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Why are so many New Zealand book reviewers so gutless?

An essay by long-time bad dude Iain Sharp on the state of book reviewing in New Zealand – and the preponderance of witless fucking “round-ups.”

When I met the poet Lauris Edmond for the first time in 1990, she peered hard at me and announced with her trademark directness, “In person you seem quite gentlemanly, but in print you can be very cruel.”

Although she took it squarely on the chin and didn’t bleat on about it, one of the authors to whom I’d been cruel was Lauris herself. I ended a brief critique of her only novel, High Country Weather, with a string of ZZZZs to indicate I’d fallen asleep. Yet the reason she’d asked to meet me was not to slap my face but to invite me to write a column for New Zealand Books, a review-oriented  magazine she was helping to set up. She chose me, I’m pretty sure, because of my mean streak, not in spite of it. Ever pragmatic, she recognised that the best way to ensure there would be some blood in her new venture was by inviting a few smiling assassins, like myself, to join the crew.

It wasn’t because of my insatiable cutthroat tendencies, however, that I agreed. I was just too gentlemanly, when approached in person, to turn Lauris down. “No” is such a rude, unfriendly word. The difficulty I have in saying it has landed me many rotten reviewing jobs over the years: huge, bloated, self-vindicating political memoirs; Harry Potter books; horribly unthrilling so-called thrillers, fat as torpedoes, set aboard painstakingly described nuclear submarines. I really didn’t want to write a column. In fact, I didn’t like the sound of New Zealand Books at all, beginning with its hopelessly unimaginative name. Although Lauris wasn’t a Victoria University academic, I knew that others involved in the magazine were. I thought it likely that in any given issue a preponderance of professors would drone inexorably on.

All of this came back to me recently when Steve Braunias directed my gaze towards to the first of my New Zealand Books opinion pieces (published in March 1991). In particular, he pointed to the sentence near the end where I averred, “Much that is published in New Zealand seems to me tame, dull, lazy, cowardly and predictable.”

Steve didn’t need to say anything, just point, for the obvious question hung heavily in the air. If that’s what I thought of local book reviews in the early 90s – a golden age, in retrospect – what in the holy name of weeping Jesus do I think of them now?

Well, I don’t want to appear ungentlemanly and berating the feebleness of an endangered species smacks of bad taste. It’s like flicking a kakapo off a high ledge.

I called my 1991 column “Stuck in the Middle” as a nod to the old Stealers Wheel tune. Even before Quentin Tarantino made malign use of that song during the ear-lopping sequence of Reservoir Dogs, I thought it had a nightmarish quality. The title no longer works for me, though, as an apt summation of the local reviewing scene. Sure, we’re still stuck, but nowhere near as high as the middle. Mediocrity has become an aspiration — a distant dream.

*

I’ve just thumbed through the book sections of my stacked piles of the Listener and Canvas and had a weary peep at the literary content of Stuff. Dearie me! It’s as if everyone has been dragged through an anger management course, given a shot of lithium and fitted with an electronic necklace that will electrocute them if they dare to say anything out of turn.

In place of criticism, which involves thinking (a risky activity that might lead to electrocution), Canvas and Stuff favour cozy little chats with authors, who are granted free rein to push their new products.

Literary coverage in the Listener is nowadays part of a section called “Books & Culture”. Generally this means pop culture, even if the only vibrant writing in the section, more often than not, is found in dear old Ian Dando’s somewhat psycho classical CD reviews. (“Up them,” he says of composer Frederic Rzewski’s detractors in the issue for March 19. Then he urges us all, “Listen till you die.”)

I have no great beef with the Listener reviewing memoirs from past-their-expiry-date screen hunks, like Burt Reynolds (issue for January 2), and elderly rockers, like Patti Smith (February 6). It’s just that space in the books part of “Books & Culture” is never lavish. Did Reynolds and Smith, whose literary endeavours have had plenty of attention already in other parts of the globe, really merit full-page Listener spreads when many local novels pass unnoticed?  Local historians and scientists can consider themselves lucky if they’re mobbed together in lots of five for a quick pat on the head from the venerable Dale Williams in a non-fiction roundup.

Ah, roundups! Can we, for fuck’s sake, ditch those pointlessly anodyne little reviewettes?

They’re everywhere. Sometimes there’s nothing else. The books coverage in the March 12 issue of Canvas consisted, in its entirety, of a brisk roundup of five children’s picture-books. All five were praised. That seems to be the unbreakable rule with roundups nowadays, whether they’re of thrillers, cookbooks, chick lit, non-fiction or illustrative works for toddlers. Everything must be lauded.

For an excited moment, I thought that in his roundup of fantasy books in January 30 issue of Canvas David Larsen had accused one of the fantasists under his scrutiny of “little intelligence”. But, no, I’d just gone a bit bleary-eyed from trying to read too many Listeners and Canvases in one go. In fact, Larsen was blowing a kiss at Arthur C Clarke Award-winner Tricia Sullivan’s lithe intelligence.

I made a similar mistake with the January 23 issue of Canvas. I was sitting there thinking, “Mmm, the tone’s as remorselessly upbeat as ever, but at least the little summaries are crisper and more informative than usual.” Then I glanced at the top of the page and discovered I wasn’t actually reading a roundup in the books section. I’d strayed into a full-page Whitcoulls advertisement put together by the company’s august head buyer, Joan Mackenzie. Nowadays ads are distinguishable from reviews only by being better written.

*

Authors are vain creatures who spend much time alone and brooding. Because they expect to be praised, they sometimes confuse one flatterer with another. Detractors, however, are recalled with furious precision. Every slur remains etched forever in block capitals on the inside of their skulls. In a small society like New Zealand opportunities for utu abound. How many wars does any reviewer want to take on?

Commenting on that first issue of New Zealand Books for Metro, back in 1991, Stephen Stratford drew attention to how “tame, dull, lazy, cowardly and predictable” I’d been myself by not naming names. At the time that hurt. Thirsting for utu, the slur etched on the inside of my skull, I dreamed of bashing the bejabbers out of Stratford. But he was right. I should have been either less chicken and spilled names or less truthful and pretended in my column everything was hunky-dory.

My reticence was partly due to battle fatigue. By 1991 the less guarded comments in my reviews had already made me a lifelong enemy of Kendrick Smithyman, Louis Johnson, Bill Sewell and a couple of dozen other New Zealand writers. I didn’t need more foes. Partly, too, I was constrained by politeness. I didn’t know in advance who else was going to be in New Zealand Books. I feared I might look a bit deficient in team spirit if I laid waste, however unwittingly, to fellow contributors.

In hindsight, though, they weren’t a bad place to start. In his opening editorial John Mansfield Thomson sounded, as he always did, like an ancient, half-forgotten, former Governor-General addressing a Rotary Club dinner. He was followed by John Roberts presenting a protracted meditation on recent political tomes and Rod Alley not so much examining a new book about the 1990 general election as re-fighting the election itself.

These orotund worthies, ranked at the time among the country’s brightest talents, didn’t lack knowledge, just sparkle and flair. But so did almost all the reviewers of the period. In that first issue of New Zealand Books only Kevin Ireland seemed swayed by any urge to entertain the audience. The most memorable thing in the magazine was a typo that transformed the title of Robert Sullivan’s first poetry collection, Jazz Waiata, to Jazz Waists.

The big problem with naming names in 1991 was that the dullness was so general that singling out individual dullards for punishment seemed unfair. Pretty much everyone was boring, except CK Stead (of course), Ireland and Stratford. And it’s the same today, except the bores have become more sugary — or, since the sweetness is largely artificial, aspartame-laced.

If I feel the same hesitance to name names nowadays as I did back then, it’s because there are too many. we could shoot Bernard Carpinter, fire David Larsen off in a rocket to circle Jupiter and give Dale Williams a pat on the head with a greenstone club, but the other rounders-up are no better. If we euthanize David Hill — the go-to guy for Canvas, the Listener and Stuff — we’ll be left with just a vacuum where he used to be. Ho-hum though James Belfield is, I doubt if he’s all that much ho-er or hum-er  than anyone else. Graham Beattie and Paula Green don’t actually review anything – they just wave nicely at the trains as they go past.

It’s not that all our reviewers are congenitally gutless. It’s just that the smartest and most able ones grasp in a flash the problems of being brave in these close-knit isles and use their courage sparingly. In 2009, when Jolisa Gracewood exposed the plagiarised passages in Witi Ihimaera’s wonky novel The Trowenna Sea, all of us books page editors (I was Metro‘s at the time) tried to spur her on to further intrepid action. We wanted Jolisa, for paltry pay, to mutate into a combination of bloodhound and guard dog, sniffing out literary transgressors and biting their bums. Amiable and courteous by nature, as well as clever, Gracewood wasn’t keen.

*

I wrote my “Stuck in the Middle” column before the internet took off. Excited by the new technology, there was a point in the nineties when I naively thought, “Golly, blogs will change everything! Soon readers everywhere will be blurting out outrageous opinions about every new book.”

Of course, mere possession of an electronic device does not confer on the owner sparkle and flair. What my naive prophecy also overlooked is how all the reasons for cowardice remain the same whether the era’s digital or not and how the financial return for all the effort that goes into blogging is generally zilch. The only local blogger I know of who posts book reviews online with any frequency or any attempt at honesty is my revered friend Nicholas Reid at reidsreader.blogspot.com. I marvel at his masochism.

I had a squint recently at Landfall Review Online because I’d heard rumours that if you dig a bit treasures can be found there. Perhaps the rumours are correct, but, boy, it’s spooky in there — like finding yourself alone in a cemetery that goes on forever. I needed someone to take my hand, tell me there was nothing to be scared of and point out the mausoleums of most historical interest. On my own, I didn’t cope too well. I looked at the home page with its off putting lugubrious headings in a chilly shade of blue: “The Whirlpool of the Deep” (featuring Denys Trussell), “Dark Invading Geist”, “In the Littoral Dark”. I saw there were 77 more pages just like the first. I skedaddled.

Dire as the overall situation is, however, it’s not entirely without hope. We’re not sitting wholly in the littoral dark. The clearest sign of hope is right here at Spinoff, a site that sprang into existence because its founders were as bored with the current journalistic scene as I am.

As for New Zealand Books, I wouldn’t have believed in 1991 that it’d still be chugging along conscientiously 25 years later, but – hallelujah – it is. Indeed, just by persevering while everything around it succumbed to zombie virus, it has become the liveliest show in town (almost). True, an air of somnolent dutifulness has always clung to the magazine and clings still.In the Autumn 2016 issue we have Bryan Gould warbling on about the last general election, instead of John Roberts or Rod Alley — and it’s no improvement. Parts of the magazine are still tedious as hell, but at least it’s an intelligent brand of tedium.  Yes, I was right about the preponderance of professors, but editor Harry Ricketts has stayed true to Lauris Edmond’s original vision by letting a few mavericks in and allowing a bit of kinkiness.

The Summer 2015 issue was a beaut in the latter regard, with CK Stead musing on the sadomasochistic tendencies of Maurice Gee, Martin Edmond pondering “the more arcane customs” practised by Maori warriors in the cliff-side toilets of their hill forts and Dylan Horrocks fondly recalling how cartoonist Bob Brockie depicted David Lange “being pissed on  by a giant bulldog, with his head cut off, naked and (very frequently) in drag”.

Moreover, Matthew Wright was given a quiet corner of the magazine where he could weep over a somnolent and dutiful arse-kicking (“wonderfully nasty”, in Wright’s opinion) that Stevan Eldred-Grigg or someone (Wright didn’t name names) gave him six years earlier and beseech us all to be kinder to one another in future. Let’s not. Reading is one of life’s great pleasures. Talking about books should be enjoyable too, but it will never be while we’re all talking tactfully through our rear ends.

The best assurance that Wright won’t get his way and usher in an even blander and more saccharine Age of the Timid is for reviewers and review editors to give us more honesty, more mischief, more life.


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