Monday, March 21, 2011

Author Peter Wells on time allocated to book reviews, and their quality

This month has been Book Month which is a laudable venture at a time when books seem under such challenge. There have been talks all over the country. I went to one myself, when Dame Fiona Kidman talked in Hastings. It was a personable talk, one of those events where readers get the chance to encounter a working writer and try to work out the strange strategyms that a writer takes over the long distance journey of a work.

Because books do take time. Even the fastest written books take about three to eight weeks to actually just physically write. And authors who manage this feat usually have years behind them in preparation, pre-thought - a kind of stopped up energy which, once released, fleets away like a hare.

Most books usually take two to three years, a fact which astonishes most people. This is why authors are generally not rich people. It takes so long and the financial results are so poor that - if you were being paid by the hour - it would be cents rather than dollars.
But that is what you put up with in order to have the intense pleasure of a work which involves long consecutive thought.

It is like going on a journey - a long and exciting exhausting journey to an unknown destination.
I mention all this because on Friday I heard something which really disturbed me.

It was on Nine to Noon on Radio New Zealand, which is generally an information-rich programme which takes a certain level of intelligence for granted. If that sounds snobbish, sorry, but that’s the truth and the beauty of it. Every society needs such forum if a society is to progress.

What disturbed me was that Charlotte Randall’s latest novel Hokitika Town was being reviewed. As a fellow-novelist I was interested, maybe even competitively. I respected Charlotte. After all, she had won the country’s top fiction prize, which made her the equivalent of an All-Black.

Unfortunately the review was squeezed out by the kind of story which clogs up the stratosphere. This was a moving story of someone who had had a double lung transplant and who had ended up being, we were told, an opera singer.
Good on her.
There are uplifting stories on people like her in women’s magazines (usually with horrific photos), on 20/20, on just about every format you can think of.
The story obviously had such legs that she was allowed to talk for much longer than her alloted time. (She was meant to finish at 10.30am. She was still talking at 10.42am)
Then we had to hear the evidence that she was actually a singer, which meant a not very convincing voice singing not very good lyrics which took up even more time.
As I say, good on her, it’s uplifting and maybe we all need good news at the moment.
But the outcome was a disgrace.

A book which would have taken one of the top writers in the country several years to write was very quickly - and I’m afraid - inadequately reviewed.

(The reviewer knew a lot about gold rushes on the West Coast but didn’t realise you never reveal major plot points, let alone all the plot points and outcomes of a novel.)

After all, narrative tension depends on not knowing what comes next.
Katherine Ryan seemed distracted and didn’t leap in to stop him. And then suddenly it was all over.
A major work by a major New Zealand writer had been dustbinned in a few minutes. (I hasten to add, he basically gave the book a thumbs up.)

Radio New Zealand and Nine to Noon is one of the most important marketing venues for literate New Zealanders.
That it happened in Book Month just revealed the way books get squeezed out in our society.
I know it was, to a degree, unavoidable. The opera singer’s story was too good not to be juiced half to death.

But I ask you: surely in Book Month isn’t it just the time every book lover expects the whistle to be blown and for a little bit of respectful coverage given to one of the serious contenders in book culture in New Zealand premiering a new work?

This piece first appeared on Peter Well's blog -
Peter Wells - NZ Book Council website.


John Lewis said...

I agree with Peter Wells but have to say that regular listeners to Nine to Noon, a great programme by the way,will know that this cutting short of the book reviews happenmsd frequently. Kathryn Ryan always seems to want to ask her interview subject 2 or 3 more questions than there is time for, and hey presto, the book review gets shortened as a result.
Sometimes the book reviews are cut to 2 or 3 minutes!
Come on Kathryn give books a fair go.

Janet Heslop said...

While I absolutely agree with Peter and with John I guess we must just be thankful that there is still a daily book review on the National programme. One does look back with nostalgia though at the thoughtful, often lengthy, frequently robust reviews that Kim Hill, and even further back Sharron Crosbie, used to have with their regular reviewers.
However in this day and age of disappearing book reviews let us be grateful that Radio NZ, the Listener, the Herald, and the Sunday papers are still all devoting space to comment on books. Long may it last.I often, usually actually,select the books I read based on these reviews.

Peter Wells said...

I agree completely with the comments on how valuable Nine to Noon book reviews are. They are often insightful and the conversation between Kathryn and the reviewer often brings out further information. My commentary was really about the irony of a top NZ author's new book being speedily dispatched in NZ Book Month, while an overseas person with a rather moving Disease of the Month narrative was given a huge amount of air time. Sometimes it is important for NZers to defend the role and place of their own culture within their own culture - albeit to other New Zealanders...Peter Wells

Bookman Beattie said...

I have been following these thoughtful comments with interest.

I have been reviewing books on Nine to Noon since the programme first started with Sharon Crosbie presenting and have reviewed with all the presenters ever since. Goodness how many years is that?

Sometimes your time is cut short and I guess that has to be expected when you are on live radio. Sometimes the time is cut altogether because of some breaking news item, the Christchurch earthquake eg.
I have the advantage of having this blog so I can later "publish" my review in full if my time has been cut short or if the slot is cancelled for some reason.

I must say though that regardless of the time allocated to my review I frequently get feedback from people saying they have bought or borrowed the book as a result of the review or even just telling me that they had heard me on Radio NZ!

While fully appreciating Peter Well's frustration at the scant time given to Charlotte Randall's new novel, and the unfairness of that considering all the years of work and effort that had gone into writing the book, (and what a shame the reviewer gave the whole story away), nevertheless there is no doubt that these reviews are incredidbly valuable in promoting books and reaing overall. And of course they are archived by Radio NZ and can be heard via their website long after their live presentation.
Peter Wells knows and acknowledges this of course but his frustration has caused him to comment and it has opened up some intetesting discussion.
So my thanks to both Peter Wells and also to Radio NZ for their long commitment to the cause of literature and literacy.

Elizabeth Hartell said...

All very interesting. I have been listening, and enjoying this programme for as long as The Bookman has been reviewing books on it.
Over the years there have been a variety of presenters - Sharon Crosbie, Maggie Barry, Wayne Mouat, Kim Hill,Linda Clarke - are some who quickly come to mind and of course they all have their own styles and skills as well as their own particular interests. Some therefore paid more attention to book reviews than others. Kim Hill, one of the great NZ broadcasters, was a voracious reader who would never dream of reviewing a book unless she had read it, and sometimes had more to say about the book than the reviewer (!), was perhaps the best of all in the book area.

But as Bookman Beattie and others rightly point out we do need to be grateful for the daily book review whether it be 2 minutes long or 10.
But Peter Wells is timely in his criticism, it did seem especially poor judgement in terms of the time allocated to one of NZ's brightest writing talents compared to what was essentially a soap opera story which would have been more at home in Woman's Day.

As an afterthought I must say we readers also owe a great deal of gratitude to Bookman Beattie for the time and effort he gives with this invaluable daily book blog. Hurrah!

Peter Wells said...

I am anxious that this discussion is put in a broader context of reviewing a NZ book in NZ Book Month.
It isn't an attack on Nine to Noon's book reviewing which, as everyone points out, holds a vital role in celebrating and promulgating knowledge about books.
I really chose the instance as an example of the way Book Month really only scratches the surface of society, maybe because book culture itself is so vulnerable and under assault. We live in a contemporary world in which empathy is seen as a key ingrediant to being human, probably because the reality is we all live in an increasingly dehumanised world. So stories like the one about the double lung transplant – while uplifting in themselves and quite legitimate - start to have a greater weight than the product of a long meditation on what it means to be human in NZ, placed in an artform like a novel.
It is almost like a conflict within our culture and global culture.
In one way it could almost be summed up as globalised culture imported like McDonalds versus a whitebait fritter lovingly made by someone who caught the whitebait herself.....and noted the local weather conditions, what the landscape looks like, how people talk and act and requires a quick gulp down and the other requires just a little bit of savouring....

Mary McCallum said...

As a long-time RNZ reviewer like Graham, I am amazed at the impact of the reviews on book buyers and appreciate the way they add to the book 'conversation' in this country. I also understand the pressures of live radio and really appreciate Kathryn's efforts to do her best by the book review slot despite that. I find she welcomes input from a reviewer prior to going on air - an email that a particular book is worth spending time on (e.g. Charlotte Randall's latest) and some suggestions for questions always yields gold.

Perhaps Booksellers (who fund the review slot and send out the books) could make those same representations? i.e. it's NZ Book Month - could the focus this month be on NZ books - and in particular these books....

I've also often wondered if it would be best to have the reading of the day before the book review as that is a set amount of time that can't be tampered with, and it would make sure the review slot is the length allotted to it.

As to the quality of the reviews -- I think that is another conversation we should be having in this country. The quality varies enormously across TV, radio and print. The best reviews go larger than the book - they become that exploration of empathy and culture Peter is talking about and can make for terrific interviews/articles that do more than sell books.

Kilmog Press said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bookman Beattie said...

Thank you for all these comments. I'm sure the powers that be at Radio NZ and Booksellers NZ will be following it all with interest.

In her thoughtful comments Mary McCallum suggests that Booksellers NZ "fund the review slot". I think it would be more accurate to say that the Publishers fund the slot as they pay Booksellers NZ $135 for each title selected and provide two copies of each book.
Then Radio NZ pay the reviewer a $75 book token, I'm not sure who pays for this?
Radio NZ select the reviewers and manage the dates etc while Booksellers NZ post out the books to those reviewers advised by Radio NZ.
That is my understanding of how it all works.

Dan Slevin said...

Radio NZ buy the $75 book tokens. There was a kerfuffle last year when payment for reviewers got a bit confused. But in the end it was confirmed by John Howson that RNZ doesn't allow third parties to (even seem to) influence reviews through payment.