Sunday, December 15, 2013

Anonymous Reviews

 A new Australian newspaper called Saturday is set to come onto the market next year. I hope it does well, we need a lot more diversity in the Australian market. The newspaper will review books, nothing unusual there. What is unusual is the book reviewers will be anonymous, with the by-line for each review just containing made-up initials.

In a discussion on the Sunday Extra program on Radio National Erik Jensen, the editor of the newspaper, said that anonymity should lead to more fearless reviews. He said many book reviewers were prone to timid reviews as they did not want to offend writers they knew in the small Australian literary scene. This argument is frequently used to criticise the standard of literary criticism in Australia. Whether it is true, can only really be answered by each individual reviewer.

Jensen feels that giving reviewers anonymity will make them more fearless in their reviews, and result in better reviews. Stephen Romei, the literary editor of the Australian, was also part of the Sunday Extra program. He wondered if anonymity might encourage more negative reviews of books, as the reviewers tried to show that anonymity meant they were now free to say what they really thought about a book.

There is always the problem that a writer who personally dislikes another writer could use their anonymity to attack that writer. Conversely, if there is no by-line, how do we know that a glowing review was not written by the writer’s best mate or an editor who hopes to win the author over to their publishing house.

I read reviews in The Age, and I always check who the reviewer is so I can establish where they are coming from and if they have any knowledge of the genre they are reviewing. For example, Lucy Sussex (pictured) one of The Age reviewers, is a literature professor at Latrobe University who writes speculative fiction so I feel she is qualified to judge science fiction.

In contrast, I read a review in The Age by a literature professor of a Mathew Reilly book. The professor seemed to judge it against classical works of literature, and not as the techno-thriller it is. His big complaint was the lack of sex, which seemed like a juvenile attempt at suggesting readers of techno-thrillers are asexual.  

I would prefer reviews to have a by-line and be knowledgeable and fearless, but also tactful.

Would you bother reading anonymous reviews? I am not sure I would. I am unlikely to read anonymous reviews on Amazon.


graywave said...

When I write reviews, I always put my name to them. In fact, it's a policy of mine to write under my full name whenever I produce commentary. (The one exception is on Twitter, where I use the name @graywave, because it's short and my real name is only a click away.) If you don't put your name to your opinions, how can anybody judge what they're worth? And how can anybody who disagrees engage you in discussion? Anonymous reviews on Amazon are a good example of how low the standard can get - anonymous reviews on Goodreads are a better example. (Why is Goodreads so feral?)

Yes, I agree, some people are under various kinds of social pressure to remain silent and anonymity allows these people to speak out. Anonymity has great value in allowing oppressed people to be heard. Cloaking cowardice, ignorance, cupidity and spite in anonymity abuses this valuable tool and tars all anonymous commentary with the same brush.

Actually, I can't believe someone is launching a dead tree newspaper. The triumph of hope over the Internet?

Graham Clements said...

I always put my name to reviews I put on Goodreads and Amazon. If I think a book I've read is bad, I usually don't review it, unless the author is a huge name and I reckon they can take the heat eg Ben Bova. I did not realise the reviews on Goodreads were that bad, but the ones I read are usually written by writers I have connected with.

Everyone must have heard how concentrated our media is. The Guardian started an Aussie online version last year. The Daily Mail (I think) is about to start a tabloid online version in Australia, and now Saturday, a real paper paper. Murdoch will have to get onto Tony to ban the starting of new newspapers.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Interesting that a paper would start up at all given the state of newspapers generally, especially given their current waning memberships and the proliferation of review sites.

I agree with you, I think to hold a certain amount of power coupled with anonymity gives rise for some jealous hack, or failed writer to inject their personal opinions into the review. Everyone should be held accountable and if the reviewer doesn't have the guts to write a honest review, whether they know the writer or not, then they are not much a reviewer at all. Give it to someone with some balls.