – reviewers, publishers and authors alike.

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  1. All very interesting questions, and something I’ve grappled with a lot.
    Isn’t the problem partly that writing has increasingly become less a mode of communication and more a form of self-expression, so that critical review is then seen not as a response to the ideas that the work conveys but a judgement on the writer?
    If that’s the case, we’re dealing with a phenomenon that is, to some extent at least, objective. The meaning of literature, that sense of a book as first and foremost an expression of its author’s inner essence, has actually changed, as literature has become less important to the culture, so that the idea of a ‘writer’ matters more than writing itself.
    That’s why I think that calls for reviewers to be tougher or more honest, while understandable, are somewhat missing the point, since the problem’s deeper than that.

  2. Harshness or enthusiasm I think are beside the point. Naturally, however, you imagine judgement that something is good to correlate to enthusiasm and something that is bad to harshness. My problem with reviewing is that it considers its denouement in either of these categories, and not in a critical or conceptual production. Not enough reviews pursue the basic importance of a review: to present an account.

    I think the attitude that new authors be treated in an uncritical way cowardly and unproductive. I think such an attitude is the most unproductive for the writer being reviewed. If a number of people read the review of a new writer and notice a general caution towards them, such a review could perhaps be more damaging to that writer’s subsequent public status than a scathing one; the very meaning of the review would be called into question. Moreover, if no one reviews that person because they don’t want to criticise them, then that person receives no reviews at all! Hence the general lack of seriousness brought towards debut poets, the poet outside of a major literary or national discourse, or the poem in magazine or periodical (rather than the career book), for example.

    I think “launching pad of discussion” is a wonderful way of phrasing the ideal, which shouldn’t really be an ideal, should it. Isn’t that a basic assumption a reader has of a review, that they enter into the beginning of a discussion of a subject being reviewed? I think the general disregard for the intellectual value of reviewing means less pay or interest in reviews, meaning a general dumbing down of the specificity and discussions of reviews in mainstream magazines and newspapers, which in turn makes for fewer readers, fewer dollars, and the emergence of the despicable place we find ourselves in book reviewing in the mainstream (I repeat this term ‘mainstream’ because I think literary journals in print and online continue to hold the torch for the intellectual value of the review, and its nature as the first port of call for critical accounts of new books, though they provide no answer to improving the dollar value paid for such pursuits).

    When I read a review, I’m not sure about you, but the last thing I’m looking for is the judgement of whether the book is good or bad. Perhaps this limits me to the reviewing of literature, since there is a lot more popular fiction published than what might be called literature you imagine the value of giving your reader a break in their own seeking out of new books with a review might have some value. Certainly for the reading of poetry I think there is little value to such a review. As I said earlier, I read reviews as a first, shorter critical treatment of a new book before professors take their time to develop a longer critical account, and as a presentation or account of a new book. Reviews should perhaps enjoy the freedom they have to not be tied to a literary journal’s specificity of criteria, or a book of criticism’s treatise, instead they can entertain a casual lack of formality that might entertain an exuberance and an energy. Matt Hall’s review of Michael Farrell’s thempark here: http://jeremybalius.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/black-rider-lines-a-language-we-will-always-remember/, and Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle’s review of Ariana Reines’ poem THE MICKEY ROURKE OF POETRY here: http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=1679#more-1679 are examples of how reviewing can be an absolute riot, but to my mind they harbour in their madnesses critical significances far superior to the template of “good” and “bad”.

  3. I always suspected that it had much to with authority. We have long accepted that a writer no longer has the same sort of authority we (as a society) once attributed to them.

    I think the reader is more inclined to make a judgement about the work (as opposed to the writer) than perhaps they used to. But a reader is not a reviewer – I think that the reader still assumes that the reviewer knows more than they do, and so will accept any judgment of either the work or the writer that the reviewer makes.

    Readers (over coffee, in book groups, in blogs) are happy to discuss books and ideas and the way sentences are formed and what rules are being broken and remade, and are happy to discuss it in a way that relates to how they feel and how they respond emotionally to it.

    Taking your point Jeff, perhaps the reader is doing what the reviewer can’t – and perhaps what the reader is doing is more in line with literature’s new role as a form of self-expression?

    I may have tangled up those thoughts, I’m not sure that I’ve managed to express myself clearly – I apologise. I hope no one is reviewing this..!

  4. Yes, this is a very interesting issue.

    In reviewing poetry, neither partisanship nor nurturing protectivism is likely to kill book sales. This places the reviewer of poetry books in the unique position of being able to provide an authentic critical view.

    Also, there is often a mismatch between the ‘wayward, diverse’ poetic art and the critical apparatus applied. I suggest that more inclusive critical resources are needed, shunning neither Leavis nor street press.

  5. Is there an actual lack of negative reviews? I seem to read them frequently…so I’m not convinced that a true unwillingness to be critical (as in judgmental) exists. We live in a time in which both information and entertainment are abundant; more individual titles are published in a year that a human being could read in a lifetime. With the death of a unitary discourse about writing (and the disappearance of anything like a canon of contemporary lit), criticism becomes fragmented by genre, nationality and level of specialization (customer reviews, blogs, professional critics who write for a mainstream audience, and professional critics in the academy); the fragments don’t speak to each other as often as one might hope. Reviews are commercial tools in an overabundant market trying desperately to speak to an increasingly fractured public…and it seems to me that these (and other) material realities explain its increasingly explicit commercialization (though it’s always been a commercial form). Perhaps this is not a sign that we need to re-assert an older conception of the review, but rather a signal that we need new forms?

    • Hi Emmett, I did have a quick rummage around and had trouble finding less-than-glowing reviews for first-time Australian fiction writers, but may well not have been looking broadly enough. I’d be interested to see some, if you could direct me towards them. I suppose my point (which may not have been clear) was about the damage that might be done by a negative review to an unesatablised local (rather than, say, a negative review of a Booker prize winner.

  6. As you can see, new forms are exactly what I’m advocating, and it seems you’re very much in support of advancing reviews participation in discussion, as Louise mentions. “The fragments don’t speak to each other as often as one might hope.” Precisely. But Emmett, don’t you find much of the smaller reviews, say, in The Age, for example, seem almost afraid to offer “a reading”? As I said before, I don’t so much blame the reviewers, who seem to be doing it tough, but the prevailing notion of the context, that one’s object in reviewing is either to advocate or dispute something’s value. Of course, I see this always figuring to some degree, the problem for me is this be the only objective of many reviews. Marieke Hardy’s avowed caution towards being critical of new authors seems to me a symptom of this same assumption.

  7. I’m coming from a different perspective in that I think reviews are essentially a form of consumer recommendation, and I can see a great deal of value in the thumbnail review (rather than rehash an argument, I’ve written about it here: http://emmettstinson.blogspot.com/2010/09/literary-links-reviewing-reviewers.html). So, in a sense, I’m not sure if reviews are the best place to take the pulse of literary discourse (and there are still great reviewing outlets, like the LRB, which review in broad and deep context). That being said, I agree that ‘judgment’ is itself a bad indicator of lit. discourse and that the most interesting lit writing is happening online. But there’s also a further problem: this discourse reflects the increasing fragmentation of the public sphere, rather than being a solution to such fragmentation (assuming one sees the widening space of cultural ‘niches’ as a problem).

  8. Pingback: Mixed Bag of Literary News | Website of Megan Burke

  9. I recommend Megan’s Link about decoding book reviews. It’s hilarious. An example –
    beautifully wrought: people are compared to clouds; clouds are compared to birds.

  10. I’ve thought a lot about this topic, too, specifically in relation to poetry reviews.

    Aside from some inevitable hurt feelings that a bad review on a first book will cause, I don’t get what the big deal really is. Like, enough entities including the publisher/PR/advertisers/bookshops will leap to the defense of the book/writer/poet and continue pushing for sales, that one critical review seems unlikely to have any impact on whether or not people read the book. And if one bad review puts a writer off ever producing work again, frankly, they were probably a one-hit wonder to begin with.

    Sure, you want to be supportive of new writers, but patronising them seems counterproductive. Why not hold a new writer up to the same standard as everyone else?

    If you are someone like Marieke Hardy who, for whatever reason, people actually listen to… then sugarcoating your reviews of bad books will eventually cause those people to stop listening. Won’t it? And then admitting to doing so just says that you only really care about not being hated.

  11. Tara, you’ve summed up the dilemmas of reviewing really well.

    I wonder if in the small literary circle that is Melbourne or Sydney or even Australia, that it’s also important to consider how the reviewer’s relationship with the writer, the publishing house, the agent and so forth might influence the review.

    I take much less notice of reviews appearing in mainstream media than those published in literary journals where reviews are often much more thoughtful and courageous. And while a good review might encourage me to purchase a book, a bad review rarely puts me off.

  12. I hadn’t really thought about this before – my views on criticism in art are shaped by my experience in visual arts. In this respect I feel that there is not as much at stake, no one really takes too much notice and it’s not the end of the world if you get a negative review (in visual arts that is). So I’m glad I read your post because it’s really made me think. I’ve always liked Marieke Hardy and very much respect her view in this issue. I think it shows empathy on her part. I also think that different people like different things, though I recognise craftsmanship and good work, I think in the creative arts it’s difficult to say that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do things. For myself I really shy away from expressing a negative view about art, other than my own, b/c I tend to think that some people will like some things and not others and if it’s not to my taste that doesn’t make it worthless. I wonder if it takes a few years and a bit of hindsight to ascertain whether or not something or someone (whether it be writing or painting) is great or crap.

    Perhaps for first timers it is best to err on the side of encouragement and save the tougher criticism for those with some runs on the board.

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