Page Turner: I can review anything...even in Chinese

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The Independent Online

How easy is it to be a book reviewer? A doddle, most people seem to think. Rated alongside those oft-cited exemplars of difficulty, rocket science and brain surgery – not to mention hard graft such as being a nurse or a traffic warden – it's a nice way of getting a bit of dosh and there's no shortage of people who fancy having a go. I applaud the frankness of one would-be reviewer who told me his aim was to earn money "without having to leave the house or meet people".

I know how he feels. I'm often accosted with the line: "You should get my friend to review for you." He/she usually hasn't done anything of the sort before, but would be "brilliant" on the principle that they're "always reading", which is a bit like saying that because I'm always wearing clothes, I could be a model. Such people usually say they could review "anything". "But what do you like reading?" I ask, to be assured: "Oh, I read anything." Yeah! I get it! You'd be brilliant.

Clearly there aren't any exams you need to pass to be a book reviewer, and there is no industry standard of competence. But not since the days of the legendary polymath Anthony Burgess has anyone been able to review "anything". There's a story I treasure about Burgess from one of his editors, which goes something like this. Suppose you have a weighty tome on musicology and a scholarly survey of Chinese literature. The one is destined for Burgess, a keen composer (he thought his music would outlast his novels); the other for the professor of Chinese at Cambridge. But you mix up the parcels...

A few days later, you receive a puzzled note from the professor of Chinese at Cambridge to say that as he can't do anything with the music book he's returning it forthwith. In the same post is a witty and scholarly review from Burgess, displaying a profound understanding of Chinese literature.

The age of reviewing is always an Age of Lead; the Romantic poets complained about the Edinburgh Review, and Oscar Wilde took colourful umbrage at the sneers of a contemporary commentator. Book reviewing may be a cushy number but it also has its unpleasant side. I've been followed round the room by an irate, finger-stabbing poet, endured a torrent of Scots rage from Alan Warner and, most recently, been told to stay away from Ruth Rendell's launch dinner at an hour's notice. It's not all fun and games...

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