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...Reuse content