Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell.

George Orwell.

Confessions of a Book Reviewer is an essay by George Orwell first published on 3rd May 1946 in the Tribune and again in the New Republic on 5th August 1946. It beings,
In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-grown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered in his address book. He has lost this address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.
The picture does not get any cheerier: our man, who is "thirty-five, but looks fifty", is not only malnourished on a good day, but disorganised, dysfunctional, and on the whole, disinterested in the books he reviews. The books he is to review have arrived:
They arrived four days ago, but for forty-eight hours the reviewer was prevented by moral paralysis from opening the parcel. Yesterday in a resolute moment he ripped the string off it and found the five volumes to be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one 680 pages and weighs four pounds), Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa, and a novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake. His review — 800 words, say — has got to be ‘in’ by midday tomorrow.
And so he must read them, well, at least fifty pages "if he is to avoid making some howler which will betray him not merely to the author (who of course knows all about the habits of book reviewers), but even to the general reader." Reading them, however, isn't an easy task:
By four in the afternoon he will have taken the books out of their wrapping paper but will still be suffering from a nervous inability to open them. The prospect of having to read them, and even the smell of the paper, affects him like the prospect of eating cold ground-rice pudding flavoured with castor oil. 
Yet he manages it, he meets his deadline, he suffers this aversion and battles through:
At about nine p.m. his mind will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours he will sit in a room which grows colder and colder, while the cigarette smoke grows thicker and thicker, skipping expertly through one book after another and laying each down with a final comment, ‘God, what tripe!’ In the morning, blear-eyed, surly and unshaven, he will gaze for an hour or two at a blank sheet of paper until the menacing finger of the clock frightens him into action. Then suddenly he will snap into it. All the stale old phrases — ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc. etc.’ — will jump into their places like iron filings obeying the magnet, and the review will end up at exactly the right length and with just about three minutes to go. Meanwhile another wad of ill-assorted, unappetizing books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with what high hopes this downtrodden, nerve-racked creature started his career, only a few years ago.
Such is the life of a reviewer, and "the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job." What's worse: it's futile. Reviewers praise "trash", invent reactions, and spend their time reading (partly reading, anyway) and reviewing books they have no wish to read or review. In short, "He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time." Thus reviews themselves are pointless, and everyone knows it. The solution:
... people sometimes suggest that the solution lies in getting book reviewing out of the hands of hacks. Books on specialized subjects ought to be dealt with by experts, and on the other hand a good deal of reviewing, especially of novels, might well be done by amateurs. Nearly every book is capable of arousing passionate feeling, if it is only a passionate dislike, in some or other reader, whose ideas about it would surely be worth more than those of a bored professional. But, unfortunately, as every editor knows, that kind of thing is very difficult to organize. In practice the editor always finds himself reverting to his team of hacks — his ‘regulars’, as he calls them.
A vicious circle, as long as people believe all books that are published ought to be reviewed, and editors pander to their readers. Orwell concludes, thankfully, on a more positive note:
The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews — 1,000 words is a bare minimum — to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it. Normally he doesn’t want to write it, and the week-in, week-out production of snippets soon reduces him to the crushed figure in a dressing-grown whom I described at the beginning of this article. However, everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on, and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry.
This very short essay is a great read (it can be read in full here)! It's interesting too from a book-blogging perspective. I review books, and I review books I haven't necessarily enjoyed, but all the books I've reviewed on here I've chosen myself, and all reviews I've written I have chosen to do. The very idea of reading, I don't know... 'Scientific Dairy Farming' - I just couldn't. What Orwell describes, that brilliant first paragraph, is precisely how I imagine living as a professional book reviewer. Far from being a great, almost romantic job of reading books all day, I believe it would be as hellish as Orwell has depicted.

And that was my second Deal Me In title for 2017. Next week, another card from the diamond suit, Memories of a Working Women's Guild by Virginia Woolf.

Comments

  1. Very interesting, and, you're right, especially so from the viewpoint of someone who is a book blogger and who, almost by definition, does book "reviews." I'm like you though - although early in my blogging days I was intrigued by the possibility of doing reviews of ARCs that would be sent to me (for free!) I never went down that road, and everything I've written about I've chosen myself - or it was the choice of one of my book clubs.

    I read a bunch of Orwell essays in college, but all that sticks with me to this date is his one about "schoolboys being physically abused via corporal punishment" for not knowing their lessons, etc. One of my book clubs read Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" a couple years back and it was a surprise hit with them. I recommend it if you haven't read it already.

    This post also made me wonder what Orwell would make of sites like goodreads.com, where today's readers are aided by a kind of "hive mind" approach, trusting the reviews of their goodreads "friends" without having to rely on traditional, published reviews.

    -Jay

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    Replies
    1. I love Down and Out, and I'm due a re-read! I do love Orwell. I'm not sure about Goodreads - it's a good almost democratic approach to book reviewing and, unless you're being paid, one can afford to be honest, but as a company, who knows? I don't know enough to comment.

      And yes, I once thought being a book reviewer would be a great job. Not so much now. :)

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