When 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.