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2014 columns, Books

The pseudonymous critic

by Carody Culver , March 4, 20141 Comment

Saturday Paper

 

Last Saturday saw the debut of the aptly named The Saturday Paper, a new publication from Schwartz Publishing (the same folks who bring us the Monthly and Quarterly Essay). With an emphasis on long-form journalism, the first serious print newspaper to be launched in Australia for over 40 years comes with an old-fashioned twist: it features pseudonymous book reviews.

In December of last year, Books+Publishing quoted the paper’s editor Erik Jensen as saying that ‘Books pages are full of authors reviewing authors, almost always in the uncomfortable position of writing about someone they know and in many cases someone they like’.

Pseudonymous reviewing is a bold choice, particularly considering that The Saturday Paper’s reviewers are authors and critics – writers whose names, were they identified, would surely add authoritative weight to their words. Jensen’s decision is logical – he evidently wants the paper’s reviews to be honest – and the overlapping personal and professional connections between Australian authors and critics has no doubt precluded the latter from being entirely upfront with their opinions of the former’s work on numerous prior occasions.

Interestingly, only the paper’s book reviewers are to have their identities protected – reviewers of stage, screen and visual arts will have their real names in print. Jensen told Crikey that he received an ‘enthusiastic response to the idea [of pseudonymous books reviews] from those within the literary community’, and his decision creates an intriguing point of different between The Saturday Paper and its broadsheet competitors.But what does this apparent fear of writers expressing their opinions in print say about the art of book reviewing in Australia? Is our literary community really so hamstrung when it comes to honest critique?

Pseudonyms have a long and rich history in the world of letters, and not just among authors – anonymous reviews were once the norm in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement, but it’s a practice that’s generally fallen out of favour (although The Economist and The New Yorker still publish anonymous pieces). Leading literary magazines such as the Australian Book Review and the London Review of Books are, perhaps, partly so well respected due to the intellectual heavyweights that often adorn their bylines, and that must count for something if you’re a reader.

Australia has many fine literary critics and editors – Susan Wyndham, Stephen Romei and Peter Craven, among others – and seeing their name next to a review is meaningful, as it is if you see that a favourite author has contributed a review of another’s work. That’s not to say that writers without such profiles don’t have opinions worth considering; simply that readers are drawn to reviews by writers they know and whose prose they enjoy.

If identification breeds timidity, perhaps the opposite is also true – anonymity could potentially make room for unnecessary spite or for secret grudges to be safely aired. Cutting commentary has its place, of course – witness the recent spate of inspired Amazon customer reviews in response to Liberal Senator Cory Bernadi’s The Conservative Revolution – but the arts criticism we expect of certain publications is, surely, about writers expressing their views, arguing their case and not being wary of owning their opinions in a public forum.

Nonetheless, Jensen and Schwartz Publishing should be applauded for producing a broadsheet that offers something different to readers and that focuses on quality news journalism instead of sensationalist headlines (Murdoch press, anyone?). It’s a shame that print editions of The Saturday Paper are only available in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, with digital-only subscriptions for everyone else; If Jensen’s belief – articulated in an interview with The Conversation – is that if ‘you put together a good paper … people will buy it’, he’d do well to remember that those of us in the rest of Australia might like to come along for the ride.

Still, whether you’re reading from the page or the screen, it’ll be interesting to compare the style and tone of The Saturday Paper’s pseudonymous book reviews – the first of which are disappointingly brief – with their bylined counterparts. Could this mark the beginning of a new chapter for Australian book reviewing? Don’t put my name to that just yet…

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

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