A critical look at critical looking

Watter resensie kry die groen lig? 6 March 2012, US Woordfees, Stellenbosch


In 2011 the major SA newsgroup Media 24, owner of Die Burger, Beeld, Die Volksblad, City Press, Rapport, The Sun and other big titles, made headlines with its announcement that it would appoint a single books editor for all its regional Afrikaans newspapers. The decision provoked heated protest. Breyten Breytenbach, among other authors, went so far as to call for a boycott of Media 24 products and services.

The dust has settled now, and the panel discussion over lunch at De Vette Mossel opened with Elmari Rautenbach, Media 24’s duly installed National Books Editor, giving the audience an overview of how this system of centralising book reviews in the Afrikaans national dailies actually works.

One book review on any given book is published in all three the Afrikaans dailies; a second review is sometimes available on Media 24’s website. This is a severe contraction in the number of Afrikaans reviews available in print, and it has led to concern about a dwindling base of public critical reception.

This in mind, chair of the talk, prizewinning poet and Woordfees project manager Melt Myburgh, asked Kerneels Breytenbach how he as a writer felt about digital reviewing.

“If the negative review is in the paper and the positive one’s on the web, I’d be annoyed, but if the reviewer was competent, the author should be appeased.”

Breytenbach elaborated on the idea of a competent reviewer by describing him or her as someone with authority and substantive knowledge on the subject matter under review. This was often unnoticed when considering the validity of a review. A review should be critical, something that anonymous blogger Crito sees as lacking in South African literary reviews.

Rautenbach added that she considered debate around the merits of reviews as important. It created strong engagement around literature. Some writers had become so well known and celebrated that people often felt afraid to criticise them.

This prompted Marius Crous to share an interesting question he was asked at his Review Clinic: “Can and should one respond to a negative review of one’s work?”

The general consensus in this regard is that it depends on the nature of the “negative” review: is it merely critical, or is it blatantly uninformed? If merely critical, a writer (and the reader) should be able to learn from it. If uninformed, the publisher should handle the matter.

Here, Crous commented on his own experience with negative reviews. After the publication of his first volume of poems, he got good reviews. His second volume received mixed reviews. He felt angry but “got over it”. What surprised him was the skepticism of his publishers when he submitted his third manuscript for publication. The less-than-enthusiastic response to his new work, he felt, shed light on the strong reliance publishers place on reviews.

Myburgh concluded by asking the panel if they considered the reviewer a “powerful” figure. Crous felt a review should not be taken as an absolute indication of value. A bad review should not lead readers to ignore the book. Breytenbach said there were times, too, when reviewers had their own agendas. Despite him disliking the anonymity of Crito, he felt that such a commentator played an important role in "policing" reviewers and exposing such agendas.

The discussion also examined the issue of a reviewer’s “credentials”. Further, the issue of the single book editor at Media24 clearly remained problematic for the participants right through the conversation. The skepticism of Crous’s publisher following mixed reviews showed that publishers did take reviews seriously. If publishers took reviews this much into account, then a single book review in the Afrikaans dailies nationwide could surely compromise the success of a writer. Clearly, the publisher might have concerns about sales, and this begs the question: is the debate about reviews purely a literary one or does it translate into money, too?

Note: Marius Crous has two published volumes of poetry: Brief uit die kolonies (2003) and Aan ’n beentjie sit en kluif (2006).