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Reviewing Books

Not long after I became an academic, more years ago than I care to remember, I was invited for the first time to review a book in my field by the editor of a US journal. It was an exciting and daunting prospect, for which we’d received no training in my PhD program. But it turned out that this didn’t matter: the book-review editor of the journal sent detailed guidelines with the volume. The advice that stuck in my mind most vividly was the following: that it takes many months – more often, years – to write a book, and that a reviewer’s task is to appreciate the author’s goals, to evaluate the book by how well it achieves these, and above all to be conscious of one’s own biases for and against the book’s approach.

This was wise advice. I was reminded of it recently when reading an essay for Overland by the Australian novelist Kirsten Tranter. In it, she writes of publishing her first novel:

“I was only able to send out my manuscript after accepting that it wasn’t perfect and that it didn’t match my idealised image of the book in my head, even though it was as complete and polished as I could make it. In a statement that has been turned into a relentless meme, Samuel Beckett says, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Any sane writer understands exactly what he means. Failing better is as good as it gets.”

“That was something I had already learnt in academia but had to learn all over again, since my creative work felt so much more personal. I had to learn it as a reviewer, too. Publishing any kind of writing involves this difficult acceptance.”

Further in her essay, she writes:

“Being a writer involves intense and maddening dichotomies. The work of writing requires isolation and withdrawal from the world, a retreat into obsession, both in the act of writing and in the months and years of deep imaginative work while the book takes mental shape. It is a job for an introvert. The process of publishing requires a schizoid opposite, as the work that has been nurtured in the safe, protected space of the computer (or the notebook or the typewritten page) is turned into a commodity…”

But that is only the first step – a major step, but there are bigger ones lying ahead.

“[W]ith the reviews, comes a different experience: what was produced in seclusion had become subject to public scrutiny. Like any writer, I hoped for good reviews, although like any reasonable writer I was sharply aware of the imperfections of my book. I expected to be thrilled by any positive critical assessments if they came, and hoped that I wouldn’t disgust myself by becomingly too egotistically bound up with them. I expected to be disappointed by bad reviews if they came, though I believed I would be good at handling criticism. I thought the glow of acceptance from publishers around the world would insulate me from negative reviews.

“What surprised me most was how excruciating it was to be reviewed at all… The other surprising thing was how difficult it was to read the bad reviews, or the negative parts of the mixed reviews. I had seriously overestimated my ability to deal with criticism; ten years of rigorous study and critique in graduate school had not prepared me for what public criticism would be like. I disappointed myself, and still do, with my painful sensitivity. Like many writers, I am shockingly insecure, a symptom that goes oddly hand in hand with the monstrous vanity that declares one’s own work good enough to be read and bought and sold and discussed by others.”

Kirsten Tranter has written her essay with welcome honesty. My guess is that the views she has expressed are held by many published authors. They are certainly what I felt when my own novels were reviewed.

It would be nice if book-review editors could send her essay to the readers who are invited to review books, and to remind them that it takes many months – more often, years – to write a book and get it published. A reviewer’s task is to appreciate the author’s goals, to evaluate the book by how well it achieves these, and above all to be conscious of any biases the reviewer might possess for and against the book’s approach.

The full text of Kirsten Tranter’s essay, entitled ‘Go, little book’, can be found at:

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