Monday, February 24, 2003

Read any good books lately?
By David Sexton, literary editor, Evening Standard

Book reviewers always have one question, at the point of accepting a commission: "How long is it?" They are not hoping, as buyers of mass-market fiction usually are, that it's a really good substantial read. They are praying that the book is not too long.

Reviewing books is not a particularly well-paid form of journalism and it takes time. A book of any more ambition than a thriller can't be read for review at a rate of more than 40, or at most 60, pages an hour. Some books are only 120-pages long and can comfortably be digested in a couple of hours. Others, though, are 400, or 600 pages, or, in some dreadful instances, even more, and they can easily take days to get through.

The reviewer's fee, however, usually remains the same. So, shocking as it may seem, the truth is that some reviewers skip some books. And there are a few who skip through all the books.

They have to be good to get away with it. The more conscientious reviewers enjoy a privileged position. They are able to see the book before anybody else. So they can perform a useful task by simply describing it to a readership which has not had that advantage. What's more, while it is not so easy as you may think to have complete and certain knowledge of a longish text, it's a doddle compared to acquiring complete and certain knowledge of the outside world, which most other journalists have to attempt. The whole thing is right there, on your desk. You can check your facts until you are sure. Some books even have an index.

Yet, believe it or not, there are reviewers who just throw away such a head start. In the States, one such has just come to grief. In the New York Times Book Review, a professor of creative writing, Beverly Lowry, reviewed a book by one of the people involved in the Whitewater affair, The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk by Susan McDougal. An Arkansas newspaper columnist, Gene Lyons, soon spotted that Lowry's review contained a basic error about whether or not the author eventually testified in court (she did).

"Yo, Beverly. Next time, read the damned book," he urged, arguing that "assuming minimal competence, Lowry simply cannot have done so".

Read the complete article at the London Evening Standard

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