Reviews and reviewers

For many months I’ve dreaded the appearance in my letterbox of the NZ Book Council’s Booknotes. Nothing against the Book Council, you understand, of which I am a member, nor its august journal. I’ve been living in fear of its children’s book reviewer, Susan Paris, getting her hands on Ocean Without End.
She’s wicked. Often deliciously so, although sometimes it’s hard to decide whether to laugh or wince at her forensic reviews. I love the complete lack of fear, the idea that kids’ books deserve as fearless an approach as any other literature, and above all the iconoclastic freedom with which she lays into almost everyone, even (gasp!) Margaret Mahy; unless the book is very good, in which case she can be equally lavish.
Well, my time has come.
Here it is:

Middling-decent adventure, weakened slightly by Kelly Gardiner’s inability either to maintain or to avoid an in-period style. It isn’t clear where we are in history, but the characters slip in and out of a mish-mash nautical-historical dialect more or less at random. Lily is a little inclined to feel and think only whatever the plot currently requires her to, with minimal regard for plausibility or consistency, but things move along quickly enough for this to be a minor niggle rather than a fatal flaw.

I slapped it closed, and after a few hours wandering around the house muttering “Middling!” to myself, changing into my pyjamas, eating chocolate, and watching two episodes of Pride and Prejudice on DVD, I read it again.
On second reading, I accepted that I’m hardly likely to have got everything right in my first book, and it’s a critique that will make me focus more closely on voice in future.
I also noted that the entire review is about two aspects that are described as “slight” and “a minor niggle”, so while overall it will ensure nobody in their right mind will buy the book, I think the reviewer is actually saying it’s not too bad. As an editor myself, I wondered vaguely whether there was more to it that didn’t make it to press. I ate more chocolate.
But then I flicked through the rest of Booknotes, and found a letter about the journal’s kidlit reviews signed by 26 children’s writers and illustrators, including such people as Vicky Jones, Tessa Duder, Lorraine Orman and Joy Cowley – none of them shrinking violets nor likely to complain needlessly. They write to say that the review pages are often “less than fair and balanced”, “disparaging” and “sarcastic”.
Kate de Goldi’s reply as editor takes the line that kidlit reviews ought to be as exacting as any other and that she stands by her reviewer.
I checked the review pages again, to find that this month it’s not by Susan Paris at all, but David Larsen (who also, I think, reviews adult books for the Herald and the Star Times).
Will you think me strange if I say I feel disappointed to have been scathed by the wrong person? But I can’t fault his taste, since another review gets stuck into Three Fishing Brothers Gruff and agrees entirely with my own view, whereas everyone else seems to love it uncritically.
These general issues are fascinating, and I suspect my position sits somewhere between those of the writers and the Booknotes editor – or perhaps somewhere else entirely.
A scathing review alone doesn’t necessarily help an author to learn and improve. There’s a difference between robust and “disparaging” reviewing. If I’d been on the receiving end of some of those reviews I might have given up altogether.
But uncritical blurbs aren’t much help either in that regard. I’d rather honesty.
On the other hand, there’s far too much uncritical reviewing of children’s literature, and certainly few reviewers who engage with the actual writing.
I can also sympathise with reviewers who get so sick of being sent crap that should never have seen the light of day they feel the need to vent. (I’ve decided not to review any more badly-written interminable rural memoirs in my magazine, for example, unless they have some redeeming features – anything will do.)
Over at Misrule, Judith Ridge was thinking about this issue recently:

…Perhaps it’s that children’s book reviewers are, as we are so often accused of, soft on our own, and lacking in rigour in our critical discourse. I do believe there’s some truth in that – most reviews are written, after all, as de facto buying guides for parents, librarians, teachers, and so they focus on content rather than literary merit. On the other hand, the mainstream review pages generally offer few opportunities for the reviewing of children’s books (that old song), and thus, I imagine, most reviewers prefer to accentuate the positive – I know I do. And yes, it’s a small community, and we all pretty much know each other, and it has to be acknowledged that this fact can influence what you’re prepared to put your name to into print.
But I’d like to think, given all the above, that perhaps there’s also a culture of courtesy and respect in the children’s book community, where the ego and ambition of the critic (usually) becomes secondary to the desire to give children’s books, those poor relations, an even break. Now what we have to work on is marrying that courtesy and respect with frank critical writing.

Quite. We need rigour – and good manners. We need kidlit to be reviewed by people who understand how children learn and read, and how they relate to the world and to books as they grow. We need reviewers who engage with language, who can encourage as well as critique; but who are also happy to declare any emperor’s new clothes a little threadbare. If that hurts sometimes, well, there’s always chocolate.
The very next day’s post brought me a clipping of Tessa Duder’s review of Ocean from her new kidlit review column in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Now, for those who don’t know, if you’re writing about nautical matters in NZ, Tessa and Joan Druett are royalty, and Tessa is a very experienced, no-nonsense children’s literature specialist (and what a good idea of the Weekly’s).
If she says it’s a “fine debut” novel, that I’ve got all the nautical stuff right and am writing in the “best tradition” of Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease, and that Lily is “wholly believable” then, frankly, I can die happy.
But I will be working on the finals of book three, The Silver Swan, this week, and now I also know I have to ensure it isn’t a middling mish-mash.

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