Friday, March 17, 2017

Outdoor Writing: Reviewing the Reviewers



Outdoor writing in the UK, particularly relating to rock climbing or mountaineering, tends to be pretty parochial and generally does not have a huge appeal to those outside of what is after all, a relatively small climbing fraternity. As such, books written about pre-war mountaineers or those autobiographies of rock jocks whose fame extends no further than the UK, generally find  sales tallied in the low thousands or in some circumstances, even in the hundreds. Although a ‘name’ like Chris Bonington or Doug Scott will find an international audience of course-particularly in the US- and will also pick up sales from the general public who as a rule have no interest in the great outdoors but like a good yarn. Witness Joe Simpson’s extraordinary crossover success with Touching the Void. Not surprisingly, climbing and mountain publishers tend to be specialists and not literary Jack of all trades, although occasionally a well know publisher like Faber & Faber will dip their toe in the outdoor market.

Given, the tight profit margins involved in publishing books which often won’t even cover costs, it’s no surprise that publishers tend to be cautious and generally only plump for books by or about-relatively speaking- well known figures in the game. Often, in the case of a climbing autobiography, if that person is not an experienced or accomplished writer then then the publisher will suggest the involvement of an experienced writer who can then make something of an acceptable literary silk purse out of what may have been, something of a mangy sow’s ear!  For reviewers of outdoor books, this generally means that most books coming up for review tend to be well written and interesting.

As someone who does on occasion review climbing and mountaineering books, then I’m sure I speak for anyone who has ever reviewed a book when I say that no one ever wants to damn someone’s hard work. If a writer has put months or even years of effort into researching and collating information about a historical figure, or if they have poured out their soul into an honest and frank autobiography, then its difficult to write a bad review even if the work is underwhelming. In these cases, usually the reviewer will couch their review in terms which emphasize the positives and play down any negative elements. Thankfully, as I’ve already suggested, publishers-particularly in a narrow field like climbing-don’t tend to publish turkeys so the need to either tread lightly or be bluntly truthful doesn’t arise.

Although I’ve read plenty of climbing books which were a bit so-so and forgettable, I’ve read very few books that I’ve felt were really poor or I’ve disliked for whatever reason. One book which springs to mind was written by a US writer about bouldering. The author’s attempts to instill a Zen like spirituality into the activity and his purple flights of fancy into the far reaches of West Coast surrealism left me cold. Unable to make head nor tail of the book I passed it on to Harold Drasdo whose intellect and sharp literary mind far surpassed my own. Perhaps he could review it? A week later it came back.Nope...he was as nonplussed as I was!

Ninety Nine per cent of reviewers, I would suggest, are honest and conscientious. they tend to be scrupulously fair and objective and never allow personal feelings about an author cloud their judgment. However, that’s not to say that there are not some bad apples in the barrel. One of our best known climbing writers does a good line in rubbishing authors he sees as rivals by writing one and two star reviews on Amazon under a series of pretty transparent pseudonyms. Rather amusingly, he gives his own books five star glowing reviews. Rather he did although I hear that Amazon, under pressure over false reviews, are now only allowing verified purchasers the opportunity to offer reviews and the company have been busy deleting these phony reviews after pressure from other writers and reviewers.

Writers as highly regarded as Robert Macfarlane, David Craig and Boardman Tasker winner, Harriet Tuckey have all been victims of this literary villain’s poison pen. As least they can console themselves that a rather sad attempt to undermine their work was quickly exposed and recognized by other writers in their field before any damage to their reputation was done.

Thankfully, cases like this are very much the exception and in the main the UK outdoor media can pride itself on the honest and sober objectivity of its reviewers.

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