Yesterday, the Wheeler Centre published another contribution in the slow-burning, long-running debate about anonymous book reviewing, a debate sparked by the practices of the new Saturday Paper.
None of the previous defences of anonymity seemed at all convincing to me, and this one’s no better. It consists largely of a critic … telling us not to criticise.
Erik can do what he wants. It’s a private company. If you’re not happy with it, start your own paper.
When not scolding the literary community as so many Judgey McJudgersons, our (anonymous) interviewee claims that using initials instead of names counters ‘the growing “I” industry’ – it allows reviewers to detach themselves from their identity.
All well and good, except that the reviewers are, presumably, still selected on the basis of their professional reputation — and so, in that sense, not at all detached from their identity. The real difference is that, with their names not public, they’re shielded from the consequences of their reviews.
If you are a critic, you are condemning or praising a work in which a writer is invariably deeply personally invested. That’s why I think this is an ethical issue. If you’re expecting the author to suck up your assessment of their book, you should be at least exposing yourself to an equivalent scrutiny.
The Wheeler Centre inverviewee tells us to have faith:
I’m just asking that the critics of the format trust that the people behind those initials are being responsible. I know two of the other people, but I don’t know the rest. Continue to interrogate it, sure, but trust that Erik has picked people who are trustworthy. I think if it was all revealed tomorrow, people would be surprised at the breadth of people who he’s chosen.
But that’s the nub of the issue – we have no way of knowing the breadth of people chosen.
Yes, reviewing involves trust but that trust emerges from context. If I haven’t read the book you are discussing (which, with newspaper reviews, will almost necessarily be the case), my confidence that you’re assessing it fairly rests, at least in part, from my experience of your work.
After all, Australian literature (as with any field) contains both geniuses and incorrigible muddleheads. When I see certain bylines on a review page, I feel supremely confident that any book they like I will hate – and vice versa.
That’s what’s wrong with the oft-stated claim that anonymity overcomes the problem of a tiny critical pond. Actually, if critics can hide their identity, it’s far easier for them to pursue secret agendas. If you know the reviewer, you can read their writing with some awareness of its place in the literary ecosystem. Is a particular review an assassination, avenging some slur from the past? Is it a piece of logrolling penned to nudge along the career of some ally or protégé?
Consider this example:
German businessmen … will here find a copious source of instruction and will thank us for having directed their attention to it.
If we saw that newspaper account of a new book entitled Das Kapital, would not our perception change if we knew that the anonymous reviewer was one F Engels, engaged in some surreptitious trolling to drive Marx’s sales along?
Sure, a critical blandness can predominate in a small culture like Australia, with polite praise the default option. If you’re cheerily positive about author X’s novel, you can expect that X will return the favour in due course, just as delivering an honest but scathing review becomes much harder when you’re conscious you’ll run inevitably into the aggrieved author somewhere down the track.
Not surprisingly, discretion often prevails over valour.
But anonymity doesn’t solve this problem so much as capitulate to it. If we think criticism matters, we need to foster courage among critics rather than build them a coward’s castle in which to hide.
Our interviewee suggests that, by worrying so much about reviewing practices, writers are being precious.
But, actually, this is more than simply a literary problem.
The Wheeler Centre interview came out on the same day that Bob Carr launched his new book.
Now, in the course of all his nonsense, Carr did actually raise some serious issues, even if they were well hidden in the corrugations of his abdominal muscles. In particular, his diary referenced the tremendous influence of Zionist pressure groups on Australian politics.
Which meant, of course, that within hours Carr faced the usual smears from the usual enforcers – he was a bigot, he was regurgitating anti-Semitic tropes, etc.
The ugly little episode served as a reminder that in Australia there are real consequences for taking political stances outside a very narrow orthodoxy.
If the Abbott government and its allies understands one thing, it’s how to ridicule and destroy opponents. The ban on public servants tweeting (and the attempt to induce them to inform on each other) represent an obvious instance of a more general policy, in which potential whistleblowers are made only too aware that they will be crushed like bugs.
Depressingly, there’s a tendency on the liberal Left to preemptively capitulate to intimidation, usually by positioning itself as somehow above or beyond the fray. As it happens, the Saturday Paper itself provides a good example: on the one hand, advertising itself in opposition to Murdoch; on the other, claiming to have ‘no agenda’ of its own.
Now, in an era in which the big debates play out far more viciously than ever before, attempts to have your political cake and eat it too simply do not work. Not surprisingly, Murdoch’s winged monkeys immediately launched an assault on the new ‘far Left’ newspaper, paying no attention whatsoever to its claims not to push an agenda.
By refusing to fight, you don’t evade the war. You simply lose it.
That’s why we need a culture where people are prepared to take positions – and then to own those positions publicly. It’s easy to thunder at the world from an anonymous blog or to snark about Abbott or Bolt from a satirical twitter account. But nothing will come of nothing. You can’t build anything anonymously. If we are not prepared to face our opponents openly, how can we expect it of anyone else?
As Julian Assange says, courage is contagious – and so, too, is cowardice.
Wikileaks might seem a long way from the debate about how literature should be reviewed – and, in some ways, it is.
The great political battles will roll on, irrespective of what happens in the books pages. Like so many other cultural tempests in teapots, this will blow over – with most of the population entirely unaware that the argument ever took place.
Yet if we think literature matters, then how we respond to it should matter, too (which is why it’s so strange to read a critic telling everyone to lighten up about criticism).
Of course, we don’t need a book culture based on attention-seeking hatchet jobs, any more than we need one centred on mutual flattery. We need critics who take books seriously enough to write what they think – and then to stand publicly by that assessment.
That’s what worries me most about this debate. If we can’t summon the courage to put our names next to our assessments of novels, how will we ever engage with a society that’s becoming crueler all the time?
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!