Confessions of a 2019 Book Reviewer

In 1946 George Orwell wrote his “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. We asked new member Peter Chappell to describe life for the aspiring journalist of today

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In a cold but stuffy room littered with pens and charging cables, the figure sits at a crowded table, balancing a glowing laptop on the debris. Small islands of piled magazines and paperbacks have accumulated over months across the free floor space. The battered swivel chair creaks as the reviewer corrects their poor posture, attempting to assuage a pain they’ve acquired after months spent hunched in front of a screen. It’s no use: they begin to type another reply to an endless email chain.

The lonely individual has graduated from university the year before, where they wrote essays and at least twice for the student newspaper. This made them, according to their friends, a journalist. After the graduation ceremony, where their parents were extremely proud and their friends extremely drunk, they woke up back in their childhood bedroom with a hangover and a certificate.

A year later, the piece of paper still rests by a crowded bookshelf, gathering dust and wistful looks. Student halls feel a long time ago, as they send off another hopeful pitch. A reply is not expected. They’ve sent off the email too late to catch the early morning attention of editors; they casually sit in a one of their dad’s football shirts, sipping a black coffee from an stained cafetiere, and penitently nursing a hangover.

Needless to say this person is a writer. They may be a poet, or a scriptwriter for films, or a dramatist of plays with a small budget. They harbour a suspicion that their art, an adjective they grandly attach to sordid scribbling, has peaked and is on the way out – the ‘pivot to video’ is only the latest example of the written word being reduced to a measly commentary of the image. But before the book reviewer can become too morose, a muffled trill from their buried phone sounds off. It’s their editor, who writes with haste: “Can you do me a favour?” he asks. “Could we set a deadline for noon tomorrow?”

The Bookaroo courier arrives so quickly that the reviewer wonders why their fee can’t be handled with such incredible efficiency. The book reviewer sets to work. This time the package includes Robes and Wardrobes: The Inside Life of Clothes, A History of the Early Church in Essex (this one is 680 pages and weighs a little over three kilos), David Cameron’s For The Record and Tooled Britainnia: Taking a Zombie Knife to Brexit. All are standard fare for the professional reviewer who has perfected the art of skimming a press release and picking the key moments from the initial chapters.

David Cameron
By some point in the afternoon, the book reviewer will have pulled on a pair of jeans, read every important news article doing the rounds on Twitter, know the temperature of relations between the US and North Korea, and be pondering, with a cup of Earl Grey, whether to start to write. At least four hours have been wasted so far yet the copy will be filed on time.

Just enough procrastination will necessitate the cancellation of dinner plans. There is now the important idea of this “deadline” approaching, which even the most lonely of friends cannot argue with. Needless to sat there was always enough time to complete all the tasks at hand, but having work and play nestled together in one’s laptop puts any writer in a very difficult situation. The deadline will be met (there are bills to pay), but the musty bedroom shall not be left for a long time yet.

As the clock on the screen ticks over to midnight, the book reviewer will flick through the new pages, scanning the paragraphs, trying to support a weak point with a contextless gobbet. The book reviewer’s mind will grow progressively clearer as his friends log off with short goodbyes, and the room becomes ever colder. Leaning back, book in hand, sucking on their as yet unused biro, they sigh: “God, this is rubbish!”. It will end up in the corner of the room covered in a film of dust like the others. More galling is the knowledge that the days of the review copy which could be sold for a third of the cover price are long gone: most of this pile arrived stamped “Advance Reading Copy – Not For Resale”, while the rest are poor photocopies of manuscripts with cover notes reminding the reviewer that this is not the finished work and should not be quoted.

The reviewer gives up for the night, vowing to get up at dawn to complete their rushed masterpiece with fresh eyes. The reviewer will wake to the angry alarm of their phone buzzing, and scroll mindlessly down a social media slew for at least half an hour before rising. The morning ritual is repeated, and only ninety minutes later is the day’s first edit made, with the clock’s hand ticking quickly towards the dreaded deadline. All the same old phrases come pouring out now: “the problematic message of”, “the dynamics which… “, “a discourse that…”, “the narrative co-opts the…”.

Do I seem to exaggerate? I think every freelance hack who writes seriously, who reviews for a living and has no staff writer position, would own up to at least some of the habits described here, and in Orwell’s “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”.

orwell-at-typewriter220
In 1946, he described the job of a book reviewer as “exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting”, and detonates any romantic notion of the writer living on the pleasure of their words alone. It was the intellectual dishonesty which enraged Orwell – he hated the requirement to be constantly “inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatsoever.” Little has changed: many of the opinion writers I know privately admit to exaggeration and hyperbole to provoke an online reaction. Social media thrives on outrage and heated argument. Why let a boring book get in the way?

Before social media feeds and churn, Orwell was skewering journalism’s response to the seemingly bottomless output of publishers: a book reviewer’s responding to it means “pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time”. In 2019 the “drain” is the social media algorithm, which demands a constant stream, and the “half pint” is a listicle, or an outraged comment piece designed to appease it.

“Confessions of a Book Reviewer” is not just a biting satire on journalism and writing for deadlines. It’s a practical guide for how to prioritise work which makes an impact. “The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be to simply ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews – 1,000 is a bare minimum – to the few that seem to matter.” According to Orwell, it is always best to value depth, especially in a journalistic landscape today where just managing to keep up with the news cycle feels feels impossible. There is a price to pay for the pursuit of greater depth, though – book reviewers in 2019 may find they need to rise a little earlier!

Peter Chappell

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