In a recent article entitled ‘Closing the Book on Anonymity,’ Michael Nolan, books editor for The Saturday Paper, discusses the publisher’s decision to cease publishing book reviews without a genuine byline. As Nolan notes, The Saturday Paper’s reviews were not anonymous, but pseudonymous – with reviewers designated by the same recurring initials for each review. There are compelling reasons to dismiss the notion of pseudonymous book reviewing out of hand as not only puerile, but also potentially deleterious: the annual Stella Count has established beyond any doubt the bias against women in Australian book reviewing, and combating this discrimination surely requires more transparency, rather than the veiled secrecy of pseudonyms. Given this context, it is mildly amazing – perhaps even gobsmacking – that The Saturday Paper went down the road of pseudonymy to begin with. Indeed, the practice was met with early resistance from some reviewers when Shane Maloney outed himself as the reviewer ‘PV’ in an excoriating blog post in 2014.
But Nolan argues for anonymous reviewing as an ‘experiment in the culture’ to test whether ‘the country’s highly concentrated literary community’ affected the degree to which reviewers ‘could be candid in their assessment of others’ work when faced with frequent professional and personal contact.’ Nolan claims that ‘the experiment succeeded, albeit modestly.’ The problem, of course, is that we have to take his word for it: should we accept his claim that ‘anonymity brought a subtle difference’ to these reviews which critiqued ‘some elements of a book didn’t quite work’ that they might otherwise not have noted?
Well, if pseudonymous reviews can presume the gravitas of scientific experiment, any examination of them will also need to put on airs. So, what follows here is not an examination, not even a case study, but a dossier on one of The Saturday Paper’s mysterious reviewers, AF. Several months ago, many writers and publishing industry types I know were bristling at AF’s review of Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s Beautiful Revolutionary. AF criticised the novel at several points, noting that it ‘has trouble maintaining fealty to the historical record while holding readers’ attention’, and that ‘whole chapters unfold like bad consciousness-raising sessions.’ While several people disagreed with the review, most (myself included) felt simply that to trash a book behind a fake name was unfair and morally dubious. It must be said that many of AF’s critics also happened to know Woollett in some capacity – which provides support for The Saturday Paper’s argument for pseudonymous reviewing in the first place.
Combating bias in Australian book reviewing surely requires more transparency, rather than the veiled secrecy of pseudonyms.
Now, I don’t know Woollett and I haven’t read her book, so I am not interested in supporting or disputing AF’s claims, but I thought it might be interesting to learn a little more about this reviewer. AF has been a frequent reviewer since The Saturday Paper launched, filing 28 reviews since 2014, almost all of which discuss fictional works that could broadly be classed as literary, alongside two or three reviews of what might be described as very literary non-fiction. Thirteen of their reviews examine authors who could be described as Australian, while the remaining fifteen review works by overseas authors (what is the point, by the way, of anonymous reviews of overseas authors?). AF’s tastes seem to run towards the relatively dense and literary, with reviews of writers like Don DeLillo, Maria Tumarkin, Fiona Wright, and Ceridwen Dovey.
Ten of AF’s 28 reviews examine works by female-identifying authors. Even though that is not a very high proportion, we know from the Stella Count surveys that, statistically speaking, male reviewers primarily review male authors. The Saturday Paper does provide anonymised gender breakdowns of its reviewers to the Stella Count, and its 2017 analysis shows that 60 per cent of bylines at The Saturday Paper belong to male reviewers. And yet, male-authored reviews of books by female writers comprise only 12 per cent of overall reviews. Pseudonymous reviewing thus replicates the gendered biases of normal reviewing. The percentage of books by female authors that AF has reviewed, however, sits just about at the mid-point between the averages for male and female reviewers. Certain moments in some reviews made me wonder if AF was female, as in this passage from a review of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs:
‘The education of the artist, especially if that artist is a young male, is the perennial grass of the literary field: a yearly recurrence, reassuring if often a little dull. Must we really hear again of the sensitive soul who finds himself in a homosocial world without sympathetic allies?’
I wondered again reading AF’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, where they bemoan, ‘So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America.’
Reviewers have specific preferences and predilections that give their criticism shape and meaning… Removing their names deprives readers of this chance to form a bond with them.
Reading through AF’s work makes clear that they care about language and can readily draw on allusions to other writers. At points, though, AF suffers from what is known as ‘Peter Craven’s disease’, making incessant comparisons to Tolstoy, Dickens, and other canonical writers without a particularly clear purpose. AF also loves to open with reviews with a brief anecdote or bon mot that is obliquely related to the work in question. It can be a little formulaic, but it’s also characteristic of the work of jobbing writers, who like stand-up comedians, need a ready supply of well-honed one-liners to toss out when the going gets rough. And, like a comedian, AF is not afraid to repeat a good joke:
‘A critic once wrote of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that a close reading of the novel would yield, if nothing else, a recipe for raspberry jam.’ (AF’s review of Antony Uhlmann’s Saint Antony in His Dessert)
‘Just as a careful reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will (among other things, admittedly) yield the recipe for raspberry cognac jam, Andrew O’Hagan’s fifth novel…’ (AF’s review of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations)
But at their best, AF is an insightful reviewer, and a genuinely funny one with a relatively clear set of aesthetic preferences. AF can be wowed by unusual and interesting works, describing Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound as, ‘So sorrowful, so savage, so freaking weird… that I found myself backtracking paragraphs, just to ensure I’d correctly understood their lunatic import,’ but also seems to prefer highly rhetorical fiction that still delivers the narrative and emotional payoffs often associated with the great works of realist fiction. In short, AF is erudite, funny, and often pretentious, but not also not a slave to modernist notions of experimental aesthetics.
If the experiment was meant to improve Australian literary culture, then it has failed, by stripping away connections between readers and reviewers at the moment they were most needed.
These observations conclude my dossier, but also bring me back to the Woollett review. It is reasonably clear to me that AF is probably not a reader particularly disposed to be sympathetic to Woollet’s work (from what I know of it). Had AF had an actual human byline, this probably would have been clear to everyone, and no-one would have grumbled about it much. This, of course, is the problem with the ‘experiment’ of pseudonymous reviewing: real flesh-and-blood reviewers have specific preferences and predilections that determine and shape their critical practice. These preferences make them who they are and give their criticism shape and meaning. Removing their names deprives readers of this chance to form a bond with them – unless, of course, they are the kinds of weirdos who compile dossiers on enigmatic critics.
And this is the real shame of The Saturday Paper wasting four years on pseudonymous reviewing. It’s not just that pseudonymous reviewing, which omits the identities of authors, is potentially discriminatory, given that Australian book reviewing is still dominated by white men, and does not adequately recognise various kinds of diversity. Nor even is the issue that it seems cowardly to criticise an author’s work behind a pseudonym. The problem with pseudonymous reviewing is that it deprives us, as readers, of encountering strong critical voices and developing a relationship with them at a point when Australian book reviewing is more tenuous than ever. If the experiment was meant to improve Australian literary culture, then it has failed, by stripping away connections between readers and reviewers at the moment they were most needed. And for this reason, I would argue the end to pseudonymous reviewing is not enough. It’s time to conclude the experiment more emphatically and let a little sunlight in: the pseudonyms of The Saturday Paper should be revealed and restored to the human beings attached to them. If the paper won’t do it, then it would be ethical for the individuals reviewers to do so. Consider this an official request.