George Orwell, Confessions of a book reviewer
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.
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!