You've heard the jingle: big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em; and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. With apologies to my fellow book reviewers, most of whom are much grander than I, hovering as they do somewhere among the big flea brigade, I thought it might be of interest to talk about how someone whose status is nearer the infinitesimal does the job.
I stumbled into book reviewing more than thirty years ago. Qualifications? The informal, ephemeral kind. I had been reading non-stop since the day I found out that I could, and now it is a bad day if at least part of it is not spent reading. I started working in bookshops in my early twenties and treated them like libraries. It was good for customer relations because they got informed advice and opinions, and good for me because I learned the business and could read a lot. And by the way, don't let anyone suggest that working in a bookshop is a soft option. It's not about flicking a feather duster over the shelves, although that does come into it. It's hard work. Books are heavy, they arrive on the loading dock in very large boxes, and they must be unpacked and shifted around constantly. Much later I worked for the Booksellers' Association and figured out some of the politics behind the business.
When I discovered how books were made and sold, I though that the best job in the world would be as a publisher's reader. I imagined spending my days lying on a sofa reading manuscripts to decide whether or not they should be accepted. But those manuscripts made up slush piles, containing all the hopeful but hopeless efforts of too many would-be writers, with perhaps one in a hundred worth publishing. Now I have found a much better way to read all day, because other people have weeded out the dross and I get to read the ones that got through the process.
My approach to book reviewing has always been that of the general reader, writing for the general reading public. And I disagree with that old grump Samuel Taylor Coleridge who said that reviewers "are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers ... if they could; they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed; therefore they turn critics". Some of the best writers have also been reviewers.
There is a difference between "noticing" a book, reviewing it, and doing a critique of it. A notice simply requires someone to report that the book has been published, or that there is a new edition of it, and to give brief details of its subject, style and purpose. A critique requires an in-dept analysis, including a critical assessment of the book's qualities, discussion of the author's previous work, and placing it in the context of other works of its kind.
A review is something in-between. It is more comprehensive than a notice but doesn't need a degree in literary criticism to do it justice. It requires that the reviewer knows enough about books to discuss them in print in a readable style. The purpose of a review is to tell people enough about the book to let them decide whether or not to buy a copy or to borrow it. A review should not, in my mind, be a precis of the plot, nor should it be a re-hash of the jacket blurb.
There are some unwritten rules: be honest about the book, be fair to both author and public, don't do the unforgivable by giving away any of the surprises, be objective and leave any axe-grinding to another forum, and treat first time writers gently and if possible kindly. Discuss the book in terms of what it is, rather than what you think it could or should be. And it helps to have read the book. Unlike Sam Goldwyn, that fount of cock-eyed wisdom who said "I read part of it all the way through", I always read a book from beginning to end, even if it's sometimes a bit of a scamper, before I write a review of it. It's only fair to all parties.
In Mary Ann Shaffer's engaging novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a character remarks that reading good books spoils you for enjoying bad books. I think it depends on the definition of bad books. There is bad literature that can still be a jolly good read, and good books which are worthy but dull, and a reviewer can perch firmly on the fence and give readers the chance to decide for themselves.
Approaching a new book for review is always a pleasure. And I hope that I never become jaded enough to say, as George Orwell did in Confessions of a Book Reviewer, that "prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books involves constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever". Then I would have to give it up, and even the smallest flea has to eat.
The picture is "Reef". Come and see more pictures at my exhibition at the Cloisters Gallery, Arts Centre, Christchurch, 16 - 22 March, 2010.