Thursday, August 25, 2011

Literary Critics - Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid?

The theme of today's post is "demystifying the scary book reviewer". Many novelists are petrified of those who can make or break our book on the pages of literary magazines. I'm no exception.

And so it may come as a surprise to you to see with us in the virtual studio today, an acclaimed literary critic, Nicholas Reid.

Q: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Nicholas. You read for a living. How did you land such a prestigious and pleasurable job?

It’s certainly true that I spend much of my life reading, but it’s not quite true to say that I read for a living. In the last ten years, I have written and had published five substantial books including biography (James Michael Liston – a Life, Victoria University Press 2006) and institutional history (The University of Auckland – The First 125 Years, Auckland University Press 2008), as well as writing the poems that make up my first, and forthcoming, collection ( The Little Enemy, Steele-Roberts 2011). I have also had one stint as a Research Fellow at a New Zealand university, and three stints as a short-term contracted lecturer in History at three other New Zealand universities (so I’ve done teaching time at Vic in Wellington, and at Otago, Auckland and Waikato.)

So much of the reading I do is for historical research and in order to prepare lectures and write articles.

Having said that, I also do an immense amount of reading for pleasure and I certainly do enjoy getting as much book-reviewing work as I can.

I do not wish to disillusion anybody, but I have to point out that there’s not a great deal that is “prestigious” about book-reviewing. I think most reviewers like me get what work they can; but (unless one is a books pages editor for some publication), it is not really possible to make a living in New Zealand as a book-reviewer. The work is freelance and while what I or any other reviewer is paid is generally reasonable, it certainly isn’t enough to live on. To the best of my knowledge, everybody in New Zealand who does book-reviewing does it as well as a day job. (Apart from a few who might have a wealthy spouse of partner to support them.)

As for ‘landing’ the reviewing job, I suppose it was simply a matter of asking editors if they would take me on to their roster of reviewers and then showing that I could write a competent review. It really is one of those jobs where you get work only by daring to make the personal contact. Nobody ever advertises for books reviewers. However, I already did have a reasonable media profile before I took to book-reviewing, because for quite a few years I had been a film reviewer, and had written the first book-length study of the revived New Zealand cinema (A Decade of New Zealand Film, John Mcindoe publisher 1985). So I already had contacts in the media and publishing world.

Q: << Swallowing disillusionment>> Who are your favourite contemporary authors?

Oh dear! One of those questions that I always hope nobody will ask me. I am constantly reading new works of fiction and non-fiction, but I am also a frequent reader of older and even “classic” works. If you were to ask me my favourite novelists of all time, I would easily make up a long list that included Balzac, Conrad, Cervantes, Nadine Gordimer, Dickens, Zola, George Eliot and so on and so on through many illustrious names. But when you ask me about contemporary authors I freeze up, because committing yourself to one always seems to pigeon-hole you. Let me say that I admire the wit of David Lodge, and I think that Philip Hensher writes prose as good as any in English at the present day. (In a review I warmly recommended Hensher’s King of the Badgers this year, but I did warn that it had explicit sexual content.) I am impressed by China Mieville’s weird fantasies, which have a real adult intelligence running them (unlike most books that are listed as “fantasy”). Among New Zealand writers, I like the close, humane observation of Owen Marshall, the tart, acerbic irony of Charlotte Grimshaw, the bold experiments in narration of Charlotte Randall, and a number of up-and-coming younger writers who have shown they can write about the past without patronizing it. But I won’t say any more or I’ll hang myself on my own recommendations.

Q: I'll look out for China Mieville’s work, "weird" is enough of a recommendation for me. Many people's view of today's literature is that it's dreary and depressing. The language may be beautiful, but we don't want to read about war atrocities, rape or SIDS. What is your personal take on the topic?

I am never depressed by a well-written book, even if it is on atrocities, rape etc. If it is well-written and thoughtful, then I am heartened to know that there are other people in the world perceptive and articulate enough to consider these matters without sensationalism. I am depressed only by sensational trash and by genre-writing that shows neither originality nor flair. (Nothing wrong with a good thriller or police procedural or fantasy or love story – but most of the ones that are published look as if the were written by computer programme).

It may be possible that current novels are somewhat split between high-end ‘literary novels’ that repel a broad readership; and lower-ed genre and airport lounge stuff, which is fairly unreadable if you respect your own intelligence. If some readers are discontented with the modern scene it may be because, on the whole, we no longer have those long, capacious novels that had both high literary AND broad mass appeal. (I’m thinking of Dickens, of course.) But then maybe such novels were always the minority.

Q: Never depressed by a well-written book? That's a challenge for me, having been depressed by a number of award-winning novels. To change the subject a fraction, what do book critics do when not reviewing? Tell us about Nicholas Reid, the writer.

My wife and I are fully aware that we are demographic freaks for our generation. We have eight children, the three youngest of whom still live at home with us. Also, although we are both still in our ‘50s, we already have ten grandchildren. We are both active parents and grandparents. So as you may imagine, much of my life is taken up with family (which also includes one pet cat and one pet rabbit. I seem to be the only one who feeds them!).

Family matters are the main things I do when not book-reviewing. However – as well as the commissioned writing and teaching that I’ve already mentioned - I also have a number of hobbies that are important to me. My wife is a music teacher, all our children have received or are receiving a musical education. I myself cannot read music and have never played an instrument. But I love many varieties of music, especially jazz, what is loosely called ‘classical’ music, and opera. On Sunday afternoon you will usually find me glued to Concert FM listening to the weekly opera broadcast, and as often as I can I write programme notes for Opera New Zealand productions.

I also aspire to be a poet, and have twice guest-edited the magazine Poetry New Zealand, as well as getting a least some of my own poems published, including the forthcoming volume. I like being part of that culture, but have been part of public readings only a few times.

Then there are walks on the beach, walks around the block, idling, socializing, and lobbying or whatever commissioned work I can get. It’s a full life. Reviewing is part of it.

I also take pleasure in producing my blog, on top of all the reviewing I do. Check it out at

(From the interviewer: Do check it out. A few posts down you'll see a fascinating discussion on the etymology of the word "utopia".)

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