Friday, February 28, 2003

How Did I Get Involved With These People?: I've written a couple of short book reviews and I hope to do more – they're linked over on the sidebar. But I'm pleased to say I actually read and finished the books I've reviewed. This appears to be counter to the generally accepted method of reviewing, according to this article.

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.

But surely they are speaking of unscrupulous scam artists, not serious reviewers? Nope.

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).

The New York Times has subsequently had to publish a correction.

Or worse, this anecdote about one of my favorite historians, Paul Johnson

[H]istorian Paul Johnson [was asked] to review a big book - more than 800 pages - on the American Civil War. To give Johnson more time, Wilson asked his assistant to have it biked over that same day. The next morning, she admitted she had forgotten to send it and that it was still sitting on her desk.

At that moment, "the fax machine had begun to whirr into action, and 800 perfectly formed words on the American Civil War, with observant comments on the merits and faults of the book, had dropped into the intray. I saw no reason not to publish this review", says Wilson. "Like all really good journalists, Paul had somehow intuited the true nature of the thing under discussion."

Now, A.N. Wilson believes all journalism to be a form of imaginative literature rather than "an exact science"…

It is well known that few people buy books and the ones that do don’t read them. So in a way, reviewers are being true to the book buying public.