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?

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.’