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?