BOOKS: Best of 2018.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - — Michael Nolan Books ed­i­tor

When The Satur­day Paper launched in March 2014, we chose to ex­per­i­ment with pub­lish­ing book re­views anony­mously. As with ev­ery­thing else, we wanted to test the or­tho­doxy of our cul­ture. More cor­rectly, these re­views have been pseudony­mous, with writ­ers re­tain­ing a con­sis­tent set of ini­tials. We won­dered, in light of the coun­try’s highly con­cen­trated lit­er­ary com­mu­nity, if by­lined re­view­ers – par­tic­u­larly when au­thors them­selves – could be can­did in their as­sess­ment of oth­ers’ work when faced with fre­quent pro­fes­sional and per­sonal con­tact. Were re­view­ers pulling their punches so as to avoid awk­ward en­coun­ters with pub­lish­ers or fel­low pan­el­lists at writ­ers fes­ti­vals? Were we miss­ing out on the ex­per­tise of writ­ers shy of such dis­com­fort? Were we miss­ing hon­est as­sess­ments of new writ­ers, in the in­ter­ests of be­ing sup­port­ive, or es­tab­lished writ­ers, in the in­ter­ests of not chal­leng­ing the rep­u­ta­tional sta­tus quo? And does any­thing say “cosy scene” like be­ing un­sure of whether to give a re­view cre­dence if you don’t know the iden­tity of the per­son who wrote it?

We think the ex­per­i­ment suc­ceeded, al­beit mod­estly. While we did at­tract some writ­ers new to crit­i­cism, many also re­viewed with at­tri­bu­tion in other places. Most of our re­view­ers re­ported that a by­line would not have changed what they wrote. I might sug­gest that anonymity brought a sub­tle dif­fer­ence to the scope of their con­sid­er­a­tions, in that they might have al­lowed that some el­e­ments of a book didn’t quite work, a mea­sure of con­sid­er­a­tion they might not have cho­sen to raise other­wise. But with these mod­est ef­fects ob­served, we have de­cided the ex­per­i­ment has run its course. If we have a small and cau­tious lit­er­ary cul­ture, pseu­do­nyms are not the an­swer to it. In fu­ture, our book re­views will be at­trib­uted.

The use of pseu­do­nyms prompted what we re­gard as a healthy mo­ment’s re­flec­tion on how this all works. We al­ways main­tained that it was an ex­per­i­ment in the cul­ture, and so these are its find­ings. Ini­tially, dis­sent seemed to cen­tre on the as­sump­tion that anonymity would re­sult in ex­co­ri­a­tion: re­view­ers hid­den in con­crete bunkers trig­ger­ing dis­tant nu­clear ex­plo­sions. But rather than un­leash­ing masked vil­lains upon Aus­tralian let­ters, our re­views have rarely been scathing. At least one re­viewer con­fessed they felt anonymity meant the need to tem­per their crit­i­cism. There’s some­thing ma­lig­nant in the sug­ges­tion that hu­man na­ture is given to ma­li­cious­ness un­less held pub­licly ac­count­able. It also dis­misses the paper’s ed­i­to­rial con­trol of what it pub­lishes – as though there would be no checks on the pre­sumed firestorm we were invit­ing. This speaks to the sec­ond, more con­sid­ered, crit­i­cism of our de­ci­sion – that it was cow­ardly to re­view anony­mously.

The im­pli­ca­tion is that no re­spon­si­bil­ity was taken for the views be­ing ex­pressed. This over­looks the author­ity of the news­pa­per mast­head, man­i­fest here in the same man­ner as with an un­signed ed­i­to­rial. The paper’s ed­i­tors ex­er­cised their skill and judge­ment in bring­ing the re­view­ers’ writ­ing to the page. The news­pa­per stands by what it pub­lishes and is open to crit­i­cism and com­plaint.

Con­sider the na­ture of pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity, too. If it was rea­son­able to fear anony­mous re­view­ing would de­scend into nas­ti­ness or vin­dic­tive­ness, per­haps we can ac­knowl­edge the tenor of dis­course that anonymity brings to so­cial me­dia, and won­der if wish­ing to re­main un­ac­knowl­edged might not be cow­ardice but rea­son­able pro­tec­tion against the nasty, dam­ag­ing pile-ons that can be di­rected to writ­ers per­son­ally. Is it heresy to sug­gest it ought not be con­sid­ered com­pul­sory for writ­ers to di­rectly com­mu­ni­cate with in­di­vid­ual read­ers to ex­plain them­selves fur­ther, to an­swer ac­cu­sa­tions or to sim­ply weather hot­headed dis­agree­ment?

The Satur­day Paper ex­tends a warm thank you to all past re­view­ers for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in our ex­per­i­ment, and for their per­spi­ca­cious and en­ter­tain­ing con­tri­bu­tions to our books pages. Some will con­tinue on these pages un­der their own names, oth­ers have cho­sen not to. We look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish lively and ab­sorb­ing book re­views in

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