Critics on critics: a reviewer’s manifesto.

Critics on critics, 13 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


Shrinking books pages, reviewers who are not paid, and “boosterism” – the idea that reviewers should say nice things about all books because they care about the South African publishing industry – are the three main thorns in the flesh of book and review readers, of writers and of critics.

This emerged from a discussion between Michiel Heyns, Brent Meersman and Sean O’Toole, three well-known South African critics, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

Local criticism was roundly criticised, with one audience member reiterating what many of the writers there had already said: that a bad review could kill a book, “but it’s just one person’s opinion”.

Heyns rejoined with: “That is numerically true.”

And yet, bad reviews were few and far between in South Africa, something O’Toole somewhat laments: “We need more insurgency and anger,” he said in response to the idea that critical reviews in South Africa could only really be written by a reviewer who knew no-one who wrote, no publishers, and never went out.

“It would be very easy for a reviewer to send missiles into the metropolis from your isolated beach cottage, but I think the critics must engage. The notion of a disinterested critic is a very new one. The idea of critics being locked away and not taking ownership of their opinions is not, I think, okay.”

He was curious, he said, about the rise of blog reviewing – the opinion of first impression – with its snarky, angry, facetious, cynical tones.

“We’re too respectful,” said O’Toole. Meersman did not agree.

“I see no value in spending reams of column centimetres in newspapers trashing a book, but I do think that a reviewer should notify the reader if the author is perpetuating a fraud.”

Both felt that a reviewer’s passion and involvement in the literary arts was a conversation within the field that went on between writers and reviewers, that reviewers should care and use the opportunity of a review to enrich a reader’s understanding of a book.

Heyns’ contribution to this thread was that “one might say that even an unfavourable review expresses a concern [for good writing] but that what we may object to are snide reviews, which, it must be said, also usually make for highly readable reviews”.

What is the reviewer’s responsibility? Some points emerged in the course of the discussion.

  1. Meersman said that he didn’t care about the reviewers opinion, but in why they liked or disliked something, and the case they made for their opinion.
  2. The reviewer must care about literary arts, must share a passion for it and see his or her review as an engagement in an on-going conversation about it, and the wider artistic and social context it finds itself in.
  3. A reviewer must be seen as credible and honest. Reviewers who write nice reviews about not-so-great books are cheating the reader, even as they edge around the difficulties with a book. Meersman said: “You aren’t promoting South African literature by writing good reviews about bad books.”
  4. A review must – in the journalistic tradition – inform the reader (what’s the book about, but without giving away the plot).
  5. A review must explain something about the significance or importance of the book, place it within its history or tradition and the context in which it is appearing. A knowledge of other disciplines and what is happening in those makes for richer reviewing. In other words: a review must enrich a reader’s experience of the book.

There was a general lament that books pages had been cut in newspapers. This made it hard for readers, said Meersman, to find a critical voice they liked and could rely on. Reviews should ideally appear regularly and be written in a lively, readable style.

“An abstruse text doesn’t need to be dealt with in abstruse language”.

O’Toole added that a reviewer brought a personal set of values and experience to the discipline, and the loss of quality reviewing in the endangered commons – as he called non-niche publications like newspapers – made it difficult to forge a tradition. He, too, argued for more consistent and regular book reviewing in newspapers.