J. C. Squire

Mr J. C. Squire on 'Criticism of New Books'

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. VI, no. 1, July 2011, pp. 8-11.

March 5th, 1920. Prior: Friar W. Francis Aitken. Among the Guests were : Mr C. E. Lawrence, Mr George Sampson, Captain Donnelly Aitken, Captain W. B. Maxwell, Monsieur Emile Cammaerts, Mr K. W. Holland, Mr William A. Mutch, Mr Vivian Carter, Mr J. G. Wilson, Mr 'Bennet Copplestone', Mr D. Ray, Mr Geoffrey Williams, Mr A. W. Evans, Major J. R. Boose CMG, Mr Crawford Snowden and Mr H. Mattingley.

In proposing the toast of the evening, the Prior remarked that Mr Squire was especially welcome among them as one who had experience of the 'Street of Adventure'. They welcomed him not only for what he had done as editor and poet, but also for the promise that work held out of what he would do in the future. The debate that followed was remarkable for the closeness with which the speakers kept to the topic selected. In opening it, Mr Squire urged that a sharp line should be drawn between a review and what was generally known as criticism. The reviewer for the daily or weekly press worked under severe limitations of time and space. In the weekly press largely devoted to literature, it was seldom a review extended to more than 1,500 words; in the daily press 1,200 words was the maximum. Obviously the best equipped and most conscientious reviewer could not in such circumstances hope to say the last word on the book with which he was dealing. Then came the economic limitation. Before the war it was a common thing for papers in the first flight to pay 30s. for 1,000 words, but the rate had gone up to £2. Just before the war he reviewed for a London paper a History of the Gold Coast in two big volumes. He spent a day or two on the book, but had he read it through it would have taken a month, and by the end his children would have been terrified by famine. Then there were the personal limitations. Unless one was an extraordinary callous or brutal man, it was not possible to say all one thought about a new book written by people known to the reviewer. An important function in reviewing was to give a guide to readers.

During the last twenty years a fashion had set in for inserting signed reviews; he thought this was rather a pity. When a review was signed the reviewer, humane, modest, or disinterested, would be tempted to 'show his paces'. He had written signed reviews and had taken care [not] to include what he might call 'characteristic touches'. He did not think that 'characteristic touches' were the business of a reviewer in the press. One of the first considerations should be not to waste space. There had been a fashion amongst reviewers to begin miles from the subject, and gradually approach it in the last paragraph. It was very essential that the review should be informative. It might be good for the habitual reviewer to change his category. He had known a good many reviewers who for twenty years had reviewed the same kind of books, and this meant that the writers were 'dead stale'. They could not do this and retain the breath of life in them.

Friar G. Whale thought the reviewer had a certain responsibility if his name were published; and he agreed that the primary purpose of a review was to be informative.

Mr 'Bennet Copplestone', speaking from his experience as a former editor of the Glasgow Herald, said it was absolutely difficult for a daily paper adequately to deal with currents literature owing to space. The economic difficulty should not be great in the case of a daily paper with plenty of money, but he must say that the papers did not pay the reviewers anything like the amount which was paid to writers on special subjects. A greater difficulty was the choosing of suitable reviewers. The system he had adopted was to prepare a list of reviewers for dealing with serious works. In Glasgow, where there was an important University, they had a specialist for almost every single subject. The daily papers failed to deal adequately with novels. He mentioned the case of a reviewer who took three books out to read at his tea, and he wrote notices of them half-an-hour after his return. In dealing with serious works, the difficulty was that the reviewer had not the time to read the books.

Friar W. H. Helm, speaking of his experience as literary editor of a morning paper, said he had found an expert who wrote reviews an 'infernal, nuisance'. He usually had strong personal views on his own particular subject. The expert always knew very much better than the literary editor and tried to overrule him. The ideal reviewer was a man who knew no authors personally. It was extremely difficult for a reviewer to condemn a book which had been written by a personal friend.

M. Emile Cammaerts, the eminent Belgian poet, in expressing his pleasure at being present, thought it was a very happy idea on the part of the Club to associate journalism with the monks who lived near Fleet Street in former times. As far as the Continental press was concerned they had no literary reviews to compare with those published in the British press. Excellent notices of French book and extracts from French poems were given in the original in the British press, but he did not remember seeing any English quotations in the French press. He considered it would be very useful if increased attention were given to the literature of both countries in the press of France and Britain.

Friar J. A. Hammerton thought that as regards anonymous reviewing, it was done extremely well in certain papers. After a fairly long experience, he had very little faith in reviews selling books. Nothing sold a book like a good advertisement.

Mr George Sampson agreed with the statement that reviewers were badly paid. Most of the papers for which he wrote had doubled their price, whilst the reviewer's fee remained the same. The only things which were at pre-war rate were the fees of reviewers and the cost of pulling an alarm bell in a railway carriage. One of the most characteristic qualities of reviewing was its fairness. There were very few instances of books which had been badly treated – of course, one's own books were always badly treated. He had written signed, and unsigned reviews, and he could honestly say that it had not made an atom of difference in the way in which he had written and the view he had taken. He thought the press as a whole had reason to be proud of its work of criticism.

Friar St. John Adcock, on the whole, favoured signed reviews. He mentioned the case of a reviewer who had shown his animosity to a writer and had persisted in hunting him down. This could not have happened if the reviews had been signed. On the whole, the notices given to novels were adequate.
Captain W. B. Maxwell, the author of The Guarded Flame, considered that for a mere author to speak on criticism was as though a schoolboy had pushed himself into a conclave of school masters who were discussing the rod.

Friar Edward Salmon thought that if reviewing was to be done scientifically and with a proper regard to the quality of a book, no reviewer should be paid at so many shillings for so many words. He had reviewed the History of the Gold Coast, referred to by Mr Squire. He spent a fortnight going through the two volumes, and then received two guineas for his review, which appeared in a distinguished weekly. He received the same number of shillings which a barrister would obtain for reading a brief taking one hundredth part of the time. Some years ago he collaborated with a man in writing a novel. He supplied the exact description of a scene he had witnessed hundreds of times in Fleet Street. The reviewer in a distinguished daily paper criticised the novel and stated: 'It is perfectly obvious that the man who wrote about Fleet Street knew nothing of practical journalism.'

Mr Squire briefly replied to some of the points raised in the discussion.