Pass The Hatchet, Please

by Alan Skinner After a career that has spanned threecontinents and has included television, theatre, freelance writing, corporate consultancy and even a decade as a senior executive in one of the world’sleading banks, Alan Skinner has now dedicated his efforts to writing full-time. Todate, he has three novels, a children’s picture-storybook and a play, Daisy Chain (which premiered inMelbourne in 2010) to his credit. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he wasalso co-inventor, designer and producer of Cinematique,a film-based board game launched in 2006. 23.07.2015

Bernard Shaw once observed that a biography tells more about the biographer than the subject. While there is some truth to this, the poor Fabian playwright-essayist-critic-troublemaker was obviously still recovering from the shock of reading Frank Harris's autobiography written under the guise of a biography of one Mr George Bernard Shaw. Nonetheless, what truth there is in the statement could also well apply to reviewers. Unfortunately, we are rarely interested in the life and opinions of the reviewer, unless they have reached some level of celebrity status, or, better still, notoriety. And as there are few Addison de Witts (or Kenneth Tynans if you prefer to be rooted in reality) prowling around the bookshelves or in the foyers of our theatres, we find the presence of the reviewer something of an intrusion.

It's probably an easy claim to make because it's never happened to me but recently I found myself envying Michael Cunningham. If the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the author whose book, By Nightfall, was the grindstone on which Adam Mars-Jones sharpened his tools of the trade enough to win the Hatchet Job of the Year award. At least, I reflected, Mr Cunningham had his book reviewed by someone who was good at his job, someone who cared, someone who gave Mr Cunningham food for thought, at least; someone who wasn't lazy. And someone whose personal presence in the review is usually not unwelcome.

Now, I know that the accepted wisdom for an author is not to engage in a dispute with reviewers; the prospect of coming out of the exchange unscathed and with one's dignity intact are rather slight. But what happens when one has a bone to pick with a reviewer who has given one's book a favourable review? Does the same wisdom still hold?

Which is what happened to me fairly recently. My book, Brimstone did receive a favourable review that roused in me a good deal of anger and a considerable sense of injustice. In all likelihood, though, I would have let my indignation simmer until it vaporised had I not read a subsequent article in The Guardianin which Mr Mars-Jones declared,

 ‘The only "bad" review in my book is one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf.’

Soggy. The word struck a chord with me and revived my ire at the review I had received. When I first read the review that had made me angry, the word that leapt to mind was ‘lazy’ but soggy suits the review perfectly: inert, uninteresting and, like a sponge, without much substance except what it could suck up from what lay around it.

As I pointed out, the review did not contain any unfavourable remarks about the book. In fact, it concluded by proclaiming,

‘A worthy read, perfect for the young adult, fantasy loving set; true devotees will anxiously await the next installment in this original series.’

True, it’s pretty vapid but nothing a publisher or an author would take amiss. Nonetheless, I did take it rather amiss.

Like all small publishers (in my case even very small is an aggrandisement) - and self-published authors – I faced the problem of getting attention for my books and getting them professionally reviewed. As one part of my attempt to overcome this, I hit upon the idea of paying to have the book professionally reviewed by Kirkus. They are not, I thought, just anyone. Indeed, they seems to be held in relatively high regard – at least by themselves, judging by their claim to be home to ‘The World’s Toughest Book Critics’. So, I paid my money and duly waited for the review, which did arrive, I have to say, within the promised four weeks.

I read the review and instantly, I became a dissatisfied customer. I had expected 300 words of critical evaluation and commercial assessment. I received a 227 word synopsis and 107 words of anodyne comment. Nothing of value to either author or reader. Certainly for would-be readers, nothing that, in Mars-Jones’s words, indicated whether ‘They're being guided to pleasure or warned against disappointment.’

At this point I faced a dilemma. I felt like a consumer who had been given a shoddy product. As an aggrieved consumer, I considered calling Ralph Nader  to ask him whether he would consider embarking on a crusade against reviewers who provide a defective product. On the other hand, consumerism is the handmaiden of capitalism and to be affronted as a consumer is nothing more than complaining that our thirty pieces of silver do not buy as much as we thought.

Fortunately, though, I was also affronted by something more noble: the failure of one link if the literary value chain. I could, therefore, legitimately complain without compromising any political or social principles. It's always nice to have a moral haven from which to sally forth.

Reviews are part of the organism of creative endeavour. (For the purposes of the rest of this article, I shall limit my references to just literature, rather than resort to finding various terms to describe creative pursuits in general, all of which will be unsatisfactory, being either too all-embracing for some and too miserly in its embrace for others). They have purpose - and, if we are lucky, value - for both author and reader. They are the reader's assayer and the author's sounding board. And the reviewer who acts as neither is letting the side down. Which is precisely the point that prompted this article for the review I received seemed to be neither use nor ornament to anyone.

But then, I found myself questioning whether any of this mattered. Do we need reviewers, at least those of the old-fashioned professional, expert type? Publishing is in a state of transformation. Perhaps writing itself is. The number of titles published each year is staggering and a great number of them are by authors who self-publish. And all of them have the same basic need: to be noticed. And readers, the consumers of this huge grab-bag of literature, naturally want to open the poke and see the pig before they buy.

Mainstream reviewers shun self-published books. They shun most traditionally published books, for that matter, overwhelmed by the volume that lands on their desk and deafened by the voices clamouring for attention. And for the most part, mainstream reviewers come across as the literary equivalent of Choice magazine, rather than wielders of Mars-Jones’s restorative scalpel. I understand why they do so and the pressures that operate on them. It would take a bold and brave literary editor of a mainstream newspaper or magazine to eschew the familiar and seek out the new and unknown. There is no reason to believe that bravery is any more common among Arts editors than among the general public.

Publishers also bombard bloggers and those with the largest following are becoming as difficult to access as reviewers. There are marketing experts waiting to pounce on the self-published authors the moment they appear on Twitter or Facebook, offering expertise noticeably bereft of wisdom, and all offering the same advice and strategy, albeit with the order changed. Amazon reviews have become so devalued that they are more like a show of hands for approval than reviews for guidance.

As the publishing model evolves, perhaps reviewers will become outsourced, fee-for-service providers, along with editors, cover designers and format converters. Will we see CreateView alongside CreateSpace, offering ‘independent’ third-party reviews?  I can only shudder at the consequence if that happens.

Will the web space return us to the days - days a very long time past - when reviews grew from public discussion and response? Are the bloggers and those who comment on their blogs the true reviewers of the future? Have they made traditional reviewing irrelevant, as some claim? It is interesting to note that among the incessant, shrill cries that traditional publishing is dead and that traditional publishers (pejoratively termed legacy publishers, as if they are forlorn burdens from an unenlightened past) are dinosaurs who must adopt a new business model in order to evolve into useful beings, there are few asking whether the reviewing model is equally out-dated.

The glib response is the answer to the questions in the previous paragraphs. That is, that "Yes, book bloggers have made legacy reviewers redundant". It's a glib and superficial response, though, because looking at change and calling it the future is hardly an assessment. We need to understand what that change means and how we should manage it. Mcluhan was right when he claimed that first we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us but the really important part of that is that it is a reiterative process. In order for us to shape the tools to come, we have to manage and understand the tools previously wrought. And what happens when that subsequent shaping is a reversion to a previous state? If print technology gave us linear thinking, has the web, with its complex inter-connectivity, delineated our way of thinking? Is cyber-life a reversion to a cacophonous forum of opinion?

It can seem so. For every one quality book blogger there are hundreds of negligible value, readers with opinions; which is not what defines a reviewer.

It seems to me that we are in greater need of reviewers than ever before. But good ones, who are not just passionate, though often indiscriminate, devourers of a genre or a style; who are not bland and formulaic, afraid to dip more than their toe in the water lest the pool prove too deep. Reviewers need to be informed and opinionated but held accountable for their quality not their opinions. Like writers, reviewers are readers, too. Unlike writers, though, reviewers  have to play to the market. The market creates their purpose. That doesn’t mean they have to pander to it; just be true to their purpose.

I have no idea whether what Kirkus provided to me is of the same standard they provide to others who are compelled to pay either because they are self-published or because they need post-publication attention. I did send an email expressing my disapproval, perhaps in stronger terms than I should have, but no one deigned to reply.  I do know that I would have preferred a hatchet job to lazy praise. We need reviewers but we need them to rise above mediocrity. If Kirkus wants to be in this space, they really need to do better.

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