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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Are South African critics too soft?

Helen Moffett - 2010-12-02

Among the worst debacles I saw this year (leading to cancelled friendships, etc) were folk responding angrily or passionately to bad reviews, or even just one critical line in an otherwise good review. Unless you have actually been slandered in a review (as I was in 2008 in a local paper, which later set things right via their ombudsman), or a reviewer admits in the review to not having read/finished the book (this actually happened in the case of Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City – and once again the same paper did the decent thing and asked someone else to re-review), the best thing is to take it on the chin. It’s hard for younger writers, I know, but try dignified silence and counting to 57893.

A reviewer I know had nothing good to say about a young writer’s first novel – she even hated its cover – and agonised over her negative review. The young writer was gracious, conceded she had lots to learn, worked extra hard on her second novel, and the two in fact became friendly. This is only possible if the reviewer has critiqued the book with a pure heart, however.

There are grey areas. For example, in a "review" or, rather, personal attack of Chris Thurman’s Sport Versus Art, it was crystal clear that the reviewer had only read Chris’s intro and not the rest of the book. That should have been caught by the books page editor, though, but I guess the deadline was too tight.

There does need to be a code of conduct for reviewers. The guy who wasted column inches saying "I never got past page 70 of Zoo City, so instead of a review I'm going to write an essay about metaphors" should never be allowed to write a review again, but how did he get past the editor in the first place? Flagrant score-settling (as in the Thurman case) should also be grounds for barring someone from reviewing.

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