Editor of The Saturday Paper wants to keep his book critics’ identities under wraps.
In the age of transparency there are few places to hide your identity other than the comments section of your preferred website or by faking your RSVP.com profile. But Morry Schwartz, the property developer and publisher of The Monthly is turning back the clock, and it’s not just because his new publication The Saturday Paper will be a printed product sold through newsagents.
The new paper scheduled to launch in early 2014 and to be distributed in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra (and also available in digital form) is devoted to long- form journalism and will include a hefty books section as well as reviews of film, stage, television, architecture and the visual arts.
But the editor of The Saturday Paper, Erik Jensen, has revealed that the names of his book reviewers – and only his book reviewers –will not be revealed. He says pseudonymous initials will “liberate” them from the “timidity” he says afflict his broadsheet competitors The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.
“The idea comes from discussions with staff and those whose opinions I respect about trying to do things differently to what others have done, and I think there is some timidity in the literary pages of the newspapers,” Jensen says.
He says The Saturday Paper’s guarantee of anonymity will allow his critics to write what they really think about a work that otherwise they might be loath to express in the small world of Australian publishing. Jensen says he’s had an enthusiastic response to the idea from those within the literary community and from writers who have hitherto declined to review books for fear of tip-toeing around their colleagues’ feelings.
The anonymous byline was de rigueur decades ago in publications including The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker and Time. The Economist still runs stories without bylines.
In an era when marketing departments of media outlets believe readers want “brand name” writers, columnists and journalists, Jensen’s anonymous byline idea sounds either bold or a quaint nod to the genteel past when writers didn’t like to get their names dirty in newsprint.
“Quaint? Quaintness is not the intention,” says Jensen.”This will liberate critics to some extent,” he says adding that one of the key differences to his competitors is that he wants The Saturday Paper to work against using “celebrity” names to write reviews. “Anyone can get big name writers,” he says.
But Jensen’s invisibility cloak will not be shared among those reviewing the performing or visual arts. “Reviewers of film, theatre and visual arts will be named,” he says, arguing that unlike book reviews, these art forms will primarily be included in The Saturday Paper because they offer the reader “access points” .
“By that I mean we’re going to offer readers ways of looking at things, ways of unpicking themes in a work. But it’s not their job to pass judgement. The fact that we are reviewing the work tells the reader that they are works of quality. And if a show is no good we will not review it,” he says.
“Books are different because there’s a problem with book reviews in this country because I think there’s timidity (but) there’s no shortage of critics (of other art forms) telling people want to think.”
If Jensen’s plans are to put his print competitors on notice that The Saturday Paper will not be cut from the same cloth as their publications then he has succeeded.
Daily Review asked the literary editors of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian and one of the busiest freelance literary critics in the country whether the reintroduction of anonymous bylines is a good idea.
Susan Wyndham – Sydney Morning Herald
My immediate reaction is that it is disappointing, as I think the identity and background of a reviewer affects his or her perspective on a book and the way we read the review. I am often asked to provide more information about reviewers rather than just a name.
Disinhibition has both good and bad potential. But I think anonymous reviews are frustrating, sometimes cowardly, and I dislike them even in The New Yorker. How do we know if a friend or enemy of the author is reviewing the book? I’m sure The Saturday Paper will do its best to prevent this, but all literary editors are occasionally caught out, and this provides no checks. It seems an extension of the trend towards anonymous comment on social media and sites such as Amazon, and – without wanting to be paranoid – the creeping culture of secrecy.
Jason Steger – The Age
Many years ago the Times Literary Supplement used to have anonymous reviews. But I think these days people want to know whose opinions they are reading. Readers tend to form some sort of relationship with critics – the question of trust – and often that’s important both to the reader and the publication. There is also the danger of unscrupulous reviewers with a personal axe to grind taking advantage of the situation.
A critic should not have to hide behind anonymity to express his or her opinions. A critic, if he or she is doing the job properly and treating the work with the respect any piece of work deserves, should not be afraid to express strong views. But it’s not simply a question of strong views; in an ideal world those views should be well argued and written so the review of whatever should stand as a piece of work on its own merits. And the reader should have the right to know who has written it.
Stephen Romei – The Australian
I prefer bylined reviews because there are reviewers I will cross the street to read. Geordie Willamson or Nicolas Rothwell or Tim Flannery or Helen Garner, say. Also, when a name writer – Hilary Mantel or Joyce Carol Oates or Colm Tobin or David Malouf – writes something I want to read it because it’s by them.
So I want reviews by these sort of people bylined. And once you byline some people you have to byline everyone. So, for me that’s the end of the matter.
It’s certainly the case that book reviews have run unbylined in the past – but I do think “the past” is the operative phrase. That was in a different time when it was considered unseemly to put your name to mere journalism. I can’t think of journals that do it now; certainly The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, TLS, Spectator all run bylines.
As for the argument that being bylined might make some people think twice before being overly critical: that’s a good thing. You should think twice before tearing into something another person has devoted years of their lives to. And anyway, it doesn’t stop people from doing it: there’s a bloody award for savage reviewing in the UK that people eagerly compete for.
As for the idea that it’s impossible to find people to review books because everyone is friends with everyone, well, that’s not my experience.
Finally, no-one ever suggests film reviews or or art reviews or opera reviews or rock reviews should be unbylined. No-one says David and Margaret should don hangman’s hoods and disguise their voices on The Movie Show. Why should books be any different?
There’s no absolute reason why reviews should be bylined rather than anonymous. It’s simply an archaic convention we’re better off without. Obviously we think differently about newspaper editorials where we abide by the convention that this is what the paper thinks (with all the authority that involves) rather than someone in particular. The major advantage of an anonymous critical voice is for listings of the New Yorker variety because it allows the paper to impose a house style and to present succinctly a summarized opinion that may not necessarily be the writers.
It’s true that Robert Hughes was the first person to get a byline on Time magazine in about 1970 and that the reviews in the TLS used to be anonymous. But the unsigned review is an especial absurdity in our own age of opinion. I’d be a bit surprised if Morry Schwartz and his advisors didn’t suggest to Erik Jensen that he rethink this one for full dress reviews of arts, film, theatre and books.