Hatchet Job

A shorter version of this article was published on 26th June, 2016 in The Star

(I wrote something similar as a blog post back in 2007. So … nine years and nothing has changed.)

At the recent, Asian Festival of Children’s Content, I was a panelist for a discussion on book reviewing. The others on the panel were author Cynthia Leitich Smith, historian Leonard Marcus , and Perth Writers Festival programme coordinator Maria Alessandrino. Obviously, all of us do book reviewing on the side.

review panel
[From left] Maria Alessandrino, Cynthia Leitich Smith, me and Leonard Marcus after our panel at the AFCC.
In this session we were supposed to ‘unravel and manouevre the touchy waters of book reviewing’ and ‘discuss the challenges, conflicts of interest and the difficulty of crafting a critique that adds value to the literary community’.

‘Touchy’ is a keyword when reviewing Malaysian books, but Leonard Marcus says that he has also had to deal with authors who’ve taken issue with his reviews. Knowing this made me feel somewhat better.

I’ve been a book reviewer since 1997 – for Galaxie Magazine, and (from 2000) The Star.

Not a great deal of book reviewing is done in Malaysia, as not many print publications have book pages. Also, because of the lack of space, most book “reviews” that appear in newspapers and magazines, are actually just lists of titles, accompanied by synopses.

I wrote reviews of up to 1,500 words when I started writing them for The Star. These days, reviewers are asked to keep it short because it seems readers can’t handle articles longer than 800 words – I don’t know, maybe they self-destruct after the 810th word.

People say to me “You’re so lucky to be a book reviewer. Free books!’ Well, especially, in the early days of reviewing, these free books included ones I did not enjoy, but because I was reviewing them, I forced myself to finish reading. These included all the Harry Potter books, with the exception of books three and seven.

Even now, when age and experience allow me more freedom to pick and choose what I review, I sometimes find myself hating a book by a favourite author, or much worse, just feeling totally apathetic about it. Some reviews are still easier to write than others. Sometimes, the words just flow, I wish I wasn’t restricted by a word limit, and my review is written in under an hour. Sometimes, I find I have no words to describe a book, every sentence takes half an hour to write, and, by the end of it all, I’m surprised the book and my computer keyboard aren’t swimming in blood.

Reviewing Malaysian books involves a separate set of problems. Our book community is tiny and so it’s common for book reviewers to be acquainted with, or eventually meet the authors and publishers of the books they critique.  If your reviews aren’t always 100% encouraging, they may provoke anger and dismay. Some would find it quite a challenge to write what they really feel about a book, knowing that an honest evaluation might result in the receipt of abusive emails and passive-aggressive Facebook comments.

I am one of the few who review children’s books, but a local publisher once said that while she would happily give me copies of the books she published, she would rather I didn’t review them.

Also, I can’t review books published by Scholastic Malaysia, as I am its editor. This is a conflict of interest that bothers me more than, say, reviewing the work of a friend, which I take no notice of because I find I have no problems being honest to my friends and they are, thankfully, not the petty, irrational people. However, reviewing a book I’ve edited would be as impossible as if I’d written it myself.

In the last three or so years, I’ve prioritised reviewing Malaysian books because the local publishing industry is the one I identify with and belong to, and the one I feel needs the most support of Malaysian book buyers.

I would like to see our literary scene develop and improve. I would like to see our authors writing books that sell well and are critically acclaimed.

When I write critically about Malaysian books, I do not do so with glee. I don’t point out what I perceive as flaws in order to mock. I believe honest, constructive criticism of a book “adds value to the literary community”. Saying something could be improved upon in a book means I want to see improvement. It does not mean I’m gloating over its imperfections.

Although reviews are supposed to be objective, the personal tastes of reviewers are bound to creep in. However, a review is only someone’s opinion. We write what we think, but it’s simply what our thoughts about a book. We judge the book, not the author, not their looks, and not their character, their parenting skills or their taste in music. In short, it’s not personal and so, a review should not provoke rage. Unfortunately, it frequently does. Once, I was even told that I would burn in hell for an opinion voiced in a review. Imagine: A book review being able to determine your ultimate destination!



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