The Art of Reviewing 3

Lucy Sussex, a reviewer for the "Age" newspaper and various other Australian literary magazines, sent through a comment on my previous post about George Turner and the "Art of Reviewing". I thought it would be lost in the Comments section so I asked Lucy if I could elevate to the main weblog. She agreed and her piece follows:

I beg to differ slightly on the late George Turner and his reviewing. I did not know him well -- who did? -- but it was my distinct impression that he got caught in the writer-reviewer bind, or Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By. A writer who is also a critic puts themselves in peril, in that however much your vitriol is directed at the work, the writer reviewed will inevitably take it personally. George's early critical work took no prisoners, and some writers never forgave him. They reviewed him in return with equal asperity -- one, he told me, turned their back on him at their only meeting, a decade after the original review. So he learnt what it felt like...and in the process had his own literary work impugned.

That said, I agree that it is the reviewer's duty to describe the work in such a way that the target market is identified, and that the reader can decide whether to buy the work or not. Separating personal likes and dislikes from this process is well-nigh impossible -- but it can provide a way of deflecting the actual criticism. The work is perhaps not to my tastes, but you might like misery memoirs, serial killers, women getting nailed to floorboards. It's absolutely true, somebody out there buys this crap. And sometimes you have to quote, to give the flavour of the author, or damn them with their own words.

At a recent publisher's party I got into a multi-person discussion about reviewerly ethics. "What ethics?" said a review editor (& writer). An exquisitely frank exchange ensued, where the words "corruption", "promoting his f-buddies" and "culture of pals" were also heard. The question arose of saying in a review what you wouldn't say to the writer's face. Well, ideally politeness or cowardice have no place in reviewing. On the other hand, it is nice to go to parties in a frock rather than a flak jacket.

I thought of a reviewer praised because: "She lives in the country, she doesn't associate with writers, she can say what she likes."

Here are some good rules for reviewing in a small fishpond and surviving.

Jenny Pausacker: Never review your dinner host, or someone whom you've similarly hosted, the relationship is too close.

Lucy adds: Not unless they are really foul cooks, and you never want to eat there ever again. Also make sure they have no access to Polonium.

Anonymous Australian Literary Novelist: Never review anyone writing in your same field and nation (Australian literary novelists).

Lucy's rules: never review friends (but if you must, state your conflict of interest somewhere in the review), or enemies. Also sensitive little plants (not worth the bother) and people you have an editorial relationship with...

Which means, when I opened a recent publication and discovered I'd been reviewed less than glowingly by someone breaking Pausacker's, Anonymous's, and several of Lucy's rules, I vomited.

No exaggeration, I had gastric lurgi on the day. Then I got down to meeting a deadline, writing my review copy for next week. You don't mess with newspapers, so I sat up in bed and typed, with laptop propped against the cat, and the bucket nearby, just in case.

Did the review copy include the rule-breaker's latest work? Oh, poetic justice if it had. No, I stick to the rules. It just means there's one less writer I need to read.

And given how sensitive writers are, that's equally as hurtful as repeating gossip about their sexual attributes, or comparing literary style to a cow with side-pockets.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 20, 2006 2:08 PM.

Australian Literary Podcasts was the previous entry in this blog.

Great Australian Authors #37 - Rolf Boldrewood is the next entry in this blog.

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