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

Mark Broatch from the NZ Listener on book reviewing in NZ

Elizabeth Heritage interviewed Mark Broatch, Books and Culture Editor from the NZ Listener, about the state of book reviewing in NZ. This is what he had to say:

Simply put, the books we choose to cover are Listener deputy editor Mark Broachthose that are good and salient. If they are local, so much the better. Because there is so much for a national weekly to cover, we pick the eyes out of what’s on offer in books and culture. We know that the Listener‘s readers – our brilliantly loyal, smart, fussy readers – are fascinated by the big ideas (would anyone else put Thomas Piketty or ISIS on the cover?), and value being part of national and international conversations. Do they care if a book is local? Sometimes.

We love to see NZ authors and publishers doing well. We put Eleanor Catton on the cover ahead of her Man Booker win. We try to cover every substantial local release in some way. We want to sell books. Every week we’ll typically cover about 10 books in some way or other, either interviews, profiles, reviews or, often, upfront feature pieces. That’s 500 books a year. I doubt anyone else comes close.

Listener_book_coversAmong our usual reviews and interviews, we do seven regular roundups: contemporary fiction, speculative, kids & YA, crime, overseas non-fiction, NZ non-fiction and poetry. Still, hundreds of books don’t get covered, sometimes simply because we don’t think they are any good. Having been briefed by most of the local publishers now, I am excited by many of the titles due out this year. Although sometimes we differ on the idea of what’s interesting. Occasionally I’d like to say: perhaps you want to think about that one again? We would like to see like more quality local non-fiction books, especially science. And even given the flood of overseas books I regularly have to ask if a brilliant title I’ve seen elsewhere will make it into the country – a lot don’t.

We have no separate plan for independently published books (i.e. self-published, or published by very small enterprises), and some go out to the roundup reviewers in a form of triage, but often they are let down by substandard writing, editing or production.

The reason we often want first-run or exclusive deals from publishers is because we are in competition for eyeballs and eardrums. If people have read or heard something before and they just turn the page, I have wasted my time and, worse, my employer’s money. That’s Bauer, by the way, a publisher of dozens of magazines, not the other two media groups.

What do I think of local books coverage? Judging from the Friday Preview of Reviews email, it has held up well. Our reviewing culture is surprisingly active, thanks largely to a few dedicated editors and a community of reviewers and writers. You might argue the general coverage elsewhere is wide but thin, and it’s true it could be better, but my view, as someone who has been in the business for 23 years, is that New Zealand has never been able to afford very much of the journalism we really want. As my mother used to say, we have champagne tastes and lemonade money. The internet has brought many gains, but its ability to distract attention and disrupt traditional funding models and deliver digital delights for free has only made life harder for media.

The mainstream media gets no public subsidies. Cultural journalism – as vital for a fully functioning, vibrant society as the current affairs we also run – costs money. Many in the book business talk about supporting local titles, local authors, local publishers, but local print media needs your support too. Subscribe. Advertise. Mention us in social media. Praise when you think we’ve done well, and criticise, constructively, when we haven’t. I am bored by point-scoring. In this job I get advice from every direction: more of this, less of that. But our readers’ needs always come first.

by Mark Broatch, Books and Culture Editor, NZ Listener

Reviewing the Reviewer and Drawing from Life, Sunday 9 March

Reviewing the Reviewer, featuring Terry Castle in conversation with Harry Ricketts

My Writers Week 2014 got off to an excellent start terry_castlewith Reviewing the Reviewer, Terry Castle in conversation with Harry Ricketts. They are both celebrated authors, academics and reviewers; Terry Castle based at Stanford, and Harry Ricketts at VUW. Ricketts also edits the review journal NZ Books, of which there were complimentary copies waiting for us on the seats.

I had gone along to this event purely based on the title: I am a publisher and book reviewer myself, and enjoy hearing others’ thoughts on books, literary criticism, and the place of book reviewing in today’s culture. In the event, neither Castle nor Ricketts spent much time talking about reviewing, but it didn’t matter: just spending time with two such interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, funny people was an immense pleasure. They were both losing their voices – Ricketts apologised for sounding like “a cross between a late Bob Dylan and a third-rate movie gangster” – but had an excellent rapport, so no one minded the odd croak.

the_professorAfter some conversation, Castle read from her latest book, The Professor: A Sentimental Education; a memoir and collection of essays. The excerpt she read was well written, engaging, perceptive and very, very funny – spurred by the opportunity to get her to sign it, I purchased it afterwards at the excellent Unity Books stall upstairs at the Embassy Theatre. To my delight, reading it is like still being in the theatre and listening to Castle tell stories. What a joy to have made a new literary friend.

Drawing from Life, featuring Alison Bechdel in conversation with Moira Clunie

Before today, the only thing I knew about alison_bechdelAlison Bechdel was that she had invented the Bechdel Test (a test to which one subjects a movie: does it have two named female characters? do they have an onscreen conversation about something other than a man? It is horrifying how many films fail). Now, as with many things, it turns out I didn’t ‘know’ this at all: Bechdel says that it comes from a friend of hers who took it from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

It turns out that my small process of unknowing was peculiarly appropriate: interviewed by Alphabet City director Moira Clunie, Bechdel spent a lot of time talking about her desire to pursue truth and facts; and how, in the context of memoir, these become troubled and multi-faceted. Bechdel is a celebrated cartoonist, author of the long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For and the autobiographical graphic novels about her parents, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? (also available from the Unity Books stall), the latter of which has been made into an off-Broadway musical.

As I listened to Bechdel talk, I was struck by intriguing contradictions: she said she felt naked and vulnerable being onstage without any of her artwork there “to hide behind”, yet her published work is intimately autobiographical. She spoke repeatedly of her need to tell the truth, and fear of lying, yet said she wanted to move away from using digital cameras and image research in her work because they make it too realistic and detailed. She described herself as shy and also as an exhibitionist. She spoke about how language and appearances can be deceiving, yet one can arrive at the truth by “‘triangulating” them. Overall I found her a fascinating presence.

I came away from the Embassy Theatre today with my head in that pleasurable buzz that only comes from new ideas. Bring on more Writers Week events tomorrow!

by Elizabeth Heritage, blogging on behalf of Booksellers NZ.


While Terry Castle is doing another event tomorrow afternoon at 3pm – High Tea with Terry Castle, unfortunately this is all sold out. As Elizabeth suggests – perhaps try the book!