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Stick! Counter-Stick! Anonymous on The Fred de Vries Interviews and Fred de Vries on Anonymous

The Fred de Vries Interviews, From Abdullah to ZilleAs violence begets violence, and we have enough of that already, I do wish not to wield a stick at anyone who might be doing the same. However, another anonymous and sub-standard review from the Sowetan, in which the writer trashes The Fred de Vries Interviews: from Abdullah to Zille, cannot go unremarked.

The review fails to do the basics: to provide a short summary of what the book is about, mention its range, or offer brief credentials of the author. Covering these details, the reviewer can say he/she doesn’t like it and give an explication why – based on reading the whole book, not one or two brief extracts.

Why the dip at Anton Harber, for instance, who had nothing to do with the book? It doesn’t rightly add up. Fortunately, de Vries is quite capable of defending himself, and produces a counter-stick in this flurry of literary kendo:

The art of biographical journalism, we are told, is to be able to see the world through the eyes of the subject.

Tim Cohen, who edited the interviews for The Weekender, puts it another way: “You have to walk in their shoes.”

Say you were not interested in auctions. But once a biographer picks up his pen to write about the life of an auctioneer, he’d not have succeeded if, on the other side of the last word, the sound of the gavel does not ring in your head. The writer would have failed if the piece did not set you off on imitation mode, rolling your tongue around the fast-paced language of “sold to the guy at the back”.

[The reviewer] wrote nothing about the coherence of the interviews, or lack of it. Or about interview techniques and style of writing, whether it worked or not.

He squeezed in a bit about the Abdullah Ibrahim debacle, but forgot to say why the interview only took 10 minutes and why it was nevertheless lauded as an excellent piece of writing that laid bare a lot about interviewing, interviewees and the vulnerabilities of the interviewer.

These are things one expects from a respectable paper. Making snide remarks is easy and doing a hatchet job is great, as long as it’s done on the basis of proper analysis and comes with a bit of context and knowledge. Or it’s just shoddy journalism.

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