WORD Christchurch 2023: Last WORD goes to reviewers

Although I've been blogging for quite a few years, I was glad of an opportunity to take some instruction from the experts. My work reviewing books and events is done in a small pond with wide reach. This panel discussion was an excellent opportunity to add some spice to my technique. What I found was a community sense that we do it all for love.

This panel included multi-talented author Rachael King, previous director of WORD Festival Christchurch and recently awarded Best Reviewer at the 2023 Voyager Awards; Erin Harrington of Flat City Field Notes, Vanessa Crofskey of Pantograph Punch and Philip Matthews, reviewer of film, books and music, currently working at Stuff Christchurch (and recipient of the 2022 Voyager Award for Reviewer of the Year).

Philip Matthews opened with a commendation for the panel, who had bravely come out in the open, and quoted a Leonard Cohen song, Almost Like the Blues:

There's torture and there's killing / And there's all my bad reviews 

Which puts it all into perspective, really.

Are reviewers more, or less likely to give good, or bad reviews due to the size of the (small) communities we work in?

Erin: I question what a 'bad review' is. A review can be perceived as good if it highlights unsuccessful elements of a work, but doesn't do it in a mean-spirited way. This is tricky, a bit like telling your best friend their skirt is tucked into their pants. And there's every chance you will have to look that person in the eye.

A lot of Rachael King's early work was reviewing friends' bands, which was positive.

She shared an experience reviewing a book she didn't like (do I have to name names?!): - the thing to do is engage with the text, say what you did and didn't like, and why. A reviewer needs to produce a work of depth to be able to do that. She did get confronted by someone at a party once, but no one else had reviewed their book at all, so they had a robust discussion and ended up friends.

What is it they say about bad reviews and publicity? Oh yeah - there's no such thing. Oscar Wilde said,

There's only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

Vanessa agrees: 'Creation is an act of care' - a reviewer should engage with the work, analyse what the artist is trying to achieve, and if they reached that goal. In a small community, reviewers lean toward a 'polite positive', but when you add a minority voice, that pool gets smaller and smaller: the reviewer feels a responsibility to promote. 

Here's where I come in. I promote a lot of Kiwi writers, helping share their voice with a wider audience. I tend to give positive reviews - I won't promote a book I didn't enjoy. I'm often unsatisfied with the ending of a story, but you get that - you can't always get what you want, as they say. I'm mindful that if I say I didn't like the ending of a book, other readers might not bother.

Why are reviews necessary? All agree the arts are important; we have to take them seriously. It's an ecosystem: without eyes and a voice, the arts would be 'like a car without an engine.'

'Criticism as advocacy', adds Erin. Her approach to critical analysis is, Why this book, why now? Erin feels that 'you are the membrane' - she may say the book 'is not for me, but you might like it. Art is impactful, you can't not talk about an element that bugs you.' 

Vanessa points out that, with ephemeral arts (such as WORD events), a review is often all that remains.

Rachael King, whose reviews of others' work informs her own, highlights the fact that there isn't enough funded time for in-depth reviews, which used to be in all the newspapers. This is undervaluing books, she says, pointing at the complete lack of critical attention to children's books.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Financial cutbacks have meant that exploitation is 'baked into' the industry, says Vanessa. It's a vicious cycle, but one of selflessness: if writers don't get reviewed, their work is undervalued. Once you've read a book, then responded to it, says Rachael, you may have spent around sixty hours on it. I myself get time to cover an event, then one hour to respond. The rest is my gift to the community I believe in.

You get what you pay for, says Erin. 

Philip remembers nostalgic days when we used to review movies. 

Tied to a lack of funding is a dearth of mentoring and professional development in critical skills. The right person to review something is someone from the community it represents, yet that person often can't be found. There's therefore a lack of confidence to 'take a punt, succeed or fail', or work to a deadline. Philip says you have to teach yourself reviewing to find your own voice. In his day there was no 'I' in review - now social media is all 'me me me' - a more personal response. 

Vanessa mentions a book called Thick - which talks about how a personal response is important for easy access to a work. Philip Matthews advocates reading as training, a way to find your voice. The Physics Room here in Christchurch provides mentoring, and soup! 

How do free, short-review sites affect the industry, especially as they're increasingly marketised; aimed at publication-for-clicks/outrage?

Vanessa reminds us that while Goodreads is owned by Amazon, it's still a good platform. Stories of art can affect its success or inclusion, so we target the platforms or trends that will reach the audience. Although our brains are getting a little short-circuited, BookTok has done great things for bookshops; communities of Māori and Pasifika are on BookTok a lot.

Rachael loves BookTok reviewers - everything doesn't have to be written in long form - a great example is an eleven-year-old doing really well-informed YA reviews on this platform. But the long-form review has a depth of engagement with a work that you won't get from these.

Erin describes the 'snowballing' effect that's made possible by social networks, which can of course share links to the longer form as well. Rachael curates her internet interactions; seeking out the media she's interested in, rather than being consumed by algorithms.

We still need books and print, the panel agree, and if a review reaches even just one person, it starts a conversation.

Vanessa points out that 'zines are the 'OG' of review magazines, made for free to 'commune with community.' Zinefest, also part of WORD, was happening outside our venue at Christchurch Art Gallery - we all walked through its wonderfulness to get here.

Again we circle back to the painful truth that writers are undervalued. Yet reviewers can be their advocates, with a deep understanding of the craft:

'if you don't give cuddles and feedback, how will they improve? (Erin Harrington).

How do we preserve the craft that benefits the art? Engaging feedback and opportunities to publish and engage with community need more investment, says Vanessa. If you pay more putea, the better it is: the well-paid reviewer can afford to take the artist out to lunch and gain more insight into the work they're promoting.

If we solved capitalism, criticism would surivive.

At this point, things got a bit anarchic.

Smash capitalism! says Rachael King!

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