Talking to Orwell about Book Reviewing

These days in retirement, I have idle talks with myself, and sometimes with famous literary personalities I wish I had met. This particular conversation was with a colonial and a futurist, someone I would love to have spoken to given our common backgrounds, except that he died six years before I was born: George Orwell. So, I had this imaginary conversation with him about another activity we share: book reviewing.

George: Five books were sent to me in the mail four days ago on diverse subjects that I know nothing about. An 800-page review, one that includes all five books, is due by midday tomorrow.

Shane: Get on with it, then. At least, you get paid. I do book reviews for love. But, I get to choose books I WANT to review. And if I don’t like a book, it’s toast as far as I’m concerned.

George: Lucky beggar! I review a minimum of a 100 books a year, and I would only like to review about 10 of them. The rest is crap.

Shane: A hundred books! You must be rich. I’m averaging 40 per year – gratis. Beyond that, it will feel like WORK!

George: Well, it IS work. For me. I procrastinate until the last minute, then I pile in stock phrases like —“a book that no one should miss,” “something memorable on every page,” “of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc., etc.,”— and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to spare.

Shane: That’s no better than the “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” or “the mutual admiration society” ethics we have today, where writers write reviews of each other’s work, and every book gets a five-star rating.

George: The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with. Since the war, publishers have been less able than before to twist the tails of literary editors and evoke a paean of praise for every book that they produce, but on the other hand the standard of reviewing has gone down owing to lack of space and other inconveniences.

Shane: Well, there is no space in the newspapers these days, for there are few paid reviewers like you out there. But there are tons of reviews floating around in cyberspace. There are even review factories that give free books to unproven reviewers and charge publishers for listing their books on their platforms.

George: Is that so? Well, a good deal of reviewing, especially of novels, might well be done by amateurs. Nearly every book is capable of arousing passionate feeling, even if it is a passionate dislike, in some or other reader, whose ideas about it would surely be worth more than those of a bored professional.

Shane: But wait until you piss off one of those amateurs and they launch a fatwa against you. I have seen writers destroyed on these online review forums when a private spat goes viral.

George: It used to be that only writers did that kind of stuff. Remember H.G Wells tearing strips off Henry James for his satirical novel Boon? At any rate, the best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews — 1,000 words is a bare minimum — to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless.

Shane: Oh, George, stick to your century, man! How times have changed! No one reads a 1000-word review anymore – attention spans don’t last that long. The 600-word review might fare marginally better, and the only hope these days is in the one-liner that we upload to a place called Twitter.

George: Upload? What an earth is that? Twitter?

Shane: Instant publishing, old chap. No more long waits for publishers to respond, for editors to tear your work apart. None of that. Just write and upload, and the whole world gets to read you, if they care to. But there’s one catch – it’s free.

George: Free? How do you guys live?

Shane: That, my dear George, is something we are all trying to figure out.

Note: Many of the quotes from George Orwell in this dialogue were created from his essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” – 1946.

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