Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gutter Magazine And Anonymous Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, the first issue of Gutter arrived. It’s a new magazine of Scottish writing and much of what I’ve read in it so far has been very good. A new quality Scottish lit mag is much needed for all kinds of reasons.

The editorial contains two controversial items on anonymity. Here’s the first (the second will come on a later date!), from the editorial, concerning the magazine’s review section:

“These are written anonymously by practising writers – not through wilful obfuscation but to allow for more candid opinions.”

The reviews certainly are candid. They are generally well written and provocative. Some are very positive, some highly negative, some in between. But the reviews are all anonymous. Now, the subtext here is that reviewers can write what they really think without having to worry about the writer’s reaction – either of the ‘hate mail’ type or of a well known writer threatening to destroy their careers etc

I sympathise, to an extent, and the reviews in Gutter do seem more candid than in many magazines. None of them appear to me to have abused their anonymity by trashing books and I don’t get the impression that any were fawning blurbs written by an author’s best friend. I’ve read several bizarre blog posts saying that people should only review books they like, but they obviously don’t understand how the reviewing process works. Usually, an editor sends you books and asks you to review them. You don’t choose the books and, even if you did, you wouldn’t know whether you liked them until after you’d agreed to review them and had read them. You simply have to do as good a job as you can. That might entail making some critical points.

On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with anonymity, and I’m not alone in asking questions about it. I don’t even like anonymous comments on my blog (posting under ‘anonymous’ is fine if you include your name in the comments box), especially if they are negative about someone’s poetry or are personal attacks. I’ve always felt that if people have something to say, they should be prepared to put their name to it. Anything less smacks of cowardice.

But perhaps anonymity does have an advantage. As long as an editor tries to ensure that books aren’t handed out for review to a writer’s close friends or enemies, then anonymous reviews prevent personal poetry wars. A writer could run into a reviewer who had anonymously torn his/her work to shreds and fists wouldn’t fly. No ‘revenge reviews’ would be written. It keeps the peace.

Of course, writers shouldn’t publish books or should expressly tell their publisher not to send books for review if they’re not prepared for negative reviews. Some reviewers are awful, some want to make their name by trashing books, some have an ideological agenda that your book doesn’t fit, some reviews are badly written compared to the book under review. On the other hand, your book might be praised to the skies by someone who equally doesn’t know what they’re talking about, so these things tend to balance themselves out. But is it actually better not to know who has praised or trashed your book?


deemikay said...

No anonymous replies just yet! (I was tempted...)

Like you, I can see how it might benefit the review itself. And it was common through plenty of literary-magazine-history to have anonymous reviews.

But is it "nice" to stay in the shadows? There are so many safe ways to be unfair... (and impersonal ways to be personal).

Rob said...

There are several replies on Facebook - quite interesting ones too. I tend to go along with the opinion that people should sign up to what they write.

Anonymous said...

I've read not all of the reviews but a good handful and I wonder - if these reviews are being used to help reviewers develop a name for themselves, why not put their names to it? At least one seemed to be richer in reviewer ego than reader information. Seems a shame to go through such an exercise if the world doesn't know who you are.


Rob said...

Mcw, it's clear that the reviews aren't being written to help reviewers make a name for themselves - there are no names on them.

I'm not sure which particular review you're talking about, but I agree with the sarcastic point you're making in a more general sense.

I thought some of the reviews in Gutter were quite good, some less good, and one of them gave me the impression of not having much of a clue - but it may not be the one you were thinking of.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rob, a Gutter editor here. Many thanks for your kind comments on the magazine, glad you're enjoying it so far. We expected our decision to use anonymous reviewers would create a wee bit of a stir, so your blog came as no surprise and your points about the quality of some of the reviews have been noted (others have made similar remarks).

The main reason we've chosen to do it anonymously is because the Scottish writing and publishing circles are so small and incestuous that we wanted reviewers to be able to state their opinion without fear of reprisals, or conversely to prevent their use of the power of a review for self-aggrandisement. Should a reviewed writer approach us directly with a genuine grievance, we will put them in contact with the reviewer.

All of our reviewers are writers themselves, and should understand enough about the business to use their column inches responsibly. We have a tight editorial policy and we would never allow some of the flaming and other intellectual malpractice that exists in the online sphere. We are in that respect a 'nice' magazine, open and uninterested in cliques. I would hope that none of our reviews are unfair, and it should also be remembered that they are just one reader's opinion...


David Floyd said...

As the Gutter team are on here, I'll re-post the most relevant bit of my objection posted on Facebook:
"Anonymous reviewing doesn't stop reviewers fawning over the work of their friends or lovers, or slagging off people's work due to personal or factional grudges, but does make them unaccountable for doing so.

The fact that I may have to defend what I'm saying to the person I'm saying it about is one incentive for me to make sure that the opinions I express are defensible.

Sometimes it might be right and honest to tread on people's dreams but it's fundamentally wrong to claim the right to do so at no cost to yourself."

Colin Begg said...

Hello David, I appreciate your point but you're just going to have to trust me when I say that, on my watch, factional 'fawning and slagging' will not be permitted. Helen, Adrian and I know all the reviewers and have a fairly good idea of their prejudices. We would never allow someone to review the work of a friend or enemy, that would be completely against the anti-factional ethos of the magazine. If you suspect this has happened, tell me and I will ensure it doesn't happen again.

We would never '...claim the right... to tread on people's dreams... at no cost...' to ourselves. That would be sheer arrogance. And impossible, because of course there'd be a cost: as editors, if Adrian and I published something we couldn't justify, then Gutter's reputation would suffer and we would look like fools.

There is individual accountability too: as I said in my original post, if a reviewed writer has a genuine grievance we will put them in touch with their reviewer - but with sound editorial ethics I hope it won't ever come to that.

Our reviews should be defensible; and quality control teething troubles aside, I think they are; but that doesn't mean we can't engage in some sniping or praise where such is due. On a day-to-day basis, we believe that anonymity actually liberates the reviewer from third-parties' (i.e. the readers') perceptions and biases. Without a famous byline, the reader must take a review at face value. To paraphrase the old journalistic maxim: if we are pissing off both camps then we've probably got the balance right...

That said, thanks for the feedback and please keep the criticism coming - it keeps us on our toes.


Rob said...

I understand the points you're making, Colin and David.

The editorial is excellent for a first issue - there are three very controversial ideas in it, just the kind of thing you want. The magazine is immediately engaging in important questions and generating comment (and publicity). Scotland really needs this! And the contents are very good.

I wouldn't worry about comments on the reviews. In any magazine, there will always be variance in standard, and readers will often have strong feelings about reviews.

I still have doubts about anonymity, but it will be interesting to see how it works over the years.

Putting aggrieved witers in touch with reviewers?! Yikes!