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George Orwell, Confessions of a book reviewer

March 27, 2010

It’s been a while since I wrote on a George Orwell essay so it seemed – while I’m still reading my current read – to be a good time to do another. And what better, given my recent “how to write a book review” post, than to do Orwell’s essay on book reviewing.

Book Stack

Books (Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

Orwell, as usual, makes you laugh. The essay starts off describing a rather seedy sounding person who is either malnourished or, if he’s recently had a lucky break, is suffering from a hangover. This person, Orwell says, is a writer. Could be any writer, he says, but let’s say he’s a reviewer. Yes, let’s, I thought, this could be interesting. This poor reviewer has a bundle of books from his editor who says that  they “ought to go well together”. They are:

“Palestine at the Cross Roads” [the essay is dated 1946! Oh dear], “Scientific Dairy Farming”, “A Short History of European Democracy” (this one is 680 pages and weighs four pounds [the satire is not necessarily subtle!], “Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa”, and a novel, “It’s Nicer Lying Down” (probably included by mistake).

(Note: Square brackets, me; round ones, George)

He goes on to say that, for a few of these, this reviewer knows little and so will need to read enough to avoid making some howler which will betray him to the author and the general reader. See my “How to review post” and the injunction to “Be accurate”! Harriet and I were serious! And then he describes how, at the last minute, just before the deadline, the reviewer will produce something:

All the stale old phrases – ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc etc’ – will jump into place like iron filings obeying the magnet.

Remember what Harriet and I said about adjectives? That goes for clichéd phrases too. He says that “the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books … not only involves the praising of trash … but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatsoever”.

To remedy this, he suggests that non-fiction books would be best reviewed by an expert in the subject and that novel reviewing could be done well by amateurs, but concludes that this is all too hard to organise so the editor “always finds himself reverting to his team of hacks”.

And then, here comes the crunch. He says:

None of this is remediable so long as it is taken for granted that every book deserves to be reviewed.

His preference is that we should ignore the majority of books “and give very long reviews – 1000 words is a bare minimum – to the few that seem to matter”.  He goes on to say that it is useful to publish short announcements of forthcoming books, but that 600 word reviews (even of books the reviewer likes) are “bound to be worthless”. (Phew, mine here tend to be around 1000 words, give or take! But, I do also think that there is something to be said for succinctness.)

There is a little more but this is the gist. Don’t you think Orwell would be rather fascinated to see today’s rather anarchic world of litblogs where amateur reviewers are doing exactly what he said – and where publishers, even if not newspaper and magazine editors – are starting to see the benefit of people reviewing books they want to review. Of course, he may not like the potential impact on his professional reviewer income stream, but them’s the breaks!

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2010 4:16 am

    I agree with a lot of that! Particularly about review length – 1000 words seems about right to me. I become more and more certain that the bulk of book bloggers time should be devoted to books they enjoy – there is something about genuine enthusiasm which makes for a good review

    • March 27, 2010 9:28 am

      Yes, I pretty much agree Tom – re length – as I think we’ve discussed before.. I have done the odd shorter and longer one, but around 1000 feels good to me PLUS it’s as much as I usually have the energy to do anyhow! I think it’s my natural fit. I spend some time tweaking and tightening when I’ve drafted – and then find I’ve made a mistake and have to edit after publication, or I want to tweak a bit more.

      Re focussing on books you enjoy, yes, again I agree. I read to enjoy, not for some academic or other purpose of being knowledgeable…there’s so little time, and so much to enjoy. Others do read I think for other reasons, and that’s fair enough too, but I tend to resent having to read books I don’t want to. That doesn’t mean that I think everything I read is faultless … but it means that I try to be careful about my choices. You get a feeling, don’t you, about what you are likely to enjoy.

  2. March 27, 2010 6:41 am

    Mr. Orwell would almost certainly and definitely not like my excessive, overabundant, flowery and unnecessary use of too many extra adjectives…

    • March 27, 2010 9:30 am

      I don’t know about that – you have a particular style and do it well. He’s more on about meaningless adjectives, and cliches. I think you’d make him laugh!

      • March 27, 2010 9:31 am

        I think you have to say that – but thank you anyway :)

  3. March 27, 2010 10:07 am

    Hannah (aka WC – oh dear, that doesn’t sound quite right). I do NOT have to say that. As George Orwell himself says – as I recollect – rules are made to be broken when is comes to writing. In other words, follow the rules unless it is better/more effective not to!

    • March 30, 2010 8:35 am

      Or, “If you can get away with it, do it,” exactly. Here’s a sentence from Robert Hughes –

      “He [David Hockney] did not always get the light right, but he fixed other things — those flat pastel plains, insouciant scraggy palms, blank panes of glass, and blue pools full of writhing reflections and brown bodies. A Bigger Splash, 1967, remains the quintessential Los Angeles painting, taut but inviting, like a friendly, de-historicized de Chirico …”

      – full of adjectives, and while I’ve seen people criticise Hughes’ taste in art (reactionary, they say) I don’t think I’ve seen them say the man can’t write.

      • March 30, 2010 9:27 am

        Well, if you use adjectives like THAT, I don’t think Orwell would complain! BTW I don’t mind a little Hockney. The Grand Canyon painting here is Canberra is great to look at. I’m not up to date on art terminology, but I rather like the stylised realism/super(as against sur)realism of it.

      • March 31, 2010 11:19 am

        I like his provocative blankness (that stylisation), and the framing and posing that turns the blankness into part of a straight-faced joke (and as I write that I wonder: what joke, what do I mean? I mean that he encourages us to read more into the painting than we might if we saw the same scene acted out in real life — and then, with that blankness, seems to say, “But look, it’s so ordinary, how can you read so much into it?” I’m thinking of Hockneys like this –

        http://www.duvekot.ca/eliane/archives/david_hockney.jpg

        – and the way he’s posed the man with the cat on his lap here (and if the viewer didn’t know the painter was gay they might guess it from this) –

        http://thewitcontinuum.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/david_hockney_gallery_20.jpg )

  4. March 27, 2010 9:06 pm

    I think what would amaze Mr O – because I’m old enough to be amazed by it myself- is the accessibility of the online review. In general, it doesn’t much matter what you read or which authors you like, you can find reviews about them online. All it takes is the title and author in a Google search and there you are. Some of those reviews will be of the inane gee-whiz-I-loved/hated it variety but most of them are thoughtful and helpful. Will I invest my hard-earned money or my precious time in Solar? in a Don De Lillo or a Cormac McCarthy? Should I risk playing with Finnegan’s Wake? And so on…

  5. March 29, 2010 10:06 am

    I’ve long regarded Orwell as my hero. And this little essay just confirms it.

    • March 29, 2010 10:24 am

      Yes, he’s both fun and interesting to read isn’t he? I’ve read a few of his books – two novels and Homage to Catalonia – and am enjoying dipping into these essays now.

  6. March 31, 2010 1:39 am

    I love Orwell. I have his complete essays and hope to one day go on an Orwell essay reading binge until I can’t take it anymore. But his style is so crisp and clear, smart but accessible I’m not sure I could tire of it. Love what he said about amateur reviewers. It probably stirred up a snake’s nest when he said it originally and now doubt would do so again.

    • March 31, 2010 7:39 am

      If you haven’t got time for a binge, one every one and then works really well. If I had time I’d love to research some contemporary reviews to see what they DID say!

  7. March 31, 2010 2:39 pm

    DKS, Provocative, yes, I like that word. I nearly wrote ironic in my comment but decided that wasn’t it – but I did mean that he makes you think there’s something more than the apparently simple image. Provocative is just right. I like those examples you give.

    • April 1, 2010 10:08 am

      I stopped by the National Gallery of Victoria yesterday and ran across one of his drawings in a new exhibition they’re showing — I forget what the drawing was called, “Peter drawing from behind,” or “Peter drawing” or “Peter from behind,” something like that — but the idea was that we were looking at Hockney’s lover, Peter, from a three-quarter behind view as he was absorbed in a drawing on the table in front of him. We were spying on him. And he’s only wearing shorts, and as I looked at the shorts, I saw that the seam-line running down the side of the shorts went straight on into the line that was describing the side of his thigh. So: it was if the artist was saying, “I see his legs and buttocks through these shorts. I look at him in these shorts and I see him naked — I see his nude legs. And you should think of him naked too. But hidden at the same time. Because, of course, he is wearing shorts.” A tiny thing, but suggestive and clever.

  8. April 15, 2010 1:08 am

    Nice quotes. I usually hit around the 1,500 word mark I think, though that’s including quotes and whatnot from the text. Others do well with less, but styles differ.

    Orwell, he’s always good value isn’t he?

    • April 15, 2010 9:29 am

      Thanks for popping by Max. Yes, he’s great value and wonderful to pick up at will. Re reviews, styles do differ as you say. My longer reviews do tend to be ones with more quotes – I like including them but am never sure just how many to include.

      • April 15, 2010 8:31 pm

        I struggle with that too, I think I sometimes overquote to be honest. When I read a book, I take a brief note occasionally of passages I may wish to quote, which often means when I finish I have tons of them and have to choose between them. If I used another method of working out what to quote, I might well quote less.

  9. April 15, 2010 10:45 pm

    Ah, methods of note-taking. I’ve tried the scribble on scrap paper as I go, the post-it notes, and the pencilled marginalia. None are fool-proof and none really help me reduce the number of things I mark; some just slow me down less!

  10. April 15, 2010 10:52 pm

    Pencilled marginalia? Writing in a book!

    I’m peculiarly anal about that for some reason, I don’t even like the authors signing the things (“hey, that woman’s writing in my book, I don’t care if she wrote it! Hands off my precious…” etc.)

    • April 15, 2010 11:50 pm

      LOL, I only use pencil! I can erase it when I want! I cover my books, don’t bend back spines that won’t bend, am anxious about their misuse when I lend them, but have decided for my sanity that pencilled marginalia is the most efficient way to go. And, I do love a signed copy! Chacun a son gout, as they say…

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