Review like nobody's watching

"South Africa's book reviewing community has long been a haven of backslapping, mutual congratulation, and warm handshakes," writes Fiona Snyckers in a recent Thought Leader blog for the Mail & Guardian. (Image source: www.lifehacker.com.au)

Fiona Snyckers talks to Naomi Meyer about what book reviews is supposed to be about.

Fiona Snyckers (photo: Modjaji Books)

Hi Fiona, thanks for taking the time to speak to me. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I would like them to know that as a writer myself I know how incredibly demoralising it can be to get a bad review for one of your books. It can make you doubt yourself in the most fundamental of ways. So my sympathies at all times are with writers.

In a country where most people can’t afford bread, let alone nutritious food, why worry about books ...

I believe that things are improving in this country in a slow but steady manner. We are all, including the poor, considerably better off than we were under apartheid. And part of that being better off is having a writing culture we can be proud of. It is important for South African readers to have access to stories that they can relate to. Being a keen reader can transform your life – opening you up to ideas and ambitions that might never have come your way. Books have the power to uplift and inspire people, but they must be books that speak to you as a South African reader.

... and book reviews?

An excellent book reviewing culture will generate excellence from writers. If book reviewers praise a third-rate novel to the skies, why would any of us try to do better? Our local literature is now so strong and vibrant that there is no need for reviewers to accept mediocrity any more.

I read your Though Leader blog post regarding book reviews. What is your idea of a good book review?

This might seem an obvious point, but a good book review is written by someone who has actually read the book – the whole book, from start to finish. You would be surprised at how rare this is. Far too many book reviewers just skim the book and then try to wing it. It always shows. Ideally, the reviewer should have a proper understanding of and appreciation for the genre of the book. It’s no good giving a zombie apocalypse novel to a reviewer who thinks the whole genre is ridiculous. A good reviewer should not have any personal axe to grind against the writer or anyone concerned in producing the book. He or she should also be fair-minded and give credit where credit is due. Reviewers who try to make a name for themselves by being meaner and more destructive than anyone else are not ideal. The best reviewers, as I mentioned in my blog post, occupy a position of objectivity and fearlessness.

And a bad one?

A bad review is written by someone who clearly hasn’t bothered to read the book or put any thought or effort into assessing it. Reviewers who just parrot the information contained in the press release are also wasting everyone’s time.

And a fantastic one?

The difference between a good book review and a fantastic one lies in the quality of the writing. I think this is why writers are so often asked to write book reviews. It’s not easy to find someone who can write fantastically well who isn’t already involved in the world of writing in some capacity or other. And that’s where the problem comes in. It is hard to be objective about a community that you are part of.

Should every book published get a review?

This would be ideal. It would be great if every locally published book could get a review. Most newspapers, magazines and websites are very good about giving maximum column inches to local books at the expense of overseas ones. But the problem always comes down to a lack of space. Many publications have cut their books sections down to the bone or done away with them altogether. But what space there is left is very often devoted to local books, which is great.

Is a review something personal and should it be taken personally at all?

Sometimes people use book reviews to settle personal scores or to tear down writers they are jealous of. This is unfortunate and drags the whole reviewing process into disrepute. It is also difficult as a writer not to take a bad review personally because your book feels like a little piece of your soul that you have torn off and displayed to the public. But most writers are used to criticism, and have built up thick skins in the process. A fair, thoughtful book review should never be taken personally, even if it is overwhelmingly negative.

You suggest that writers should not review fellow writers’ books. But if you do not really have access to the literary world, how can you judge a book as a product of this world which you do not understand?

The vast majority of readers – people who actually spend their hard-earned money on buying books – are not part of the literary world. These are the people who opinions we should really care about. Perhaps we should have more websites, as they do at The Guardian, where readers are allowed to register as reviewers and submit their own reviews of certain books. We also need to tap less conventional professions to find reviewers, such as advertising, academia, and the law.

If reviewers review "under the cloak of anonymity" do you think readers will take them seriously?

Most readers don’t bother to look at whose name appears in the byline, so a review could easily be written by “Staff writer” or “Anonymous” without losing much credibility. It’s not ideal, though. It feels cowardly to hide your opinions behind anonymity.

Also read: LitNet's regular blogger on book reviews, Crito

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