Everybody wants to go to heaven, as they say, but nobody wants to die. So it is in the world of book reviewing. Everyone is in favour of frank and fearless criticism, up to the point where a work of theirs might come off the worse for it.
It was, arguably, ever thus. But the books pages of Australian newspapers and magazines have become such a wasteland that traditional timidities no longer suffice as a satisfactory explanation. Sections that should contain some of a publication’s sharpest, shrewdest, most incisive and irreverent writing have become hodgepodges of conventional wisdom and middlebrow advertorial.
Newspapers bear some blame for this. Although you’d imagine that anything contributing to an informed and discriminating print culture would be advantageous to them, newspapers publish books pages with a grudging air, regarding them as a financial burden because they attract little advertising support.
Reviewers, by extension, are the lowliest of contributors. Some newspapers and magazines in Australia have ceased paying for reviews at all, believing that the thrill of a free book alone will summon the definitive notice. Others are winnowing costs away by on-selling reviews to sister publications, buying reviews from overseas (usually of books three people in the country might read) or using staff journalists (generally, whether out of incompetence or envy, the dopiest reviewers of all).
Then there is the popular institution of the capsule review, one hundred words or less, executed for beer money, and there to convey the illusion of comprehensiveness by breaking up the page, one superficial but reverberating assertion at a time.
In his classic essay ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, a touchstone for every ‘down-trodden, nerve-wracked creature’ who has toiled in the craft, George Orwell opined that one thousand words was the ‘bare minimum’ for a review of consequence, and that the ‘standard middle-length review of about 600 words’ was ‘bound to be worthless’. Yet in newspapers today, six hundred words constitutes a veritable meander.
It’s no wonder, then, that there’s little incentive for sticking one’s neck out, for actually taking a position, for arguing that a book is bad, or sloppy, or stupid, or two or three iterations short of finished – an affliction staggeringly common among Australian books. Who needs the aggravation?
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.
Yet there’s much less of this last phenomenon – both the time-tested revenge fanging and the newfangled pre-emptive fanging of the sort recently perpetrated in The Monthly – than is commonly imagined. The besetting sin of Australian book reviewing, curious in an age in which newspapers are chock-full of try-hard humourists and blow-hard opinionistas, is its sheer dullness and inexpertise.
A successful review has two qualities. First, it is a lively and engaging piece of writing. It informs and invigorates. It detains and delights. Yet how often in Australia do you read a book review that is a sparky, spunky, memorable bit of prose? And how many reviewers can you name whose work you would cheerfully read regardless of the book being discussed?
Second, 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 – the Beavis and Butthead world, as the American literary critic Curtis White has put it, in which ‘this sucks, that rocks, this is awesome, and everything is just finally a lot stupid’.
As well as setting standards, a competent review gives context, deepens understanding and clarifies debate. This requires some discernment, some rigour, even some dedication. If you’re reviewing a work of fiction, it might be expedient to have read, or if not, to read, the author’s earlier publications; if you’re critiquing a work of non-fiction, it will require an acquaintance with the subject in question, even if it is a general one. Whatever the case, reviewing is a discipline, a form of argument demanding logic and evidence as well as ‘taste’ and ‘opinion’. And it is a discipline in barely acknowledged decline.
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 reinforces the everyone-has-won-and-all-must-have-prizes racket of festivals, fellowships and grants. It makes our culture a cosy, matey, happy, heavenly place, while reminding us of Mark Twain’s dictum: ‘You go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.’