Column Inches, then How to Review a Book at #AWF16

I’m suffering a little bit from review-ception (reviewing the reviewer who reviews reviewing…) so please bear with me as I try to stop analysing the fact that, in the act of typing, I’m creating digital content for free and thus participating in the democratisation of information and/or helping destroy the essential watchdog function that the media performs in civil society. And doing this, while also giving a knee-jerk reaction to book-related events that occurred earlier today and thus possibly not making best use of my critical judgement, while also both publishing on and absorbing information from Twitter, that scourge of reasoned debate, that echo chamber of the chattering elite, that reason-we-have-that-dreadful-Trump!

With all of these topics in the spotlight of my brain, it’s very difficult to actually write anything down. Somebody famous (maybe I should google it, being a digital native and all) said that all writing is political, and, having just reveled in the wonderful Spirit House, Foreign Soil event with Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba-Clarke, I’m particularly conscious that I’m a Pakeha critic participating in a literary festival that is attended overwhelmingly by white, middle-aged women. As Avia said, we’re in the biggest Polynesian city in the world, yet just look around the room.

Let me try to rein myself in a bit. As ex-NZ Herald chief Tim Murphy (@tmurphyNZ) asked, is opinion drowning out the news? Presumably what you want is the facts of today’s sessions: except, do you? David Fisher (senior reporter at the NZ Herald) says there’s a board in the Herald newsroom with live metrics from the Herald website. “There’s a massive upswing between 9am and 5pm with an average engagement of 30 seconds.” He attributes this to readers wanting a “brain-break” during the working day. They’re mostly following the more clickbait-y headlines – sorry, “the content readers appreciate” – for lots of coverage of The Bachelor etc. In the evening, though, that’s when the long-form pieces of journalism are published, because that’s when they’re read. The lesson, said Fisher, is that people want entertainment when they’re on their boss’s time and something more in-depth on their own. So I guess it partly depends what time of day you’re reading this, as to whether you want the bare facts of who said what at the festival, the salacious detail (at the book reviewing workshop, David Eggleton said the NZ Listener is a shadow of its former self! – you’ll never believe what happened next!), or an in-depth critical evaluation. Perhaps Tweet me and let me know?!

Column Inches was my first session today. The Limelight room was packed out – people standing at the back – to hear Murphy and Fisher discuss the current state of NZ journalism with ex-journo  Janet Wilson and political blogger Giovanni Tiso. Grateful thanks to the festival usher who, impressed by my yellow Booksellers NZ media pass, placed me at one of the tables in the front with the festival patrons. This must be how famous people feel!

It was an interesting session, not least because the mood of (most of) the panel seemed to be at odds with that of (most of) the crowd. The crowd seemed to be in a proper isn’t-it-dreadful, finger-wagging, hand-wringing state. The decline of newspapers! The rubbish on the internet! The death of proper journalism! The youths with their Facebooks and their smartphones, and so on. It reminded me of The State of America session yesterday, when we came not to explain Trump but to deride him.

Wilson was going for the populist vote, as it were, by pandering to this element of the audience. “Opinion is drowning out journalism because it’s cheap and easy to produce … what we’re getting now is opinionist fact … the merger [of Fairfax and NZME] is happening because neither organisation has tried hard enough … no one’s actually on Twitter but it still gets reported”. Hear, hear, grumbled the audience. Fisher tried to talk about the ways in which the Herald is using information from website use to inform the ways they publish the news. Wilson hates metrics (a popular comment.) I assume she meant that she understandably hates the idea of the news being driven only by what is popular instead of by what needs to be said, but she came across as being against analysing reader behaviour.

I would have liked to have heard much more from Tiso, Murphy and Fisher about their ideas for the way forward. The time for wishing people would buy newspapers is past. The time for creative solutions to protect the role of journalism in a democracy is very much here. The idea of a tax on broadband to fund investigative journalism was mooted, but the discussion moved swiftly back to Twitter-bashing. I took notes on my laptop, Twitter defiantly open in a browser window next door. I sent several Tweets about the session. That’ll show them.

Time for a quick coffee and a chat with fellow Booksellers NZ festival blogger Claire Mabey and then I was back in, for a book reviewing workshop run by Ockham award-winning poet David Eggleton. It was a funny old session, neither a lesson (despite the list of Latin words on the whiteboard) nor a lecture nor, really, a workshop. Instead it was a discussion of various aspects of book reviewing: its purposes, ethics, limitations and craft. I found it very interesting, but I gather from the increasingly exasperated questions from fellow attendees (“so, when you’re writing a book review, how do you actually start and what do you actually write?”) that not everyone’s expectations had been met.

Eggleton’s philosophy is that book reviews should strive towards honesty, generosity, and clarity. They should inform and entertain, sure, but the critic should think hard about what level of informing is appropriate, and entertaining the reader should not come at the expense of the book. This prompted an indignant rant from a man in the front row with a rather lovely southern US accent – there’s this woman in the New York Review of Books! And she’s really mean to some authors! And she even includes plot spoilers! It was a magnificent rant and I’m sorry I didn’t take more detailed notes. At one point he definitely used the word “shenanigans” in all seriousness. It’s a shame too that I missed the name of the reviewer because of course I now want to read all her reviews. The appeal of the really passionate hatchet job cannot be denied.

Near the end of the session, Eggleton (left) read us a review he had written sometime in the 90s. It was published in a newspaper (you know, before they died) and reviewed a book of NZ short stories. He read the entire piece aloud and then, well, then reviewed it – at which point the review-ception in my brain reached some kind of critical tipping point.

Eggleton was also very hot on editing one’s own reviews, especially with an eye to removing repetition, so I’ve obediently been reading over what I’ve just written and trying to make sure that the same words don’t appear too many times in a paragraph. I hope I have informed you to the appropriate level and entertained you without disrespecting our community. If you feel really strongly, I’m at @e_heritage on Twitter.

Events attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

2 thoughts on “Column Inches, then How to Review a Book at #AWF16

  1. Pingback: The Diversity Debate: Victor Rodger, Marlon James & Stephanie Johnson at #AWF16 |

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