Books, Fiction, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

Compliment Sandwich? Study finds book reviews are far too nice

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If you want to write something for the Australian Book Review — Australia’s longest-running and preeminent journal of literature — here’s how you do it.

Start with a summary paragraph of an author or his or her work. Follow this with a more focused, largely neutral introduction to the work being discussed. Add in a criticism or two. Then smooth it over with a few nice comments before your end.

At least, that’s according to Emmett Stinson, an author and academic at the University of Newcastle. The method above is called the “compliment sandwich”, and it was first developed and applied to poetry criticism by academic Ben Etherington in the Sydney Review of Books. Now Stinson has analysed a year’s worth of reviews in the ABR to see if they fit the same formula, which he slightly modified from the original form for fiction (he called his version the “open-face compliment sandwich”). The result? Of the 78 reviews considered, 39.8% contained no significant negative criticism at all. But of those who did have anything significantly negative to say, the vast majority used the open-face compliment sandwich form.

“It is clear the wholly positive review and the open-faced compliment sandwich are the most common mode of ABR reviewing in my sample, since 64 of the 78 reviews (82.1%) belonged to one or both of these categories,” Stinson writes in an academic paper published last month. He continued:

“A journal like ABR seems to have little to gain from publishing overly critical reviews.

“It is already established as a prominent outlet for literary reviewing, has an active subscriber base, various forms of institutional support and recognition, and attracts significant private donations. This last fact suggests that many ABR subscribers and stakeholders have attachments — whether formal, informal, or emotional — to established literary institutions.

Contacted for comment, ABR editor Peter Rose vehemently dismissed the criticism and sent an example of a rather critical ABR review — of none other than Stinson’s short story collection. “Any suggestion that Australian Book Review favours ‘nice’ journalism or eschews negative reviews is not borne out by a close examination of the magazine’s overall content,” Rose said.

“Stinson claims that journals like ABR ‘have little to gain from publishing overly critical reviews’. Maybe not, but there is the small matter of responsibility and independent journalism. ‘Why would ABR disrupt the circuits of reviewing that underwrite its influence?’ he asks. ABR never considers the sensitivities or needs or ‘attachments’ (to quote Stinson) of publishers, partners, donors – or indeed the authors we review. We believe in robust critique unafraid of judgement or dissent,” he said.

Australian Book Review supports Australian writers through public advocacy, diverse programs, rising payments, and an unusual openness to younger reviewers. We respect and defend the professionalism of our contributors. This includes Chris Flynn, whose motivation Stinson chooses, in a regrettable passage, to question. Here it surely would have been appropriate to note that Emmett Stinson’s own short story collection, Known Unknowns, was reviewed quite negatively by Chris Flynn – in Australian Book Review (July 2010).”

Australian critics have long pondered if the small scale of Australia’s literary community, coupled with the lack of full-time professional critics, has seen a situation develop where friends and colleagues review friends and colleagues, and are altogether too nice about it. Years after first articulation, it seems the argument still has a way to run.

This article was first published on Crikey.

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