Does a review need to be mean to be admissible?

I’d not come across the Sydney Review of Books before a pingback landed in my inbox this week. If you’re not quite sure what a pingback is, here is Wikipedia on the subject:

A pingback is one of three types of linkback methods for Web authors to request notification when somebody links to one of their documents. This enables authors to keep track of who is linking to, or referring to their articles.

Sounds good, huh? I clicked on the link to see what it was all about, and started to read what initially seemed to be a thoughtful piece, by academic Dr Ben Etherington of the University of Western Sydney, about the means by which a novel becomes a Big Book in publishing terms. Except it turned out to be not so much a thoughtful discussion as a personal attack on the writer Hannah Kent and her debut novel Burial Rites. Also included was a deal of wailing about the perfidy of a world which allows the opinions of bloggers to interfere with the ivory towers of literary criticism.

Etherington shows himself to be someone who loves to use multi-syllabic words. The imbalance in the article, with its accompanying sense of petulant foot-stamping, becomes increasingly amusing. He didn’t enjoy Burial Rites, by the way, and cannot allow that others might not agree with him.

My moment in the spotlight was brief. I am an ‘internet loudmouth’ who is cynically used by publishers in order to manipulate unsuspecting potential readers. The publishers do this by making me write favourable reviews by sending the book to me for free.

By and large, the reviews I write here are favourable. This doesn’t mean I like everything I read, or that I only write to please the marketing departments of publishing houses. I just prefer to review books that I like. If I don’t like them, I choose not to review them. Should I have a large disclaimer at the top of every page? Maybe. Do I only review books I’ve been sent for free? No. When I am sent advance copies, do they come with a contract holding me to a positive review stance? Of course not. My views are my own and, when I feel the urge to be mean spirited, I can choose not to go there. Like Sally Albright, basically I’m a happy person. Doesn’t mean I’m deep, but I’m not going to apologise for it.

With one of those moments of serendipity, I also came across a piece in The Times Saturday Review this week. Nick Hornby’s new book, Stuff I’ve Been Reading, is a collection of his columns from The Believer, a hip US cultural magazine, where he writes under a no-snark rule, only talking about books he can recommend. I like that approach. It works for me.

And, despite Dr Etherington’s angst, a quick internet search for reviews tends to bring up a variety of opinions. When I followed up my review of Burial Rites by running an interview with Hannah Kent, I had a quick look at the reviews on Amazon. There were enough negative ones there to send me back to the text, to check that I really did like it as much as I had said. And, you know what? I did. I remembered how I read it in two lengthy sittings, hauling myself out at the end by a sheer effort of will.

I think I’m lucky that I haven’t hooked a massive advance for my own debut novel. But, whilst this means I may well avoid the ire of meta-reviewers such as Etherington, I can promise him that I will happily use any method I can to publicise The Summer of Secrets when it comes out next year.

And, by the way, thanks for the pingback. It’s done my stats no harm at all…


You can read my review of Burial Rites here and my interview with Hannah Kent here.

If you’d like to read the article in the Sydney Review of Books, the link is here.


Other book-bloggers mentioned in the piece include:


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