Saturday, January 2, 2010

Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell

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 type-writer among piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastebasket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a check for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which he ought to enter into 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 were 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 sceduale he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made a 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 the 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 he is a book reviewer. Half hidden among the piles of papers is a bulky parcel containing five volumes which his editor has sent with a note suggesting that they "ought to go 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 be Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Diary Farming, A Short History of European Democracy (this one is 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 mid-day 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 flavored with castor oil. And yet curiously enough his copy will get to the office in time Somehow it always does get there on time. At about nine p.m. his mind will grow relatively clear, and until the small hours we 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, 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. 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 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 who I described at the beginning of this article. However, everyone in this world has someone else who he can look down on, and I must say, from experience in 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 honor for a glass of inferior sherry.


  1. Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell; Tribune, 3 May 1946 in 'Essays", Knopf, 1996

  2. Why not just quote lengthy passages from the book under consideration? Because that would require the reviewer to pay the original author? Of course even after a careful screening process some of the books I freely chose to review come up completely empty. A recent example is Peter Ackroyd's "Poe; A Life Cut Short", though he is the recipient of the Whitebread Biography Award, the R.S. of Literature's William Heinemann Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the holder of a CBE for services to literature. His work on Poe simply adds nothing new or particularly interesting to the subject. I'd better reproduce Poe's own poem "Alone".