Cowardice is contagious: on anonymous reviewing

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?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I couldn’t agree with this more. I find the initials irritating and coy. I’m as interested in who is writing as what they say, because I have formed my own judgments about the quality and blind spots of many writers in this space. To me a book review is very much about the encounter between on particular mind and the work. Though a reviewer might reference general standards no reviewer stands in for everyone: they can only ever really talk about the work from their point of view. A point so obvious I’m amazed it needs be said.

  2. All Indigenous song language was written anonymously because if it was written by a mortal man, it would not have been ‘believed’. Australian Poetry is ‘judged’ by where its poet has published, by the poet’s ‘name’ rather than by its ‘content’ – this is true of ‘Overland’ as much as it is true of the Australia Council.
    Anonymous-ness is a canary which measures the level of censorship/silencing/repression of free speech, in a society.

    1. “Australian Poetry is ‘judged’ by where its poet has published, by the poet’s ‘name’ rather than by its ‘content’ – this is true of ‘Overland’ as much as it is true of the Australia Council.”

      Mick, if you’ve ever sat on the Literature Board of the Australia Council you’d know how wrong that statement is. In the three years I was on the Board, grants were ALWAYS given on the basis of the project in question, and NEVER on the name at the top of the page. If you believe otherwise, you’ve been misinformed.

  3. In order to promote his self-published book, Leaves of Grass (1855), Walt Whitman wrote anonymous reviews of the work himself. In one of these anonymous reviews he proclaimed, ‘An American Bard at last!’

    Now regarding your review, there is a glaring contradiction in it, like so many pieces I read in Overland.

    You state:
    ‘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.’

    But then you contradict this by concluding:

    ‘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?’

    Alleviating cruelty in society is a politcal battle. Are you saying book reviewing can do it too?

    Like many pieces I have read in Overland, the ability to write rigorously reasoned and logically tight arguments is lacking, which tends to suggest that perhaps politics is not at all this magazine’s strong point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *