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George Orwell > Confessions of a Book Reviewer > Essay

Confessions of a Book Reviewer


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-gown 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 his address book, and the
thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts
him with acute suicidal impulses.

He is a man of 35, but looks 50. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears
spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically
lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from
malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be
suffering from a hangover. At present it is half-past eleven in the
morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two
hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would
have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone
bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the
street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the
stairs. The most recent interruption was the arrival of the second post,
which brought him two circulars and an income tax demand printed in red.

Needless to say this person is a writer. He might be a poet, a novelist,
or a writer of film scripts or radio features, for all literary people
are very much alike, but let us say that he is a book reviewer. Half
hidden among the pile of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes
which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they "ought to go
well together". They arrived four days ago, but for 48 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
HISTORY OF EUROPEAN DEMOCRACY (this one is 680 pages and weighs four
NICER LYING DOWN, probably included by mistake. His review--800 words,
say--has got to be "in" by midday tomorrow.

Three of these books deal with subjects of which he is so ignorant that
he will have to read at least 50 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. 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. And yet curiously enough his copy will
get to the office in time. Somehow it always does get there in time. At
about nine pm 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 the 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,
unappetising books will have arrived by post. So it goes on. And yet with
what high hopes this down-trodden, nerve-racked creature started his
career, only a few years ago.

Do I seem to exaggerate? I ask any regular reviewer--anyone who reviews,
say, a minimum of 100 books a year--whether he can deny in honesty that
his habits and character are such as I have described. Every writer, in
any case, is rather that kind of person, but the prolonged,
indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless,
irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash--though
it does involve that, as I will show in a moment--but constantly INVENTING
reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings
whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally
interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there
are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he
is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of
them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work,
however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence
humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at
a time.

The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of
the book that is dealt with. Since the war publishers have been less able
than before to twist the tails of literary editors and evoke a paean of
praise for every book that they produce, but on the other hand the
standard of reviewing has gone down owing to lack of space and other
inconveniences. Seeing the results, people sometimes suggest that the
solution lies in getting book reviewing out of the hands of hacks. Books
on specialised 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 organise. In practice the editor always finds
himself reverting to his team of hacks--his "regulars", as he calls them.

None of this is remediable so long as it is taken for granted that every
book deserves to be reviewed. It is almost impossible to mention books in
bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one
has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not
discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases
out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be "This book is
worthless", while the truth about the reviewer's own reaction would
probably be "This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not
write about it unless I were paid to." But the public will not pay to
read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to
the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation.
But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. For if one
says--and nearly every reviewer says this kind of thing at least once a
week--that KING LEAR is a good play and THE FOUR JUST MEN is a good
thriller, what meaning is there in the word "good"?

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-gown 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.

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