Self-defence for book reviewers

Good reviewers don’t need editors to fight their battles. Luke Larsson

It is perfectly understandable for an editor to be protective of his own patch, but it is worrying when the editor of a national magazine, which claims to be the leading independent Australian literary review, sees no need to raise the standards of book reviewing in this country.

I refer, of course, to the recent Conversation article by Australian Book Review (ABR) editor Peter Rose. With the grandiloquent title, In Defence of Book Reviewers, Rose proceeded to outline why mine, posited as the rules for book reviewing, had it wrong.

For those coming fresh to the debate, I wrote:

There are exceptions of course, reviewers who understand the complexities of constructing and analysing fiction and non-fiction. It is generally acknowledged, however, that the standard of book reviewing in Australia is poor. Certainly there is no antipodean James Wood.

To which Rose wrote:

What an insult to the countless fine critics in this country who produce artful, learned, responsible critiques. What an underestimation of the intellectual goodwill that sustains our literary culture.

Of course mine was not the first criticism of the general standard of reviewing in Australia. Prize-winning author Gideon Haigh made a more biting assessment of Australian literary reviewing four years ago when he wrote in Kill Your Darlings:

Far easier to summarise the contents, recapitulate the blurb, describe the author’s reputation, or examine the author’s politics in a thinly veiled op-ed – is he or she ‘one of us’? After all, the author might be reviewing us one day, or perhaps already has. In which case, it may, of course, be payback time.

Haigh is also an astute literary critic. Yes, there are many excellent reviewers who do understand the complexities of constructing and analysing fiction and non-fiction. Among those I would place without reservation: Peter Pierce, Christopher Bantick, Geordie Williamson, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Delia Falconer, James Bradley, Robert Dessaix, McKenzie Wark, Tim Flannery, James Ley and Peter Craven.

But the overall standard of reviewing in Australia could be higher, just as the overall standard of political debate in both houses of Federal parliament could be higher, or the overall standard of journalism.

In his article, Rose also took issue with payment.

Again, in summary, I argued:

Book reviewing is not a financially rewarding occupation. Many scholars don’t have the time to spend a day reading a book and then writing an insightful review for A$120.

In Rose’s:

At Australian Book Review (ABR), which I edit, our minimum payment is A$300, and often we pay far more than that.

I acknowledge the ABR has a minimum payment of A$300 for its reviewers and I commend the magazine for that. The better paid our book reviewers are, the higher the quality of reviewing – at least in theory.

A better measure, however, is how much the journal pays per word. If for a considered review of one thousand words, which according to George Orwell is the “bare minimum” for a review of consequence, the ABR pays A$300 then that is little more than 30 cents a word.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian pay their reviewers between 60 and 70 cents a word, although generally for a 600-700 word review. The now defunct Australian Literary Review was the most generous of all, paying its reviewers upwards of a dollar a word.

There is something invigorating for the impecunious writer in breaking through that “dollar a word” barrier.

Of course there are many independent sites that pay nothing at all, and still attract reviewers out of sheer love of books and writing. The Newtown Review of Books, produced entirely by volunteers, does an excellent job. As co-founders Linda Funnell and Jean Bedford state on their website, a strong reviewing culture is important for both writers and readers.

Book reviewing may be declining in terms of space and remuneration in our major newspapers but there are new areas of reviewing – such as the Sydney Review of Books – where literary criticism is flourishing.

We have far too much uninformed opinion at our fingertips and in our media. I would argue that reviewing is, as Haigh asserts, “a form of argument demanding logic and evidence as well as taste and opinion”.

In his dictionary of received ideas, Gustave Flaubert said of critics, “Always "eminent”!, and there are some editors who believe that reviewers are beyond reproach. But Flaubert was writing about idiocies, the kinds of social nonsense uttered by people with a fondness for exclamation marks.

Good reviewers don’t need editors such as Rose to defend them. If our book reviews are informed and intelligent, if they are a pleasure to read, if they provoke in the reader a memorable experience, if they add something worthwhile, or provide an insight or deepen understanding of the text, then the reviewers have done their job admirably.

Readers will trust those reviewers and continue to seek them out. Lazy reviewers, on the other hand, who summarise the story, rehash the blurb and reveal the ending deserve to be held to account.

There is nothing “idle” or “pusillanimous” – (Rose’s words) in my argument around raising the standards of book reviewing in this country. Or, I’d add, wanting to raise the standards of literacy, numeracy and adult education, for that matter.

Informed discussion and debate about books and writing and words is what most authors and readers crave. That’s the business we’re in.

See also:
Here they are: the rules for book reviewing
In defence of book reviewers in Australia
Book reviewing is an art, in its own way
Anonymous book reviews don’t foster our literary culture