Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, January 28, 2011

How to be a Lit Ed

Working in newspapers means being in a world of constant flux. Everything's going smoothly, then suddenly you get a new editor and it's all change. Eventually this editor will send for you to discuss the books pages (you are a long way down the pecking order). They only ever say two things. Over the years you will hear the same two comments, over and over again.

First, they will say: 'I want you to run reviews on time from now on.' They will say this as though it is an amazing idea that may never have occurred to you before. They will have given a specific rival newspaper the once-over and noticed that you've run a couple of things after they have. 'All I want you to do,' chuckled one editor, 'is to review everything the Daily Telegraph reviews, a week before they do it.' At least he knew how daft he was being. (He meant it, though.)

The 'when did you stop beating your wife' version of this is: 'Why are all your reviews so late?'. Of course, you could patiently go through the week's books pages showing how in fact, everybody is early with some reviews, on time with others and late with a few. You could explain that there are many reasons why book reviews run late, from simple over-commissioning to clashes with other parts of the paper or the sudden appearance of a heavily embargoed, must-do book linked to a news story. But your editor's eyes will simply glaze over at this.

So you look suitably awed and wait for them to share their next gem of wisdom. 'I want you to get more big-name reviewers,' they will say. You mutter something about getting a bigger budget. If they laugh merrily and say no, of course not, you're in trouble. They will continually wonder why you do not bring them the moon on a stick, even though your stick is so small, and the moon so far away. But if they say, 'Absolutely, go get Martin Amis's head on a platter, I don't care what it costs,' you are in for so much fun! You will be talking to people's people all day long. Tony Blair will say no! Julian Barnes will say no! Germaine Greer will say no! David Eggars will say no! Martin Amis will probably not even bother getting back to you. Everyone you want will have better things to do: books to write, companies (or countries) to run. Hours of pleasure, after which you will contact your usual go-to guy or gal and they will do a great job.

The publicist for a famous young novelist would let me get half a sentence out then snap, 'It's a no.' 'But could you ask?' 'It'll be a no.' 'But I'd really like you to put it to her.' 'She says no to everything.' 'But could you at least relay the message?' Two days later: 'I told you it would be a no.'

Do readers care whether reviews are late? Unlike newspaper editors, they don't pore over every other paper noting what's in where. Nor do they believe a book has the approximate shelf life of a pint of milk. I understand the 'news' aspect of 'newspaper' and wouldn't want to go to the extreme of the London Review of Books which thinks nothing of reviewing a book a year late. But a bit of review-date slippage is fair enough.

Some big names are big for a reason; but for every brilliant, conscientious star, there are dozens of the lazy, the complacent and the past-it. Are readers particularly impressed by the name of the reviewer? Do they even read bylines? Perhaps that's where book blogs come in: simply sharing thoughts about books, without worrying too much about time limits or reputations.


  1. I think readers do look at bylines - they are impressed by the big names ("oh look, there's such and such"), and then of course the literati is extremely keen to notice who's doing what ("well he/she's only saying that because he/she laid into their last book"). But in my (limited) experience, the VERY big names can be the worst reviewers...

  2. In my specialist world of children's fiction, I'm told that my name on the cover sells books and can even increase its print-run. In the world of litfic, I'm perfectly aware of being very small fry indeed. I agree, VERY big names can be awful reviewers - many start out a la Amis by trashing everyone else. There are some I always look out for and take seriously, some who strike me as unerringly wrong, many more who are just tossing something off for the money. I'd like to see more "unknown" reviewers tackling fiction in particular but suppose this must be a risk for an editor.

  3. Yeah what about small fries? I wouldn't wait two weeks to say 'No' to you....

  4. I'd be quite impressed if I saw my name as the name of the reviewer. Just saying...

  5. Kathleen Jones http://kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com/
    recommended your blog so I though I'd hop over and have a look.

  6. I think Suzi is absolutely right to ask the question of whether readers care who has reviewed the book. Certainly it loads whatever they write with the weight of a name - all I care about is how did they react to it as a reader, which is to say how might I react to it as a reader. Bring back more reviews, be lesser well-known names, and make the reviews as diverse in subject, author gender, age and genre as the country is. I'm sick of being represented in newspapers by old white men (which I am not!!!)