In an essay first published in Landfall, novelist PAULA MORRIS considers the perils of reviewing in New Zealand.

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LATE IN 2003, new novels by Fiona Kidman and Peter Wells both received negative reviews in the Listener. Both authors have a significant presence in New Zealand’s literary community. Kidman is Dame Fiona, a past president of PEN and the Book Council, winner of the lifetime achievement award at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Wells has won prizes for his fiction, non-fiction and film-making, and is a co-founder and artistic director of the Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival. Both were unhappy with their reviews. [1]

When the review of Kidman’s book was published in November 2003, she immediately wrote a letter to the editor, initiating a correspondence still muddying the Listener’s letters pages the following February. She alleged that the reviewer, Charlotte Grimshaw, was motivated by revenge: a decade earlier, C.K. Stead, Grimshaw’s father, had a charged public tangle with Kidman and the late Lauris Edmond, and Grimshaw’s criticism, she believed, was informed by loyalty to the family firm.

Wells waited until the May 2004 issue of Landfall to express his outrage in a short essay called “Cheeky Darkies, Homo Bitches and Other Creatures of the Dark Lagoon.” He too saw revenge as the inspiration for his bad review (and also its headline and the “comments picked out in bold type”). A year earlier, he’d received an e-mail from Steve Braunias, then arts and books editor of the Listener, and, finding its content offensive, complained to both the editor and the publisher of the Listener. The publisher apologised, but Braunias did not. The poor notice for Iridescence, Wells believed, was informed by revenge. He suspected that editorial “directives” given by Braunias were acted on by David Eggleton, the reviewer. [2]

Here we have two established authors so traumatised by criticism that they feel driven to public attacks on their reviewers. Two reviewers – both respected writers themselves – are accused of “sticking the knife in through the ribs, [and] turning it round a couple of times with malice,” as Wells characterises Eggleton’s review. And then there’s the Listener, winner of best books pages at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2003 and 2004, accused of deliberately seeking out assassins to wield the knife.[3]

Grimshaw defended herself in print against the allegation of a malicious personal agenda; Eggleton, to date, has not. Meanwhile, on Kidman’s personal web site, and in Wells’ essay, the two authors pointed to more positive reviews of the books in question, as though the same book cannot be admired by one reader and loathed by another without suspicion of agenda-driven skulduggery. Perhaps this is why Gordon McLauchlan has described local reviewing as a “dangerous pastime”, and why Stephen Stratford recently joked that if “you’re ever asked [to be a book award judge], just say no.” [4]

“Isn’t New Zealand’s contemporary literary scene remarkably tame and homogeneous?” asked Lydia Wevers and Mark Williams, in a 2002 essay on New Zealand’s cultural policy, criticising an art scene that fails “to infuriate anyone,” arguing in favour of “valuing differences,” of argument itself. [5] Making art that inspires passionate and sometimes contradictory responses is essential, I believe, if our literary scene is to grow into a lush, inviting garden in which plants of many different varieties – poppies of all heights, perhaps – can flourish. And critical comment that expresses informed opinion and inspires passionate responses in readers, too, is also desirable.

However, if those passionate responses include personal attacks by authors on reviewers and the editors who commission them, they may serve to close down, rather than encourage, debate. What reviewer wants to be accused of “waiting impatiently in the wings” to tear a novel to pieces? What reviewer wants to be accused of being motivated by “one part professional jealousy, one part bitter competitiveness”?[6] What cause is served by excoriating critics who dare to criticise?

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Scraps between authors and their critics make the news everywhere, especially when they get nasty. In July 2004, Dale Peck, a novelist and critic for The New Republic, was having lunch at a small restaurant in the West Village in New York. He was approached by the well-known jazz critic, Stanley Crouch. Crouch introduced himself, shook Peck’s hand, and then slapped him twice across the face, mumbling some vague threats about taking it outside. Peck had denounced Crouch’s first novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, as “a terrible novel, badly conceived, badly executed, and put forward in bad faith,” and Crouch was taking his revenge. [7]

Peck is a shock jock among reviewers, infamous for his attention-grabbing denunciations of highly regarded writers – Jim Crace is “the Betty Crocker of contemporary novelists,” Rick Moody “is the worst writer of his generation” – and the critics who are soft on them. Peck has a growing band of brothers and sisters-in-arms, many nurtured in the anything-goes blog culture, like Choire Sicha of Sicha declared, in The New York Times Book Review, that the publication of Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes “should inspire readers everywhere to rise up and rip one another limbless … and set out to loot and burn Manhattan.” Perhaps Peck, Chicha et al are heeding the call of Rebecca West, who in 1914 wanted “to establish a new and abusive school of criticism” in Britain to help revitalize what she considered a moribund national literature. Or perhaps they’re responding to a the more recent complaint by Walter Kirn, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, that “the sound of much reviewing nowadays is the sound of one hand clapping – of literature gently patting its own back, sometimes in praise and sometimes in reproach, for fear of breaking something.” [8]

West, at any rate, would be happier these days: in Britain there’s “a culture of attack in which people make their name by ferocious reviewing” – according to Hermione Lee, in a former life my long-suffering doctoral thesis supervisor – and the call and response of reviews and affront is well-established. With his review of Peck’s last novel, Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan even managed to offend the hatchet man himself. It’s no surprise that one of Britain’s most well-known literary critics, James Wood, also can be one of its most caustic: Salman Rushdie’s Fury, he says, “exhausts negative superlatives.” [9]

Despite the best efforts of brash bloggers, the critical climate in the US may seem less stormy. But it too is swamped, from time to time, by surges of intra-critical disagreement. Even the supernatural calm of The New York Times Book Review, long criticised for its ponderous plot summaries and circumspect pronouncements, may be disturbed by Sam Tanenhaus, its latest editor-in-chief, who wants more “interesting tension” between books and reviewers.[10]

The reviews of Cosmopolis (Don De Lillo’s 2001 novel) by James Wood and Walter Kirn “crackle with so much casual violence,” lamented the LA Weekly’s John Powers, “that I kept wishing I could say that Cosmopolis is a good book.” In August this year, in The New York Times, Leon Wieseltier called Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint a “scummy little book,” and was instantly criticised by the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout for writing a review “inadequately argued to the point of unseriousness.” [11] This kind of critical fencing is nothing new. After Charles Thomas Samuels denounced Lillian Hellman’s talent and reputation in his 1972 Times review of her Collected Plays, critic Renata Adler was urged by Hellman’s friends to counter-attack with an essay, which in turn was parried by a Samuels-penned defence a few weeks later.

Steven Erlanger, cultural editor of The New York Times, has announced his desire for more attention-seeking squabbles, though he prefers celebrity author-on-author action to critic-on-critic; he’d love “another Mailer/Vidal fight” boosting sales for the paper’s Saturday edition. But in author-on-critic fights, the author always seems to end up the loser. The debate between Samuels and Adler undermined one of Samuels’ key points, that Hellman was an artist not worthy of serious critical debate. However, when Hellman herself responded to criticism, she managed to trash her own reputation more thoroughly than any hostile reviewer. Furious at attacks on her veracity – by Mary McCarthy on television, and Martha Gellhorn in the Paris Review – she pursued a dogged lawsuit against McCarthy that was perceived largely as an attempt to bankrupt her less affluent rival. Norman Mailer, who should have known better, published an article in the Times weighing in on the dispute. He received a personal note from Hellman, declaring their friendship over.[12] A writer “will accept fulsome praise as only his due, but will grizzle and grieve over a hint of imperfection,” warned W. Somerset Maugham. “You can butter him up till you are exhausted, but one word of censure will turn all your butter rancid.” [13]

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Although I’ve somehow accumulated nine years as a university student, and now teach creative writing at a university, I’m neither an academic nor a critic – I’m a fiction writer who reviews books for a general audience. Critic “is a title of honour, heavy with implications of eminence,” alleges British writer Philip Hensher. “If, like me, you feel that your fortnightly effusions do not entitle you to be considered as the heir to the Goncourt brothers, then it is altogether far less embarrassing to settle for ‘book reviewer’.” [14]

I wrote my first book reviews while an undergraduate at the University of Auckland in the early 1980s, for Craccum and Broadsheet; a few slight pieces, commissioned by the late Ted Reynolds, appeared in the New Zealand Herald. Fifteen years or so of real life intervened – years subsumed by university in England, and a career in record marketing that hustled me to New York and pushed reading, writing and eating regular meals into the periphery – before I began reviewing books again, for the Dominion Post (then the Dominion) in 2001, and for the Listener two years later.

In 2003 I reviewed both Songs from the Violet Café and Iridescence for the Dominion Post. Although I had a far more positive response to Kidman’s novel than Charlotte Grimshaw did, I thought the Listener review was a well-constructed argument that reflected an informed close reading of the text. Kidman’s letters to the Listener, to my mind, went beyond coolly pointing out what she perceived to be a conflict of interest, reading instead as the complaint of an aggrieved author for whom old wounds – from previous rough encounters with the Listener and C.K. Stead – will never heal. Kidman conjectured that Grimshaw had been “waiting impatiently in the wings” to review the book, and ultimately accused the Listener of fostering “a climate of fear” in its book pages. [15]

Wells’ response, in a Landfall essay presented as a discussion “into the nature of humour and political correctness” was even more extreme. [16] Its third section focuses on the Listener review of Iridescence, even though the reviewer was not Steve Braunias or Paul Holmes, but David Eggleton, a person unconnected to any perceived homophobic or racist slur.

Although I don’t know David Eggleton personally, I have great respect for him as a reviewer. I’m not alone in this: he’s won book reviewer of the year at the Montana Awards four times, and is a finalist again in 2007. Like Peter Wells, I’m familiar with “directives” from Steve Braunias during his Listener days – usually rude, terse and, as I interpreted them at the time, intended to amuse – but the implication that Braunias gave a revenge-seeking, homophobic directive and that Eggleton acted on it seems an unwarranted attack on both men’s professional and personal integrity.

Walter Kirn is familiar with this kind of reaction to a bad review. “No one who has any stake in the issue will ever believe that a negative review was the work of a lone gunman,” he writes in “Remember When Books Mattered?”, a 2001 essay on the perils of reviewing. “No, there must be a plot. A web of evil.” [17] Wells believes a web of evil ensnared David Eggleton, but much of the criticism of Iridescence he cites was not confined to the Listener review. Eggleton commented on the book’s “carelessness … sloppy editing” and “solecisms.” Wells cites David Larsen’s review in the Herald as an example of a much more positive response with “some quibbles,” but those quibbles were, in fact, “clumsy use of language” and the criticism that the author of Iridescence “tends to use words in ways that don't quite work” – hardly a world away from David Eggleton’s comments. That David Larsen liked the book overall, declaring it “one of the most important books of the year,” while David Eggleton did not may be attributed to a homophobic editorial directive from the Listener – a possibility I might be more inclined to accept if I had not read and reviewed Iridescence myself and had similar complaints, finding the prose “often purple and frequently careless.” [18]

Wells had vindication at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, where Iridescence was one of the two runners-up in the fiction section – one of the year’s top three novels, just as David Eggleton was one of the year’s top three reviewers. The Montana judges found the book’s “shamelessly florid” style to be a virtue and called Iridescence “like something Charles Dickens might have written, had he been gay.” [19] And although earlier this year Fiona Kidman, on her web site, dismissed the Listener books pages as “generally discredited,” Steve Braunias also had vindication, winning best review pages for the second year running, despite his recent side-shuffle out of an editorial role.[20]

So one book I reviewed well, Songs from the Violet Café, wasn’t a finalist in the Montana Awards, while another – Elizabeth Smither’s The Sea Between Us – was, and a book to which I gave a mixed review, Iridescence, was a runner-up. Different views and different verdicts: they’re highly desirable, of course, in a vital and lively literary scene. All readers have preferences and prejudices, our strong opinions about writers – which is why Wells can complain that his work “has always been subject to attacks for what is felt to be its excessive … style” but has no compunction about dismissing excessive stylist Martin Amis as someone who is no longer “a good writer.”[21]

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In 2003, more than 17,000 new adult fiction titles were published in the US.[22] “Readers, unable to hack their way through the rain-forest of junk fiction, made cynical by the debased language of hyperbole with which every book is garlanded, give up,” says Rushdie, commenting in 1999, when a mere 5000 titles were dumped on the American public. “They buy a couple of prizewinners a year, perhaps one or two books by writers whose names they recognise, and flee.” This trend of “over-publishing” reflects an “obsession with turnover,” he believes, calling for more “editorial ruthlessness … [and] a return to judgment.” [23]

Because book reviews help bewildered readers sift through an excess of choice, the plans of Sam Tanenhaus to reduce coverage of debut fiction (ostensibly in order to increase the total number of books covered) were met with gloomy predictions of the stillbirth of much new literary fiction which, in the US as in New Zealand, receives little or no advertising and relies on reviews to kick-start sales.

In New Zealand, where 124 local fiction titles were published in 2002, competing not only with local non-fiction but with often higher-profile international fiction and non-fiction, reviews can serve the more specific function of luring readers onto a road less travelled. [23] A reviewer, to paraphrase Mansfield, has the opportunity to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of our own world, because many New Zealand readers don’t read local fiction at all. They need little excuse to bypass the local shelf – the place Wells once described, in a Herald review, as “still an uninspected motel, somewhat guiltily driven past on the way to more glittering diversions” – in favour of the Next Big Thing from anywhere but here.[25]

So when reviewers damn a local title, it can be perceived as an almost unpatriotic act, confirming our low expectations, reinforcing our prejudices against something world famous (or, more likely, still rather obscure) in New Zealand. A damning review may be more than a setback for an individual title; it may plunge another stake into the recumbent form of local literature, already barely breathing. We’re giving readers another excuse to buy something else, and publishers another excuse to publish something else. If we won’t give New Zealand fiction a break, why should they?

Explaining her objections to her Listener review, Kidman has commented that “many writer friends are concerned it seems to be seeking critical reviews for the sake of being critical.” Braunias insisted that “the only advice I occasionally give reviewers is: ‘be honest.’” [26] As a Listener reviewer, I received commissions and correspondence from Braunias for over a year: the most praise I ever received from him was for an enthusiastic review I wrote for a novel by a New Zealand writer. Far from “seeking critical reviews,” he always seemed most concerned that reviews be well-written, free of workman-like journalese. Like Walter Kirn, he appeared to believe that the “best critics needn’t be right, just interesting.” [27]

Local media has “an obligation to reflect local literature as generously as possible in terms of space,” says Guy Somerset, books editor of the Dominion Post. “American, British and Australian papers all do the same. But like them, we do not regard ourselves as an adjunct of the book industry. We are here to serve readers – no one else.” In a letter to the Listener, Kidman insisted that the debate “is not just about ‘bad’ reviews, it’s about the need for a responsible critical environment.” Somerset sees the burden of responsibility in a different way. “The only responsibility of our reviewers is to write honest reviews that are a good read in their own right: intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining. It is the responsibility of writers and publishers to produce books worthy of praise. If they don’t do so, then they deserve the reviews they get, just as readers deserve to know what to avoid.” [28]

German critic Dennis Schenk insists the “notion that ‘we are all in this together,’ that the reading public is a beleaguered small group and that ‘we’ should not waste our energy with squabbles among ourselves, is a sure recipe for cultural entropy.” Somerset agrees. “Local literature,” he says, “will never thrive – either artistically or commercially – if readers are left feeling cheated. Readers will always want to read about their own country and culture, but not exclusively, and not at the expense of quality.” [29]

There’s more cultural cringe, I believe, in assuming lower expectations and standards in local literature than in applying the same critical measures to all new books, regardless of their point of origin. Do we really want to apply less rigour to criticism of New Zealand books, to accept lower standards, to applaud all our writers the way we might praise derivative-but-promising teenagers? Doesn’t this amount to a tacit declaration that we see our own books as products of a still-adolescent literary culture, not yet quite up to adult standards? Egalitarianism should inform social programmes, not book reviews, and books by New Zealand writers are not all equal. In waving through the second-rate with a benign indifference to their shortcomings, we insult our greatest practitioners and send a fuzzy message to readers that all New Zealand books are more or less the same, possibly why some readers think that if you’ve read one – and not enjoyed it – you’ve read them all.

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“A novelist inevitably has a strategic relationship to anyone he writes an essay about,” writes Edmund White in Arts and Letters, a recent collection of his profiles and interviews, noting his luck in being “free to pick and choose” his review and interview subjects – largely writers he regards as “inspiring antecedents” or contemporaries of “the same clan.” [30]

Not all novelists have the opportunity to stick to icons and chums, however, and some, like Dale Peck, prefer their idols fallen, eager to judge other people’s books against the approach they’d take themselves. (At a panel discussion on “bibliocide” at the Chicago Book Expo, Carlin Romano of the Philadelpia Inquirer criticised Peck for attacking books simply because he would have written them differently.)

Peck’s vitriolic grandstanding about books and writers he considers deficient often makes for entertaining reading, and his passion for books and reading is palpable. But the feverish outrage is sometimes too predictable; he’s a wilful misreader, apparently eager for the excuse to swing his hatchet, to demolish pedestals, and even sever his opinions from the text in hand. B. R. Myers, in “A Reader’s Manifesto” in the Atlantic Monthly, makes a more persuasive case against Paul Auster, Don De Lillo and other established names simply by quoting them in revealing detail. “Quotation is the reviewer’s only hard evidence,” says Martin Amis; without it, “criticism is a shop-queue monologue,” because all “writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”[31]

Reviewers who are also authors should not be cowed by another author’s reputation into disingenuous praise. Our duty, said Rebecca West, is to listen “to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner.” We should not be too aware of our place at court, careful to show deference to literary royalty to ensure our rights of succession. “Enough of the clubby stuff!” C.K. Stead demanded in his controversial essay on Lauris Edmond. “It is time to look hard at the words on the page.” [32]

When Guy Somerset became books editor of the Dominion Post, I asked for an opt-out clause: I didn’t want to review fiction by people I know. But despite spending ten months in Wellington (studying creative writing at Victoria, lurking at book launches at Unity, taking part in Maori Literature Week), I’m still on the fringes of things, writing reviews long-distance from the US. In a country and literary community as small as New Zealand’s, it isn’t possible for most local reviewers to be this particular. Writers eddy in ever-decreasing circles, anyway: I had no idea when I reviewed new novels by American writers Thisbe Nissen and Elizabeth McCracken in 2001 that soon I would be a colleague of Nissen’s at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and a student of McCracken’s at the Writers’ Workshop. (ZZ Packer, another Iowa acquaintance, was the person having lunch with Stanley Crouch the day he slapped Dale Peck.)

In his Landfall essay, Wells, who reviews books for the Herald and New Zealand Books, characterises reviews written by New Zealand authors as “nearly always a toxic brew … one part professional jealousy, one part bitter competitiveness, with the addition of a crowing sense of power over someone you can damage.”[33] I would be surprised if anyone who reads David Eggleton’s reviews on a regular basis could accuse him of any of these things, or consider him a likely candidate for “bitter competitiveness” with Wells. (He’s a poet – for god’s sake! – and was a finalist in the 2004 year’s Montana Awards not only as reviewer but in the Lifestyle and Culture category, for his book Ready to Fly: The Story of New Zealand Rock Music.)

I was not motivated by any of the above writing my review of Iridescence. It’s hard to feel jealous and competitive when you’ve only published one novel. It’s particularly hard to feel “a crowing sense of power” over being able to damage Wells when he has much greater mana in the New Zealand literary community than I do, with the ability to damage my career rather more effectively, something I’ll discuss in more detail presently. I approached the book like any novel to be reviewed, whatever the nationality of its author, hoping to be engaged and entertained.

Published authors who review are only too aware of the work a finished book represents, and the demoralisation a bad review can cause. “You lose your taste” for insults, admits Martin Amis, “when you realise how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember.” [34] Getting a negative review for a book to which you’ve dedicated at least two years of your life has little appeal, and writers who have received acclaim for previous books are never going to be thrilled to hear that someone, somewhere, thinks they’ve faltered. (A perverse exception is American writer Jonathan Lethem, who claims that “some of the most interesting, most meaningful reviews I’ve received have been negative ones.”) [35] A poor review for first-time authors arguably may have more dire consequences, because they lack an established audience who will still seek out a book whatever the review.

I don’t interact with New Zealand’s literary world solely as a reviewer, but also as an emerging writer who knows what it’s like to get a dismissive and irritating Listener review. (When explaining the rule about not talking during your own workshop to my students, I tell them that learning to suck it up will be good practice for life as a published author.) Wells may have “publicly stated” that he “wished Iridescence to be seen as a broadstream narrative novel in the tradition of Trollope,” but readers often have quite different ideas, and don’t really care how the author wishes a book to be seen or interpreted.[36] The novel itself is our public statement. Everything else we say is spin.

It’s also as an emerging writer – a supplicant to funding bodies, a name still low on the list for festival panels, reading tours and writing hui – that I find the picture Wells draws of the local scene especially unnerving. In “the small and toxic space of literary New Zealand,” he suggests, “it is by no means necessary for things to be made explicit. A quiet word between friends setting up a situation is much more powerful.” [37]

So when I read that Wells, who confesses being “totally neurotic about reviews,” for whom “the faintest equivocal word becomes the focus of obsession and self-doubt,” responded to the Listener review with “a kind of quiet rage,” I begin to feel somewhat neurotic myself.[38] In 2003, when my review of Iridescence appeared in the Dominion Post, Wells was a member of Creative New Zealand’s literature assessment committee, precisely when I made my first application for funding for new work.

If someone who helps to hand out literary grants and invitations to a major festival – a “gatekeeper” himself, as Wells describes Braunias – sees literary New Zealand as a “small and toxic space,” a literary fledgling like me has to wonder: did a “quiet word between friends” scupper my chance for a grant?[39] (Although my novel Queen of Beauty won best first book at the Montana Awards, I was turned down for funding for my next book.) I’ve written other critical reviews of New Zealand books: who else has been having a “quiet word” with … the Sargeson Trust, perhaps? A story contest judge? Those evil scholarship withholders at AMP? Is this why the last story I submitted to Landfall was rejected, why I was told I was ineligible to submit an essay for the 2004 contest? I don’t believe any of this, by the way: I’ve been lucky and unlucky, won some and lost some. If the paranoia of Wells’ essay is taken to its logical conclusion, we’ll all be flailing in the swell. My career in the record business was by turns fraught and triumphant, subject to the whims of individuals, the politics of corporations, the fickleness of markets, my own talents and shortcomings, my own determination and self-doubt. I don’t see why the writing life should be any less of a bumpy ride.

Discussing the ideas for this essay with Landfall editor Justin Paton, I gave my e-mails the joking subject heading of “literary suicide.” Perhaps my literary honour is irrevocably compromised, anyway, by too much moonlighting as a reviewer: all journalism, rumbled Tolstoy, “is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat.”[40] But having argued that our literary culture needs passionate responses, it seems cowardly not to offer my own. “Without the freedom to offend,” wrote Salman Rushdie, who’s had more than bad reviews to worry about, freedom of expression “ceases to exist.” [41]

From fiction writers and reviewers alike, readers expect something that reveals a lively intelligence at work; they expect language that’s precise and not always predictable, well-expressed ideas, a distinct personality. Our task is to make those words on the page honest and fresh, to join the campaign against clichés of the pen, clichés of the mind, clichés of the heart. Novelists write novels and reviewers write reviews; paranoia and personal attacks stifle both. Good novels have a longer life than bad novels, a longer life than good or bad reviews. We must publish and be damned.

First published in Landfall 208, Spring 2004. Courtesy of the author.