- On Reviewing
[Occasionally we reprint something by Shaw that provides a new perspective on some aspect of his work and ideas. Shaw is one of nine authors whose comments appear under the title “Reviewing Reviewed: A Symposium” in The Author (Summer 1943, 65–74);1 his contribution is reprinted here for the first time since that publication. The Author continues to be published by the Society of Authors (founded in 1884), which Shaw joined in August 1897 and on whose Dramatic Subcommittee he served from 1906 until late 1915, “when his wartime unpopularity after the publication of Common Sense About the War  led him to withdraw for the sake of amity within the Society. He continued to serve without formality until his death.”2 Shaw made twenty-five contributions to The Author between 1901 and 1945,3 commenting on a wide range of topics, from “How to Make Plays Readable” (1901), “The Crux of the Agent Question” (1911), and “Amateur and Professional Fees for Performing Licenses” (1928) to “Authors and Anthologies” (1932), “Authors and the War: Exploited Patriotism” (1940), and, his last contribution, “Sixty Years in Business as an Author” (1945).
Whereas Shaw provides an overview of his reviewing and writing career, the other eight writers comment upon—and at times lambaste—the craft of reviewing. While Phyllis Bentley called it “a very highly skilled craft, which requires not only affection and aptitude, but a considerably arduous training,” and E. M. Forster believed that a “young reviewer . . . is entitled to laxer standards,” Shaw biographer St. John Ervine lamented that “authors must be the only craftsmen in the world who have to submit to the criticism of inexperienced or incompetent people,” while Storm Jameson felt that most reviewing in England was “done badly.” Eric Linklater thought the reviewer “should not be a man mortified by the failure of early ambition,” and Harold Nicholson that he should be “an educated man with an acute sense of literary value, . . . a man of widely recognized integrity.” Osbert Sitwell thought that “the more clever the reviewer, the more full of [End Page 4] pre-conceived ideas and of standards, the more prejudiced, and often futile the review.” Finally, according to H. G. Wells, the last contributor, “The idea of an impartial assessment of books is impossible.”
I am grateful to Jeremy Crow, Head of Literary Estates at the Society of Authors, for providing me with a photocopy of the complete issue of The Author, vol. 53, no. 4 (Summer 1943). Shaw’s contribution is at pages 71–72 and is item C3483 in Dan H. Laurence’s Bernard Shaw: A Bibliography.—Michel W. Pharand]
Among the drudgeries by which the aesthetic professions have to save themselves from starvation, reviewing is not the worst. When one thinks of Mozart and Beethoven having to “give lessons,” and Sterndale Bennett, our English Mendelssohn,4 being extinguished as a composer by having to teach five-finger exercises to fashionable young ladies for two shillings (“professional terms”), we reviewers can at least congratulate ourselves on the mercy that though we have to read each other’s books we are not forced to teach children to read them.
Even so, reviewing is, like gathering samphire, a dreadful trade.5 I earned my first income in literature by practising it. And I found that eminent authors were still slaving at it as publishers’ readers to make both ends meet. I began, some sixty-four years ago, by doing what every beginner in literature did then; I wrote novels, useful enough to myself as ’prentice work, but all unanimously rejected by the publishers. The appalling part of the business was that among those who had to read my novels for the publishers were George Meredith and John Morley.6 Meredith vetoed me without apology; Morley took me for a young man whose head was turned by Ruskin,7 and wrote about me at such length that George Macmillan softened his firm’s refusal by sending me a copy of John’s report.8
Imagine authors of their standing having to read my jejune fictions for a living! I have often wondered how much they got for the job from Macmillans...