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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Oh, to be Anon now that Reviews are here

When I first joined the South African writing community two years ago, it was firmly on the side of the writers. Book reviewers were people who took your first-born child, stripped him naked, and mocked him cruelly for his imagined inadequacies.

I got off comparatively lightly with my first two books as no negative reviews came to light. But the merest hint of criticism was enough to send me into ultra-prickly defensive mode. Like the reviewer who, in the midst of glowing praise for ‘Trinity On Air’, commented that Trinity would probably not have worked day-shifts as a brand new reporter on a talk radio station. Whereupon I obsessively pointed out to everyone (with a pulse) who would listen that Trinity was working on the TRAFFIC desk and that TRAFFIC reporters don’t commonly work in the middle of the night.

The fact that I feel compelled to mention the story here is probably an indication that I’m not completely over it.

Not content with defending my own novels with all the zeal of a short-tempered tigress, I took it upon myself to
leap to the defense of other writers and poets who, I felt, had been unfairly treated by the critics.
And just for the sake of inconsistency, I was also known to moan publicly and at length about how uncritical the South African book reviewing community is. Words like ‘pusillanimous’ and ‘sycophantic’ dropped from my lips with polysyllabic abandon.

It did not escape my attention that there was a considerable overlap between the SA writing community and the SA reviewing community, especially on the more high-profile books pages. Like many of their overseas counterparts, South African editors like to feature writers interviewing and commenting on other writers. There’s an assumption that writers know writing best, and that two well-known names on a piece will draw more attention than one.

I also knew from first-hand experience that the South African writing community is small and collegial. Someone who is just a name to you one day may be sitting next to you on a panel the next, and chatting to you over a glass of wine that evening.`And the nature of the SA literary calendar is such that writers, reviewers, bloggers and editors run into each other at literary festivals, awards evenings, and book launches on an almost weekly basis.

It would clearly not be prudent to make enemies within this small and highly claustrophobic space. And furthermore, there are so many genuinely nice people in the industry that you would have to be quite spectacularly not-nice to want to sabotage their careers with gratuitously destructive criticism.

Most South African writers know that what is good for one of us is good for all of us. When someone like Paige Nick or Cynthia Jele sells a bunch of books, I celebrate their success because it creates a more receptive market for South African women’s fiction (and also because I happen to like them both). So determined were we as SA writers to promote our interests collectively that 74 of us got together to create Read SA – an organisation designed to promote a culture of reading in South Africa and to further the interests of local writers in general. This mutually supportive space leaves even less room for being harshly critical of another writer.

Until recently, I was aware of all these issues, but in a rather vague, nothing-to-do-with-me way. I remember taking part in a debate on Book Chat about the state of South African book reviewing, and silently congratulating myself on dwelling so firmly on the ‘writer’ side of the writer-reviewer divide. It was a divide I never imagined crossing.

Then the thin edge of the wedge moved into action. It all started with that favourite question of interviewers, “What are you reading now?” which morphed into, “What books would you recommend for someone wanting to get acquainted with South African fiction?” and “Which are your least favourite women’s fiction novels?”

I freely confess to helping the process along inadvertently with a blog in which I slagged off my elders and betters in the chick-lit world for writing lazy books. I followed this up with some musings about Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’.

Then Cosmopolitan magazine and Woman and Home magazine asked me to do a round-up of my favourite books of the year, and The Times asked me to interview Peter Godwin about his latest book ‘The Fear’, which I did. When the Cosmopolitan piece came out in the December issue, I saw myself described in print for the first time ever as an ‘author and book reviewer’. When did that happen? I wondered, with a slight sense of shock. Has the wedge really worked its way so far in that the writer-reviewer divide has cracked wide open?

All of which leaves me wondering how I or anyone else can possibly function as a critical, professional reviewer within the warm and fuzzy space that is the South African writing community. How can I possibly be objective about the work of someone who has become a close friend as well as a colleague?

There are a couple of options:

I could find only good things to say about every single book that crosses my path, and shower them with the kind of fulsome, uncritical praise that is such a feature of the South African book reviewing scene. My inner street-brawler has a serious problem with this.

I could decline to review any books that I don’t absolutely love, but that too seems a cowardly course. I could, I daresay, write reviews as ‘Anonymous’, but Anon is a singularly toothless creature, entirely lacking in bite. I could also throw caution to the winds and simply let my victims have it with both barrels. Yes, it would mean instant exile from the writing community that has become almost as dear to me as my own family, but who cares, right? Fuck ‘em.

Well – as a matter of fact – I care. Turning myself into an overnight Julie Burchill or Charlie Brooker is simply not an option. Infamy is not for me.

So what to do? I’ve thought long and hard about this and the only way forward seems to be a process that involves the author as well as the reviewer. When I interviewed Peter Godwin, there were certains issues and criticisms I was longing to put to him. I could have just slapped them down on paper without giving him the opportunity to respond, but the process of putting them to him generated much better material for my piece. Sometimes the problems that the reviewer perceives in a text dissipate in the face of an explanation from the writer (vide Trinity on the traffic desk, above).

So, if the editors of books-pages give me the leeway to do so, I will approach any future reviewing opportunities as a consultative process between writer and reviewer that will hopefully neutralise bad feeling while simultaneously retaining the scope for intelligent criticism. And now that I’ve thoroughly scared off anyone who may vaguely have been considering me as a reviewer, my work here is done.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    November 29th, 2010 @21:04 #
     
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    Yeh yeh. You're not invited to my writers' bitch sessions any more. Fact, I'm having one right now. Yes, it's just me. But at least I know where my loyalties lie. Right, Louis? Right!

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    November 29th, 2010 @21:09 #
     
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    Tsk, Louis (both of you). You have crossed a worse floor than I. You are officially a Chairman of the Panel. You say things like, "That's all the questions we have time for right now" and "If we could just get back to my original question..."

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    November 29th, 2010 @21:23 #
     
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    That heckler has rubbish in its trouser. Eject her. Any other questions?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 29th, 2010 @21:27 #
     
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    Good piece, Fifi! Nail-on-the-head stuff, and good luck with your ethical approach. Try being an editor/writer -- then you get defensive about every critical word written not just about your own books, but those of others you've edited...

    I do a lot of MS assessments in which I am totally candid, but these lack the public aspect. And when I do review, I prefer books by overseas authors I'll hopefully never meet. Closer to home, I won't accept commissions to review friend's books unless I've already read and liked them -- so, f'rinstance, when Wordsetc asked me to review Alex's Four Drunk Beauties, I wrote a deserved praise-song, with the disclaimer that I had read the book and formed my opinions BEFORE being approached to do the review.

    Another option is the unsolicited review, which I do in the form of this blog and other platforms, including letters to the authors. So if I enjoy a book by someone I know, I write to say "I loved it and this is why", or I post something here or on FB.

    But I could never be a formal reviewer, for exactly the reasons you mention. When I read a less-than-brilliant local book, it's difficult when I meet the author, and they turn out to be lovely and hard-working and friendly. Besides, in 9 out of 10 cases, the writing/book itself wasn't bad, but it needed far more stringent editing. Saying this in public does NOT endear me to publishers. Whom I prefer not to alienate too much. Here be dragons, so good luck.

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  • <a href="http://www.amillionmilesfromnormal.blogspot.com" rel="nofollow">Paige</a>
    Paige
    November 29th, 2010 @22:13 #
     
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    Reviews make me sweat. (With apologies to my standard 5 teacher, I know i know, horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow.) So let me revise - reviews make me glow heavily. Both when giving and receiving them.
    Great piece Fiona, and I'm not just saying that cos I got a lovely mention. (thank you, wonderful author.)

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    November 30th, 2010 @09:02 #
     
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    I think you have guts.

    I refuse to review, even for Wordsetc.

    But even my highlights and goodreads have become tricky. The blog thing started due to so many overseas people I knew being unaware that SA fiction had more to offer than Gordimer / Coetzee / Paton. I wanted to help raise awareness that there was new literature out there, including popular fiction. That SA does it all.

    But I have had more than one email where a reader is confused, wanting to know why I didn't bring up X or Y problem with the book. And I have had to explain that I'm not reviewing, simply saying I liked it for these reasons, maybe you will too - the end.

    Now that I am starting to meet / make FB friends of those that I've highlighted...what does that mean ethically about putting up a book? I have yet to decide. Which is a shame, because SA books struggle with marketing as it is, we need more blogging, not less. But it is clear that what I was trying to do is not always clear.

    Goodreads is another tricky place. I was horrified to hear a writing bud tell me that they don't read books with 3 stars. I had always used 3 as 'this is worth a read!' Four stars was for a medal contenders, and 5 - give them the literary prize. But nothing I put on goodreads do I feel is total rubbish. Yet, I am censoring myself more and more. Even keep contemplating eliminating the stars and leaving them all blank. Which is a shame, because I love, love, love talking about books.

    But I don't want to be mistaken for a reviewer. Reviewers are, like you say, important, even when it hurts. But reviewing is also an art form, and not always done well. (This is not aimed at anybody here, btw. Just a general comment - world wide). SA writing world is a wee bit like a school playground. I've got too many memories of the cool kids picking on the one that doesn't fit. I wouldn't be able to mentally handle the honesty that is required to write a proper review.

    So I am reading your very well written piece on this subject. Part of me is applauding. I agree. I wish you luck. But oooh, what a tricky place it is to be.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    November 30th, 2010 @11:17 #
     
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    Very tricky, Tiah. And my 'solution' of giving the author a chance to respond to criticism can only take you so far. I sometimes wish reviewers were all just faceless journalists who never crossed over into the writing world at all.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    November 30th, 2010 @12:05 #
     
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    I think a dialogue is wonderful when it works. But it also takes maturity on both sides. I have immature moments. That said, I found a wee write up on my book where, although mostly flattering, it did say, "This author believes..." when THIS author does not. The character, however, was a confused soul, and thus the character did say what the character said.

    I did email the young man and:
    1 - Thanked him for reading my book
    2 - Apologised it was not clear.
    3 - But made sure it was now clear what my stance on the issue was.

    Did I overreact? Maybe. Probably. But now I have a little fan that I correspond with from time to time, and that's really nice. However, ooooh - that could have gone very badly. Not sure if I'd do it again. Maybe.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 30th, 2010 @12:24 #
     
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    Have been mulling this over and have decided to stop reviewing local books for "formal" publications. Because mine is an assessor's/editor's view, the penny has dropped that the process feels pointless for me (unless it's pure, unsolicited praise, in which case I will continue to pour it forth). I'm only interested in pointing out the flaws of a book at the MS stage, when something can still be done. Once it's published, I ALWAYS think flaws should have been picked up and addressed by the publisher/editor, even though I know there is only so far the editor can go, esp if the author digs in their heels.

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