The dark art of reviewing books: new voices and a new site.


Paula Morris asks the writing mentors of the new Aotearoa NZ Review of Books what they really, really want.


A new long-form book review site launches today, Wednesday 22 March: the Aotearoa NZ Review of Books, in the same space as the Sydney Review of Books and the LA Review of Books, but dedicated entirely to books by New Zealand writers across all genres fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and writing for children and teenagers. I’m the editor, and plan to publish up to ten reviews a month, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

For some time I’ve wanted a site like this to exist – well-designed and easy to navigate, with intelligent long reviews of brand new books written for a general audience. In 2019 the print quarterly The NZ Review of Books / Pukapuka Aotearoa was turned down for a Creative New Zealand grant and decided – a year shy of its 30th anniversary – to close. (Its archive of print issues is available to read online here.)

Newspapers make less and less space for book reviews. In December 2022, Canvas magazine published every Saturday with the New Zealand Herald ended its commitment to regular book pages (and to books editor Eleanor Black). According to Nielsen figures published in August 2022, the Herald’s print readership on Saturdays was 740,000, so the blow was a heavy one.

Not all the news is grim. The fate of the Listener, as well as the magazines North & South and Metro, seemed uncertain during Covid-era, but all were able to continue, and to continue publishing book reviews. The print issue of Landfall, our oldest literary journal, is published twice a year and includes some book reviews, with more long-form reviews on Landfall Review Online each month – albeit some for books published more than a year earlier.

During our Covid lockdowns, the Coalition for Books launched the Kete Books site, which includes reviews of a wide range of new releases. The ANZL ran book reviews for two years, focused on new books from our Members and Fellows. Other sites – like Newsroom and the Spinoff – also publish book reviews. But almost all of the above compete for support from CNZ, tough in a time of reduced funding and increased demand. Books editors – usually part-time and underpaid, if they are paid at all – have to stretch budgets, reducing the number of reviews and/or the number of reviewers. (I joked that every time you saw me review a book for the ANZL, it meant I couldn’t afford to pay someone else.)

The Listener, a weekly magazine, is the leading publisher of book reviews in New Zealand, publishing around 600 last year, but the majority of these were for overseas authors. In 2022, New Zealand books accounted for about 120 of the Listener’s book reviews a number that’s either impressive or inadequate, depending on your point of view. Book pages in newspapers are similarly international in scope. The Spinoff publishes more features than book reviews, and in a recent review of five ‘great crime novels’, only two were by New Zealand writers. ReadingRoom generally publishes one book review a week, and because it’s funded by Creative New Zealand its kaupapa is New Zealand books and/or subjects. But in February it drew the ire of many writers when it devoted four reviews to just one novel, Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood. Book reviews pages become contested spaces when local writers and publishers believe there is not enough space for reviews of New Zealand books, nor enough money to pay local reviewers.

In 2022 when I discussed the notion of the ANZRB with other people in the local lit-biz, the first reaction was usually alarm. Would I be joining the long queue of literary beggars outside Creative New Zealand, and possibly siphoning funding away from everyone else? Actually, the ANZRB has been established with funding from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland. I work there: I’m an Associate Professor in English, and director of the Masters in Creative Writing programme. Some of that generous funding was spent creating a smart, functional website, built by Brence Coghill of Monstrous: he also built Wharerangi, the Māori literature online hub.

Part of the funding was designated for mentoring new reviewers. Our first target group was PhD students in the Faculty of Arts and MCW alums. I started book reviewing myself as a university student back in the 80s, first for Craccum and then the NZ Herald. My first-ever payment for writing was for a Herald book review, and my parents were so excited that they made a photocopy of the cheque, to be kept as a strange family souvenir: I still have it. It reminds me that the pay for reviews has gone up very little in forty years.

For our Faculty-funded webinars on long-form book reviewing, more than sixty students and alums signed up, and then a dozen from that group applied for mentorships with me and four other experienced editors: Eleanor Black, who’s been books editor at Next magazine as well as Canvas; Steve Braunias, ex Listener and now editor of ReadingRoom at the Newsroom site; Mark Broatch, the current books editor at the Listener; and Guy Somerset, former books editor at the Dominion Post and the Listener. The mentorships, says Steve Braunias, were ‘a really good step in the direction of providing informed, critical commentary on New Zealand books’.

The webinars attracted both aspiring reviewers and people already writing but keen on professional development. I commissioned one of Steve Braunias’ mentees, Pamela Morrow, to review a novel for the launch of the ANZRB. A number of the others have received commissions from a variety of media outlets, using their mentored review as a calling card. I’m hoping to secure more funding to repeat these webinars nationally, and to pay the mentors for another round with emerging reviewers.

‘I reminded my mentees that reviews should be enjoyable to read,’ Mark Broatch says. Ideally, the reviews should be ‘entertainments in their own right, with a clear point of view and provocation if necessary.’

One of Guy Somerset’s mentees wrote about ‘a widely well-reviewed book that fell far short of the book reviewers described.’ Because the mentee was not ‘in the narrow compromised circles of New Zealand literary (and in this case journalistic) life’, he ‘felt no compunction about pointing these failings out. Although he did admit he might have been more circumspect if the review were actually going to be published.’ Steve Braunias declares himself ‘really impressed’ with his three mentees. ‘They threw themselves into it as a writing assignment as an opportunity to write well, to think well, to produce something worth reading. I think the programme is going to make a very, very useful contribution to reviewing in New Zealand.’

Guy Somerset suggests that book reviews should be ‘a piece of craft in their own right: incisive, informative and entertaining’. I asked the mentors to dissuade their writers from gushing, dithering or offering opinions without supporting evidence. Just before the mentorships began, I was interviewed for a newspaper and asked my opinion on the state of book reviewing in New Zealand. I said:

It is dire. Too many reviews are a) plot summaries; b) mealy-mouthed; c) chatty and inane; or d) poorly written … If I read another review where the writer talks about a book being ‘relatable’, I may need to move to another planet.

Although I stand by my blanket ban on the R word, I know there are some excellent book reviewers in New Zealand. Steve Braunias cites Charlotte Grimshaw, David Eggleton, Philip Matthews and Rachael King as ‘among our best’, and adds:

Vincent O’Sullivan‘s recent review in ReadingRoom of a Katherine Mansfield study was like a masterclass in reviewing I’ve read it three times, trying to see where he has gone and what lessons I can pick up for my own reviewing. There was another outstanding review of that Mansfield book last week; it was in the Times Literary Supplement, of London, and it was world-class, written with fantastic energy and detail by New Zealand author, Kirsty Gunn. Both those reviews could serve as models for reviewers from New Zealand or anywhere in the English-speaking world.

In 2001, in The New York Times Book Review, Walter Kirn complained 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.’ This can be an issue for us in New Zealand for various reasons. The first is this: we have a fragile book eco-system, and as book lovers we want other New Zealanders to read the books by our own writers and publishers, and support our local book culture. We don’t want to destroy people’s careers.

‘A lot of reviews seem less like “reviews” and more like appreciations,’ says Guy Somerset. ‘The meaningful review is being killed by kindness. The opposite of kindness in a review is not gratuitous cruelty but, rather, stringent attention to critical and intellectual standards, and honesty in applying them.’

The second issue for book reviewers in New Zealand is less altruistic. We don’t want to destroy our own careers. This is a very small country. If we write a negative review of Author X, what are the ramifications? Will Author X be a Creative NZ assessor, or selecting writers for a residency or festival, or on the judging panel for a contest or award? Will we run into Author X at some event and be confronted or embarrassed in some way? Will Author X be all over social media denouncing us for our ignorance or bias or stupidity? Or, as witnessed on a recent slap-down on Twitter, will Author X’s loyal friends label a books editor ‘elderly’ and deride the reviewer as an ‘incel’?

‘We all want usefully critical reviews,’ says Mark Broatch, ‘and we all know the reasons that let’s say less guarded reviews aren’t common in New Zealand. And if you disagree with a review, by all means critique it. But ad hominem attacks on reviewers are not acceptable.’

In Eleanor Black’s experience of working with reviewers, ‘they are genuinely nervous about offending local writers. The reprisal for a negative review is swift and often nasty. I have had reviewers decline to review books they suspected they would not like, to avoid criticising a book written by someone they knew and would undoubtedly see in the future. I have also had reviewers pull out after getting partway through a book and realising they didn’t have a lot nice to say about it. The paltry payment for reviewing a book was not, to them, nearly worth the grief.’

My own feeling is: if you want everyone to like you, then you will have an unhappy life, especially if you are a writer of books or of book reviews. Still, I have written reviews where I toned down criticism; I have also told editors that I wanted to abandon a review because I could find nothing good to say and either dreaded the consequences or felt it was a waste of the limited review space available to New Zealand books.

‘There has always been a strange tension about reviewing in New Zealand,’ says Steve Braunias, noting ‘on one hand a constant complaint that reviews are too nice and that it’s friends reviewing other friends, but then a huge outcry whenever something particularly critical does appear. I don’t know if any of that matters so long as the reviewing is intelligent and at some length, and is the product of close reading.’

‘Ideally,’ says Black, ‘book reviews would be seen for what they are: one person’s opinion. But because the platforms for book reviews in Aotearoa are so few (and dwindling) and because it can be so difficult for local writers to get any attention for their work, each review takes on this heavy significance. It’s tough on both sides, for writers and reviewers.’

Guy Somerset agrees. A reviewer ‘is not a fan boy/girl and isn’t there to make friends. In some cases, they must be prepared to lose them. I don’t trust reviewers who only praise. By the same token, writers and publishers need to toughen up and take bad reviews on the chin, recognising the mostly good faith in which they’re written. They need to respond to them in the same good faith. Such is the cut and thrust of healthy intellectual life.’

The ANZRB is the new home of the entire review archive of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, each review tagged and categorised for easy searching including reviews by David Eggleton, Rachael King and Philip Matthews. ANZRB reviewers in March and April include Charlotte Grimshaw, Robert Sullivan and Sally Blundell (another Listener alum), as well as historians from the University of Auckland, a number of mentees, and everyone’s favourite poetry reviewer, Sophie van Waardenberg, a New Zealand writer who recently graduated from the MFA programme at Syracuse University in New York.

Information on the next round of reviewing webinars will be announced here in the News column of the ANZL site, and on Twitter: @ANZRevBooks.


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