No Baggage or False Freedoms?: On Anonymous Book Reviews

Are anonymous book reviews a brave new enterprise or a dubious exercise? Is it possible to guard against score-settling when only the editor knows a reviewer’s identity? What makes good criticism, and does anonymity help or hinder it?

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When Erik Jensen, editor of the new Saturday Paper, announced their plan to publish anonymous book reviews, he said it would be a way to do them differently and do them better – and to correct some of the problems he’d noticed on the book review pages while working on newspapers.

By publishing reviewers under a regular set of pseudonymous initials, he claimed the paper would enable readers to follow those reviewers regularly, if they wanted to, but without the ‘baggage’ that a real-world name entails.

That baggage? ‘The relationships writers and reviewers have with each other, particularly on books pages, where writers are often reviewers themselves,’ he told Jonathan Green on ABC Radio National’s Sunday Extra. ‘I feel sometimes, reading the weekend papers, that there’s a timidity there and critics – particularly critics who are also book authors – are not necessarily saying all they’re thinking.’

The only criticism he’d received about the proposed model had been from other literary editors, he said. ‘Every significant book author in the country I’ve offered this opportunity to has jumped at it … I haven’t seen any book critics or authors complaining about this.’

That was last December; in the past fortnight, with two issues of the Saturday Paper on newsagent shelves (in selected states), debate has erupted among the literary community in general about the value or otherwise of its anonymous reviews. And not just among literary editors.

False freedom?

‘For me, anonymous reviewing offers reviewers a false freedom,’ says Patrick Allington, a literary critic whose novel, Figurehead, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin. ‘A reviewer should be prepared to fess up to his/her opinions. That said, a reviewer’s public language will inevitably be more measured than his/her private language: I might (hypothetically) call Tim Winton’s Eyrie ‘crap’ from the privacy of my bar stool, but in print I would hope to find a more constructive way of saying it isn’t his best book.’ Allington is careful to point out the difference between a timid review and a respectful review – he advocates the latter.

Alison Croggon won the Pascal Prize for Critic of the Year in 2009 for her theatre criticism; she’s also a poet and novelist, and intermittently writes book reviews. ‘I suppose the Saturday Paper’s assumption that reviewers have to be protected from possible blowback in writing their honest responses mostly makes me wonder about reviewing culture,’ she says. ‘Is literary culture really as bad as this suggests? Surely anyone who is concerned about that aspect of criticism shouldn’t be reviewing in the first place?’

Thinking twice ‘before being overly critical’

It’s true that, behind the scenes, literary editors often report approaching local writers who say no to reviewing their Australian counterparts – because they don’t want to openly say what they think. It is a small scene. But is it necessarily a problem that those who aren’t willing to say what they think will turn down the job of making a public assessment? As Stephen Romei, literary editor of the Australian, reports, those same editors also have no trouble filling their pages with writers who are willing to make those assessments.

‘As for the argument that being bylined might make some people think twice before being overly critical: that’s a good thing,’ says Romei. ‘You should think twice before tearing into something another person has devoted years of their lives to.’

Alison Croggon believes that critics should be accountable for their opinions. ‘I think it’s important that I put my name beside what I publish, especially in the case of reviews (and even more especially, when I write a negative review). After all, I am responding to another person’s work. It seems to me only fair that I should put myself out there, just as the artist has. It’s a question of good faith.’

Australian literary culture ‘somewhat insular and not particularly robust’

Andrew Nette, a crime writer, reviewer and publisher of Crime Factory, believes that Australian literary culture is ‘somewhat insular and not particularly robust’ when it comes to reviewing – that when authors review as well as publish their own work, it can make it hard for reviewers to say what they think. But he doesn’t believe anonymous reviewing is the answer. While it does offer the reviewer freedom to say what they think, the lack of information on who is doing the reviewing – and the context, knowledge and history they bring to the review – is ‘a major issue’. ‘If I read a review of a crime novel by a reviewer who I think doesn’t like or get crime or genre writing, I’ll filter it accordingly. I can’t do this if I don’t know who the reviewer is.’ Fellow crime writer Angela Savage (Nette’s partner) points out that the identity of the reviewer is also important to authors – and that the assessments of some reviewers (like Graeme Blundell, when it comes to crime writing) carry extra meaning for writers as well as readers.

Savage does acknowledge that the small world of Australian writing and reviewing can result in a reticence to be critical in reviews – as if you’re writing with the author standing in the room looking over your shoulder’. She says social media makes that small world ever smaller, and that thanks to the medium, ‘most of us know each other virtually, if not actually’.

But she doesn’t think anonymity is likely to help. ‘It might be better to provide reviewers with clear guidelines on reviewing policies and make those guidelines publicly available. To encourage a climate of public dialogue about books, even if it sometimes takes the form of respectful disagreement.’

‘Context is everything’: Lisa Dempster

Lisa Dempster, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, believes that Australia does need better, more robust, and more critical literary discussions – but, like Nette, she doesn’t think anonymity is the path to achieving that. ‘Context is everything,’ she says. ‘Erik Jensen has said that readers need to trust the publication, but that’s a big ask and also kind of misses the point. Even if I do trust the publication, I do not always necessarily agree with its editors (in fact, being challenged can be the best part of reading a good paper or journal). I would prefer for everything to be open and to decide myself how to regard the review based on what I know about the critic, the publication, etc. Any thoughtful reader would, surely.’

Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, also believes that context is important for readers. ‘I am often asked to provide more information about reviewers rather than just a name,’ she told the Daily Review. Jason Steger, literary editor of the Age, agrees that while anonymous reviews were once unexceptional, these days readers want to know whose opinions they’re reading.

Alison Croggon believes context is important too – and that anonymous reviews imply ‘some kind of magisterial and necessarily invisible objectivity’, which she calls ‘a very tired concept’. She continues: ‘Interesting reviews come from interesting subjectivities, so there’s a way in which insisting on anonymity seems to me to miss the point of critical response.’

On responsibility: ‘I know who these people are’

Anonymous reviews traditionally place the focus on the publication rather than individual writers; as Peter Craven points out, they allow a paper to impose a house style. In this way, they’re not dissimilar from a newspaper editorial, which implies that this is what the paper itself thinks. Though the opinions in the Saturday Paper’s reviews are not purporting to be those of the paper itself, a publication does take on an extra responsibility when it asks the reader to place extra trust in its curation of reviews, as the Saturday Paper explicitly has – and places an extraordinary burden of omniscience on its editor.

Many observers have raised the question of how readers will know what vested interests an anonymous critic has, and how the paper will guard against that influencing reviews. ‘That seems kind of mad to me,’ Erik Jensen told Jonathan Green in December. ‘I don’t know what these people think editors do, but the relationship is not Batman and the Commissioner. I know who these people are. I will be scrutinising their work.’

But is it realistic to expect that one person, however knowledgeable, can keep track of all the myriad relationships and biases that every writer has with every other writer? ‘How do we know if a friend or enemy of the author is reviewing the book? I’m sure the Saturday Paper will do its best to prevent this, but all literary editors are occasionally caught out, and this provides no checks,’ says Susan Wyndham. It’s common knowledge in reviewing circles that reviewers often alert literary editors to potential conflicts of interest when asked to review particular books, and thus avoid them. But what about when a reviewer doesn’t do that – and no one but the editor can possibly spot it?

A recent example, pointed out by more than one interviewee for this piece, was Cameron Woodhead’s online run-in with crime writer Tara Moss over gender bias in book reviewing. ‘I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but this is the kind of privileged whining that annoys the crap out of me,’ he wrote. Later in the exchange, he said it was beneath his ‘dignity to argue with children’, then tweeted to Moss that he would ‘await your next novel with interest’. Later, he reviewed Moss’s novel Assassin in the Fairfax literary pages. Because his name was attached to the review, readers were able to read his opinion in the context of their earlier stoush.

Anonymity, gender and ethnicity

Sydney-based reviewer James Tierney points out that anonymity makes it impossible for outside observers to measure the gender and ethnicity of reviewers within a publication’s review pages – issues that have gained real currency in recent years. For example, conversations about (and accounting of) gender balance in literary pages contributed to the founding of Australia’s Stella Prize for Women’s Writing, now in its second year. It has also caused literary editors to think about the way they commission reviewers, and make extra efforts to achieve a balance.

Opening up a dialogue'

‘Good criticism should open up a dialogue – between critic and author, critic and reader – and anonymity shuts down any serious dialogue, as the review can’t then be read in any broader context,’ says Lisa Dempster. ‘Basically I think that an anonymous review can only ever be that – a review. But any serious critic should be striving for something better: to write good literary criticism, to engage with literary issues and to encourage discussion and debate. Any publication that doesn’t aim for this is cheating its audience of the opportunity for serious engagement on literary topics.’



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6 comments so far:

Slight correction of typo to my quote in this article. Should read "encourage a climate of public dialogue about books, even if it sometimes takes the form of respectful disagreement." In other words, I'm in furious agreement with Lisa Dempster: anonymity shuts down any serious dialogue.

Thanks for letting us know, Angela! We’ve corrected your quote. – Moderators

Angela Savage
13 March at 09:19PM

Speaking as a book reviewer: NO ANONYMITY, THANKS.
My reasons are many and varied so I'll cite my highlights.
1) False Freedom: in a small market, you seriously think writing style can't be recognised?
2) timid reviews: I've grown in reviewing over the past 3.5 years. These days I'm only timid if my opinion is 'this is crap' and the book has a blurb from the likes of Neil Gaiman.
3) respectful reviews: my private comments can differ from my public comments. I'm aware I'm a harsh critic by nature so I temper that with what I hope is wisdom. I'm also aware that I'm often not the target market for books I'm reading so I try to enable my readers to judge for themselves if they want to read this book.
4) thinking twice: some authors have told me they won't write negative reviews, they just won't review books they don't like. This is a valid line to draw. I won't review a book where the author has flamed, trolled or bullied me in order to avoid accusations of spite. I think this is also a valid line to draw.
5) 'anonymity, gender and ethnicity'- the Wheeler Centre again fails to acknowledge disability (I've previously enquired about disability access for Wheeler Centre events). Disability is an issue often overlooked while people with disabilities remain invisible on the fringes of society. I am one of the few people in Australia reviewing books after openly disclosing that I have a disability, I would then have to moderate - considerable alter - any reviews I wrote anonymously, in order to conceal my identity. I think this would be to the detriment of readers, the general public and the disability community, especially as I also have a Master of Social Science and I'm a graduate of Reins, Rope and Red Tape: South Australia's (former) disability advocacy arts program.
Regarding anonymity: the internet is a strange place where people, even without anonymity, indulge in Net Rage (the equivalent of road rage) at people they know in real life, treating these people in ways they never would face to face. I've had a group of authors bully me online. One year later, one threw a twitter-tantrum because I declined to interview her. Two years after the bullying another author emailed asking for an interview. When I declined, he replied, 'But I didn't know who you were then' although we had already met face-to-face. I suspect he meant he didn't know he would later want something from me.
How much worse will this become when people can review with impunity?
Say 'no' to anonymity. Say 'yes' to accountability.

‘anonymity, gender and ethnicity’– the Wheeler Centre again fails to acknowledge disability (I’ve previously enquired about disability access for Wheeler Centre events). Disability is an issue often overlooked while people with disabilities remain invisible on the fringes of society.

Thanks for pointing this out, Nalini. Above, we were relaying and reporting on comments made by a third party. But it’s fair to suggest we might have included comment from a writer or critic with a disability.

Regarding disability access at Wheeler Centre events, we have general accessibility information available here. Please contact us if you require more specific information.

  • Moderator

Nalini Haynes
14 March at 04:14PM

Last year my partner rang the Wheeler Centre regarding a specific event and was told there was no disability access so he just had to queue earlier than everyone else if I wanted to be able to see. We've also asked on site at events and been told essentially 'no'. At the Christmas program ushers instructed me to sit half way back in the hall although there was seating available much closer to the front.

Thanks Nalini – as you know, we’re following this up via email and in the interest of keeping this comment thread on topic, will continue there!

  • Moderator

Nalini Haynes
14 March at 04:35PM

I am coming at this from another small(er) community ie Speculative Fiction in Australia much the same as Nalini above so I am aware that I am commenting on a scene that I don't have much experience of ie big "L" Literature.

If a reviewer/critic is secure ( where what you say won't negatively effect your livelihood) in their position then I think there exists a possibility that we can grow a truly critical community.

If we value honest thorough critique and are prepared to support it independent of the funding available for the written arts in general I think you have potential for the sort of harsh and honest critique that is healthy.

If we offer remuneration that enables people to become literary critics as a career choice, where they don't have to teach, work under, by judged for funding by some of the very people they might be criticizing the works of, then I might be swayed to the idea that we can have a healthy culture of critique with everyone putting their name to things and saying respectfully than Tim Winton really is overrated (not that this is my opinion as such- I was forced to read him at school and that almost always kills an author).

The Australian Speculative Fiction scene is said to be one phone call wide and one phone call deep and I don't know if the Literature scene is too different, too much bigger. Indeed looking at my twitter lists it's evident how small the scene can be ie who follows who etc.

I recently interviewed Dr Ben Peek, who began his early writing career giving brutally honest critiques of the local scene, he still has people that won't talk to him ten years later :).

With social media shrinking the world an author who moonlights as a critic could find themselves cut off from publishers/opportunities, not only in local scenes but also in international genre scenes.

As for dialogue between critic and author. Is that really how it works? Most advice I read about authors and reviewers/critics is authors should never engage with the reviewer or review? Once the book is out there it's the reader's and any commentary by the author can be construed as bullying/intimidating behavior. Perhaps this a difference between legacy reviewing and the more democratic/chaotic online review/critique/personal response to a text.

Nalini has some excellent points about disability and writing style. How hard would it be to put together two and two once you have a number of data points and disability would be one of those points/perspectives you would want to have included in the reviewer's profile for reasons of diversity and context.

I do have a fondness of Pseudonymity in a controlled environment ie like a newspaper, where snark and viciousness have to perhaps pass editorial filters. There are concerns whichever way I look at this.

Sean Wright
14 March at 05:20PM

IN a small literary scene, I think it's very difficult for people to write honest reviews. If I know someone in person, and like them, I find it impossible to say something public and negative about their work, because it seems disloyal. Even if I know them only through social media, I am still less likely to be critical of their work. When I wrote the Australian fiction year in review for Westerly, I only took the job on the proviso that I could skip reviewing anything I disliked. Is this cowardly? perhaps, but I'm particularly uncomfortable criticising debut novels because I know how devastating it can be to receive one. Even 'respectful' reviews can feel like body blows.

To me there are also obvious disincentives to writing negatively about the work of people who might later be judging competitions we've entered, assessing grants we've applied for; or of negatively reviewing novels by publishers we might later submit to ourselves.

It would be nice to think that everyone was mature and professional enough to 'get over' negative reviews and not hold them against reviewers but I don't believe that is the case. Cameron Woodhead wrote a 3 line panning of my debut novel which made it clear that he hadn't even read the whole book, and I'm still holding a grudge about it 5 years on. Is that petty? I'm sure, if they were completely honest, many authors would admit to holding similar grudges.

I accept the myriad concerns of anonymous reviewing, and I don't think it's a perfect solution at all, but I do believe that it would create a more robust and genuinely critical review culture.

Annabel Smith
19 March at 03:53PM

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Nan
18 July at 07:23PM

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