Ha! Iain Sharp has just ranted about reviewing books with no holds barred (well perhaps some! I bet some!) on The Spin Off. It is very easy and such fun to take swipes at the world in such a bolshy manner.
And it is very fitting that as a reviewer I am ‘waving at passing trains’ along with Graham Beattie (does Graham actually review books or mostly post reviews BTW?) as I am just back from the Ruapehu Writers Festival. We all had to stop talking whenever trains went by.
Iain’s favourite reviewer in NZ: the ultra toxic Nicholas Reid. Toxic, not just in view of the personal hits he takes at local authors but in his unfailing ability to miss by a universe what the book is doing. You might get seduced by his smart-alec train of thought but if you dig deeper he so often misses the whole point of a book. Gets feet-tied on the small details.What matters is his ego-driven need to demolish and show off. I find his reviewing intellectually and emotionally lazy. I have stopped reading him.
Yes, some reviewers might prefer reviews that show off a smarty-pants wit and the sharp blade of the reviewer. Engagement with what the book is actually trying to do seems less of a priority. Such reviews too often demonstrate downright lazy thinking, soporific thought.
The flip side of a reviewer’s personal attack is when authors take criticism of aspects of their book personally!
Poetry Shelf is my site for reviews these days after Canvas has almost shut down its book pages (although I have just started doing a few for Fairfax, including poetry). My main aim on my blog is to review poetry books I have loved to varying degrees. To refresh the whole business of writing poetry. To explore what a book is doing.
Poetry rarely gets its time in media spotlight these days. I am trying to remedy that. To pick up the big names and scour the shadows for the less known.
At the Ruapehu Festival I got to talk about reviewing books with a number of people.Yes we mourn the paucity of NZ book reviews. Yes we learn to duck the hits and keep them in perspective. And yes, most of us welcome a critical review that engages with what our books are doing.
I have an enormous folder of letters and emails from authors that have thanked me for ‘getting’ their book. Quite extraordinary. I am always quite surprised. It is not my role to ‘get‘ their book in terms of their aims, because I want to articulate my own version of what the book is doing. Authors have thanked me for critical points because I don’t swipe the carpet from beneath their writing feet. That said, this is a small place and at least one author has been deeply offended by a point I have made. It’s a risky business – it can affect friendships.
Like many reviewers I am not afraid to speak out when a book demands it. My Metro review of AUP’s doorstop of a book on NZ Literature reflected my deep misgivings with its content. It failed on so many levels in terms of its grandiose claim, I needed to speak out. I crossed a line with this review and it affected my place in the literary community. Hundreds of people agreed with what I said, but it was my name on the page attracting the toxic flack on social media. I switched off. Got back to what is important.
This was a case of me potentially hurting other editors. I am not proud of that but I wanted to start a significant debate on what NZ literature stands for. What it embraces. Was I a bully? I hope not. Because that is what reviewers like Nicholas slip into. Being a bully. Smart alecs hurt people. Tip some authors over the edge. I loathe this. Half the time these throw-away claims are based on puff and fluff.
Criticism can be astute. It can be negative or positive but it should not get personal.
David Eggleton is a reviewer I admire enormously. His level of engagement with a book is exemplary. I read his review, relish the ideas, and track the book down in some cases.
YES! We need to critique our reviewing landscape because at the moment we are poorly served. Without Poetry Shelf, your visibility of new poetry books would be unbearably diminished. I don’t care that Iain Sharp thinks I get up each day and wave at the passing trains of poetry like some witless female trainspotter.
But I do care that he undermines what some people are doing to make a difference against all odds when publishers, authors, booksellers and media are doing their utmost best to keep our communities of books alive.
Harriet Allen’s approach to reviewing books in NZ was an altogether different kettle of fish.
Fiona Farrell moved us at Ruapehu because she showed heart. Heart attached to life. To ideas. To writing. To books. Who didn’t weep?
Iain has handed us a fiery fun argumentative well-written challenging rant but ultimately we are short-changed.
Where is the heart?
The horizons of this rant are strait-jacked.
Where is the heart of NZ reviewing? The heart of NZ books? The ideas and reviewing terrain that sustain and move us.
I can no longer hear the trains, dear Ohakune.