I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Confessions Of A Book Reviewer

You may or may not be up to speed on the controversy bubbling in the blogosphere about the attack on bloggers who dare to rise above their station and write book reviews. A summary of the debate so far can be found at Skint Writer.

Rachel Cooke's piece in The Observer - I don't know if she actually works for them or just sells her wares to them from time to time - really raised the temperature, and her motive for producing the piece was evident in her rambling opening paragraph:

"There are few things more enjoyable than watching bookish types acting catty, so it is with some glee that I have been following the row that has broken out between the critic John Sutherland, the novelist and uber-blogger Susan Hill, and an as yet unnamed literary editor of a national newspaper."

With a puerile opener like that, I wonder how was it possible that anyone expected an intelligent, measured or rational piece? Blimey! Talk about good writing and leaving it up to the professionals! This woman must be desperate for things to write about, to ensure that she is kept on that list of those writers receiving money for their "good" writing. By the way, Frank at Books, Inq is not included as a target for this post; he has stated his sound position very clearly!

I don't mean to be catty, honest! It's amazing how reading articles like that will put you in the mood for a cat fight though. And it's not even due to my "putrid bitterness" caused by "a very deep sense of exclusion", which she says bloggers suffer from. It just so happens that I'm a working journalist AND a blogger, paid handsomely for my words as well! What category, therefore, am I in, Ms Cooke?

It seems Rachel Cooke will always be the source of a raised eyebrow in my household, however. I remember back in 2004 reading one of her more "famous" articles. She interviewed the family of a missing woman in Texas in the US. Why? What was the news value for a UK audience? Oh, that's simple: the woman had the same name. Reporter Rachel in the UK says she searched for her own name on Google. It turned out another Rachel Cooke, in the US, was missing, presumed murdered. Our Rachel was so taken aback - never mind the news judgement - that she flew to Texas a few weeks later to report on her namesake. Journalists are still scratching their heads about this one. I say what a novel way to earn some more of that "good writer's" cash that she goes on about. Of course, no disrespect to the Texas family at the centre of that article; what's in question here is the UK reporter's motive for covering it.

I digress, however, which illustrates the power of cattiness! I'm sorry and promise to be good for now on! Purrrrr Purrrr. Let me give the last word on this to Norm, just as Susan Hill did. A sensible, intelligent piece on a blog. Fancy that!

Because what I really wanted to post were the details of a recent conversation I had with a friend who reviews books for a reputable publication. I won't name her, because she relies on this job to pay her rent. It's not Ms Cooke, and I'm not referring to The Observer. My friend has given me permission to quote her though, finding all this hoo-ha a "bit of a laugh".

- She says she was wined and dined last month by the publishers of four different publishing houses, the bills going through the ceiling. She says "of course I later wrote favourable reviews for them" because there are more restaurants "I'm keen to get a foot in".

- Her editor changes her reviews regularly, making them better or worse, depending on what partnerships, promotions or freebies are on offer. It also depends if the parent companies - reviewer's publication and book publisher - are linked.

- She has been told to write "favourable" reviews when the publication is keen to score an exclusive interview with a famous author. Bad review, no interview, ever!

- Publishers who don't advertise in said publication don't get their books reviewed.

- Bad reviews of books could mean publisher's adverts being pulled, or promotional-partnership events being cancelled, so they are all vetted by editor, who is vetted by corporate bosses.

- Sometimes a review will be favourable or bad depending on what a rival publication has written.

- She has had to write seven favourable reviews this year for authors with close connections to the publication.

My friend is also happy to be quoted as boasting the following - with hearty laughs: she is 26; never studied literature; never written a book; only ever reads the first 10 pages of a book, then dips in and out until she has enough to write her review; she admits she doesn't know "a lot" about anything, let alone books, as Rachel Cooke argues; her reviews appear under a pseudonym in the publication, because she is often embarrassed about what she writes; she swears that this is not an isolated case.

So, there you are. That's why I don't treat the entire mainstream reviewing machine as a sacred cow. Nor would I ever treat all blog reviews as a sacred cow. I will go forward with my eyes open and judge things as I find them. Long live diversity and free thought! And I will try not to be catty, as long as I'm not forced into it!


pundy said...

That's a truly eye-opening revelation, Shameless, regarding your reviewer friend. It makes a mockery of the whole thing. I mean, that is just an appalling situation. I'm really shocked.

S. Kearney said...

I hate to be the one to break it to you Pundy ... of course, that's not to say that all mainstream review publications function like this. But if there's one, that is enough! My friend takes it in her stride. It pays the bills, she says. She is also a ghost writer, by the way. But that's a whole another appalling story!

Anonymous said...

No surprise when I read that Shameless, not even a raised eyebrow - I checked. I am only left with the bitter taste left by people who fail to be true to themselves.

S. Kearney said...

This young woman, Minx, is truly Shameless, but to her credit she makes no bones about it and doesn't apologise ... she's milking an industry she knows she can get away with milking. You can't even argue with that kind of shamelessness. She's emailed, by the way, to say that I did a good write up! So, there you are. Anyone looking for a good ghost writer? This hard woman is good!

Anonymous said...

I used to write music reviews, and the situation is largely the same.

I do want to take a moment to be mildly impressed that people can still go all a-flutter about books at all, since the bulk of society seems to be headed away from such pursuits. Sad, sad, sad.

Good post, though. I was gonna insert a joke about how you need to rewrite it so that it's more favorable and all, to aid in its eventual publication and not offend our parent corporation, but I'm too tired to be so clever.

S. Kearney said...

I will no doubt be struck down after these revelations, Moon. Maybe I should make it more favourable! And what if word gets out about who my friend works for. Were there any clues? Yes. Now, there would be some fun.

Anonymous said...

I think there were clues, provided her boss reads your blog. But nothing conclusive, and I'm certainly not gonna point them out. I'm sure she'll be fine, though, even if outed, because she plays the game.

Now I'm off to massage my putrid bitterness into yet another dreary post about exclusion.

S. Kearney said...

And this is wonderful ... a piss-take of the Cooke piece. It's called "Deliver us from thinking".


S. Kearney said...

And she probably emailed me from the office. Oh well. Bring it on. Who's got more to lose!

Anonymous said...

Great post shameless

I'm not shocked either but heartened in a funny kind of way - as long as there's journalists like you around there's still hope

Anonymous said...

Echoing Skint. Thanks, Shameless ... it's good to share!

Unknown said...

I read the sarsaparilla link, and had a really good laugh at that one...

Thanks for debunking the sacred cow of reviews - most of which I knew already. But you dared and there it is!

S. Kearney said...

Thanks Skint, Debi and Cailleach. Yes, I thought the article at the Australian website, Sarsaparilla, was very inspired. Everybody must also read Debi's "history lesson" today! Very clever!

Anonymous said...

Hello--I've wandered in via The Moon Topples blog and read about your blogger challenge to post something from the days of old (I haven't yet as I've only just now read it) but I'd like to say thanks for these great posts, they are very thoughtful and thought-provoking--what I look for when I go bloghunting...shall be visiting again soon...

Anonymous said...

The thing I don't get is why would you take a reviewer to lunch? Does it make the book taste better?

S. Kearney said...

Welcome TLPW and Gav ... I look forward to browsing your blogs. And Gav, I suppose if you liked bull fighting they would take you bull fighting! Any way of getting your fingers to tap what's required! Bubbly and expensive food normally warms up the frostiest of principles!

Anonymous said...

On a more serious note, reviews in the broadsheets rarely have me typing my credit card number into Amazon - a rare expection is Sarah Crown in the guardian.

I'd love to read a review of a book in my circle of interest which rare enough) that actually makes me want to read it rather than leaving me going yes, and!

And I think it comes down to space and the level of criticism, which is set to low most of the time. I like reading things that are challenging or flawed but I don't think reviewers are allowed to say such things, are they?

S. Kearney said...

Gav, it is not often that a book review in a newspaper interests me, that it falls at the right time (ie, just before I want to buy a particular book) and that it gives me the information I need. The one time recently that I thought I might benefit from reading one, the darn reviewer bloody well gave the ending away! I could've strangled him!

Steerforth said...

I remember the Rachel Cooke article about the missing Texan woman. Sorry, but I quite enjoyed it. It's a shame that her piece about blogging was a bit of a space filler.

You're right about publishers' freebies. It used to be a lot worse (or better depending on your point of view)). When I worked in a London bookshop there seemed to be a launch party every week and I went for months without having to buy a drink.

However, can you blame them for doing everything they can to support their authors? Wining and dining a handful of influential people is still a lot cheaper than advertising.

I've noticed that once you leave the 0207 telephone area, you become persona non grata. Publishing is not only London-centric, but inner London-centric.

As a bookseller, all I can say is that in my experience, no amount of hype or freebies will have the same influence as word-of-mouth recommendation. You can't beat the passion of ordinary readers who love a book so much that they have a missionary zeal to tell everyone about it.

I agree with the comment by Shameless about a reviewer giving the ending away. I read a review of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' which gave me a pretty clear idea of how the novel would end. Luckily it is such a fantastic book that it doesn't matter, but I would have liked to have had a critical judgement rather than a precis of the narrative.

S. Kearney said...

Thanks for your comments here. The more the merrier, I say. What can I say about you having enjoyed the Texan woman piece? Maybe it's a newsgathering thing, or a journalist's perspective. I know this is discussed at length in some journalism classes, where I've heard the basic reaction is one of horror. I acknowledge though that some readers will have found it interesting. And, yes, I read it with great eyes-open-wide interest!
You're right about the wining and dining. If I can get away with it to sell my future books! I just won't have the balls to write up a piece in The Observer, saying how pure thou art thee mainstream reviewer. My friend asks for champagne, by the way, at every turn! And I thought that finished after the bubble burst in the 80s!
I still haven't had the energy to read Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies, the book that was reviewed by someone who gave a very helpful plot spoiler. Was it in The Guardian or the New York Times? I am trying to forget the twist, but it's proving harder than I thought. Maybe when I'm 103!

Steerforth said...

Please tell me more about Rachel Cooke's article being discussed at journalism classes. I had no idea that it had such an impact!

Perahps I liked it because it was so atypical.

S. Kearney said...

Gosh, Steerforth, where do I begin, and this blog is not really supposed to be a news or journalism blog, but seeing as you asked.
There has been a general unease - even among people I know who work at The Guardian - about the reporter's motives for covering the Texas story.
If Rachel Cooke in London hadn't shared the same name as the missing woman in Texas - a fact discovered by Googling herself - would the story have been chosen by the Guardian as a feature story for a UK audience? The answer is simply no. The paper doesn't even give that kind of coverage to all of the people genuienly missing in Britain, let alone somewhere else in the world.
Here we have a reporter getting involved in the news process, putting herself at the centre of things, perhaps even creating the news (when you see that the sub-headline to "sell" the story was the fact that a journalist had tracked down a namesake). I have heard the word narcissistic used in this case. This "personalising" of a tragic news event on the other side of the world has touched a very sensitive nerve in the media.
The end result may be an interesting story in itself - indeed someone has now been charged with the murder of the young Rachel Cooke in Texas - but the main point of the debate that has taken place in at least two journalism classes that I know of is about the justification for a reporter to cover or investigate one issue over another. What service is being rendered to the public with this news judgement based on a google search of a reporter's own name?
Atypical is the word to use here. Some might like it, others will think it is tasteless, especially when the Rachel Cooke in the US was the victim of a crime. I'm not necessarily saying it is entirely wrong. It raises eyebrows, concerns and - quite rightly - some serious journalistic debate about news coverage and how news organisations decide what the public should know about. Mrs X and Mr Y in different parts of the UK may very well ask why Rachel Cooke didn't phone them about their missing daughters.

Anonymous said...

I've read your post a bit late, Shameless, but I find it awful -- and I work in the publishing industry (for a science journal).

I know that Nature's book reviews are completely uninfluenced by this kind of practice. (Although I think the book review editor and Yale Univeristy press might go out together for lunch once a year!)

Nature as a publication prides itself on its editorial independence, to the extent that we don't have an editorial board or affiliation with any "body" or "association".

However, I sadly do not have any difficulty believing that the publishing/journalism industry in general is full of "reviewers" like your friend.

S. Kearney said...

Thank goodness there are still reputable organisations that impose standards and fair play. I think it is inevitable that cracks will appear in any industry that is open to these kinds of influences. People like my friend reconcile themselves with the fact that they are simply earning a living, and the wider questions of ethics should be debated by those pulling the purse strings. I can tell you that the public are also not fools ... and they probably steer clear of reviews written by my friend ... she doesn't care either way.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for your reply about Rachel Cooke. It's given me a lot to think about.

S. Kearney said...

A pleasure, Steerforth, and of course it goes without saying that everything is open to debate. I would love to read Ms Cooke's analysis of her choice to do that story. Does she have her own blog? I think she will probably get one soon, after all this reaction she's provoked! She will also probably think of a good pseudonym!