Monday, May 4, 2009

Mary Beard - The Politics of Reviewing

Today Ohio State was privileged to host Dr. Mary Beard who spoke on some of the practical issues of getting reviewed and writing them, both issues that are of great practical concern to me. I must say that she was an absolute gem both as a speaker and as a human being. Here are my notes for the lecture. As always any mistakes are mine. Dr. Beard has actually posted a piece on her stay in Columbus including a brief overview of this lecture. She even refers to the blog question I asked. So see here for that.

Dr. Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge in England and one of the pioneering women in the field of classics. She is also the editor of classics section the Times Literary section (TLS) so she is on both sides of the reviewing fence. She both reviews and gets reviewed.

Any interesting book is bound to get some bad reviews so it should worry a person if they do not get any bad reviews. To start with the actual process, which is the same for any mid range literary broad sheet, no one looks at a reviewer closer than the author. Most people just glance at the beginning and maybe the end. Reviews have minimal impact on sales. Most of the impact is when you have a reasonably popular book and you get a series of popular reviews. The important thing is to get reviewed, not whether the book gets good reviews or not. Never write a review that you are not prepared to say in front of the author. People do not mind you disagreeing with them as long as you are not nasty. This is not in the financial interests of TLS but never respond to a bad review. It just draws attention to it. If need be have a friend respond.

How to get a review in TLS? It comes out every week and has a circulation of forty thousand, which translates into a readership of at least one hundred thousand. Rupert Murdoch owns TLS but, as naïve as this sounds, there is no direct interference. Likely it serves him as a useful cover when he gets accused of downgrading things. Books come in boxes and get put down by some wage slave. Most things reviewed get sent by the publishers. It helps if TLS occasionally does a foreign, non English, book every so often so those they seek out. There is more politics and favoritism than one would like to hear. There are some big names that automatically get reviewed. There is probably no person in the classics who gets that status. It helps if you can match up a book with a reviewer who can write an interesting review of it. You sometimes need some boring reviews, though. In the end, though, you do need to sell. There is bad luck but there is not much that is sinister. One should not send a book to a reviewer whose view on the book you can already predict. Beard once nearly sent a book to a reviewer who had just walked off with the author’s husband. One should try to get a reviewer slightly out of his main area of expertise. She likes to get a mix of views from reviewers. Beard may not agree with Victor Davis Hanson’s politics but he writes a good review. One has a one in forty to a one in fifty chance of getting reviewed for something in the classics. This is rather good considering that for novels it is more like one in two hundred-fifty.

Reviews are terribly important still. There is something important about critical comment to serve as a gatekeeper as things move out into society. There is much less of a problem with review assassination than with brown nosing. People are all too willing to be nice than to be critical. There is an issue of democracy. Beard worries about people reviewing books they know little about and it immediately winding up on people’s desktops. Graduate students tend to be highly patronizing. It is important to show that you have engaged the argument. She advises that one avoid adjectives like “simplistic” and “outrageous.” Do not assume that because an author did not mention something they were unaware of it. One should honestly state the argument and no one is going to object if you are critical. Her advice to graduate students who want to start reviewing is that they should start with something very technical that they in particular know something about. If it misfires it is less likely to come back to haunt them.

During the Q&A session I asked Dr. Beard about blogs. As someone in the world of established print I expected her to have a negative view. It turns out that Beard does not have the anxiety about blogs that she has about other forms of online media. With a blog you get what you see. People write about what they read last week. Everyone knows that blogs have no quality control. Publishers in England have caught on to this and have started inviting bloggers to parties. There is going to be a creeping institutionalization of blogs. As of now Beard likes what she sees though she suspects that things are going to change.

Another person asked Dr. Beard how one goes to the next step from being an academic writer, selling a thousand books, to actually becoming popular. As Beard mentioned previously, reviews do not help. What does help is getting on talks shows, into airplane magazines and front tables at book stores. It helps to get a big advance because that forces the publishers to try to sell your work. She strongly advises on to ask about the publicity budget. Finally, unless one hits it very big, one should not bother with an agent.

Dr. Beard’s final words of advice for writing reviews was not to start a review with poetry as it is a bother to set right and not to end with “thus we see.” Beard herself likes to start her reviews with an anecdote. Though admittedly this to can get rather formulaic too.

I asked her, after the lecture, if she was related to the famous early twentieth century American historian Mary Beard. She had a good laugh at that. Apparently her mother named her without ever having heard of Mary Beard. She herself only found out about her namesake as an adult.

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