On reviewing the 'greats' and daring to say they're bad

There's a literary/journalistic kind of parlour game that surfaces every now and then, where it's revealed how many publishers failed to spot the potential of subsequently hugely successful writers, or how many reviewers dissed a future literary star's debut efforts. Silly publishers! Even sillier reviewers! What do any of them know, eh?

There's a kind of comfort to be had in that from a writer's point of view (and those of us who have ever had a publisher's rejection letter or received a bad review can empathise). But from a reviewer's point of view (ok, this one) the fear that you might be the only one who's missed a future star isn't the real problem. It's that you might be the only one who thinks a current literary star isn't cutting it at all, not even a tiny bit. Every one else will love it, you're the only one who will say they don't, and um, wouldn't it be best if nobody really saw your review anyway in case you're horribly wrong?

Kyle Minor's article on Salon, where he rebutts Christian Lorentzen's 'take-down' of Alice Munro in the London Review of Bookshttp://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/in_defense_of_alice_munro/, taps into the reviewer's egotism a bit more than I have so far, though. In his feature, he argues that, for reviewers, writers at the top are extra-tricky either because you can't praise them enough, or because you want to take them down: 

"There are two common ways that this kind of big statement reviewing might go wrong — the sainting and the takedown. The critic of the sainting sort might shower the writer with unqualified praise, declare her a genius, and ignore or explain away the writer’s shortcomings — or declare them to be virtues. The other kind of critic might decide that the surest path to deflating the balloon of hyperbole isn’t merely letting a little air out the bottom. No, it might be more satisfying — and attention-grabbing — to spray it with a flamethrower."

To a certain extent you can't win as a reviewer. If you dismiss a big star, you're 'attention-grabbing' for yourself; if you praise them to the skies, you're canonising them out of all recognition. But it's a serious matter. Big name literary beasts are so for a reason, and quite often only another big literary beast feels comfortable enough in their own status to highlight what they believe to be failings. That's why there was such a fuss when John Banville reviewed Ian McEwan's Saturday in The New York Review of Books and unleashed a previously tethered monster. He found fault with the central character's daughter's defence against rape: recite to your potential rapist a Matthew Arnold poem, and its sheer beauty will stay his ugly hand. It was Banville alone who found this ridiculous - or rather, it was Banville alone who said he found this ridiculous. Suddenly the critic was seen as having teeth: and a great many people didn't like that at all, even though, according to this article, loads of us agreed with himhttp://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/the-backlash-against-ian-mcewan-6756413.html

When I wrote a piece a couple of years ago for the Guardian's Books Blog pages about being a critic-turned-author, and having to deal with bad reviews myself for the first time, I was surprised by the aspect that people focused on most: that I had been reviewed at all and should be bloody grateful (I got about 30 print reviews for Between the Sheets, about 6-8 of them not very nice). Several comments focused on the 'London literary game', expressing a belief that all the authors and all the reviewers knew each other anyway (like me, apparently), and it was a closed shop to anyone outside the capital. Well, I live 500 miles away from London and I know personally only a handful writers based there. 

But I did wonder if this frustration was borne out of a lack of real criticism of what many people feel to be quite inadequate books. Even - and perhaps especially - by the big guns. So are critics doing their job properly? It might not seem so when one negative review of a 'great', in this case Alice Munro, causes so much of a fuss (or of Ian McEwan). Critiquing a book by a 'great' is a risky business. I can't be the only reviewer who's been left unimpressed by a great writer's latest novel and had that momentary doubt of, 'is it me or is it really as bad as I think it is? How can it be this bad? They've been publishing for years?' But lethargy, complacency, all sorts of things can seep into a author's successful career, harming their writing (when I interviewed Peter Carey last year, he told me he still finds writing a new book frightening, he still gets nervous about its reception, and I think you probably need to keep hold of that fear).

Generally there isn't a massive amount of comeback to a bad review, so can that be holding critics back? The awarding of a new prize, the Hatchet Job of the Year award, which this year went to Sunday Times reviewer Camilla Long for her review of Rachel Cusk's memoir, Aftermath (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/12/hatchet-job-of-the-year-rachel-cusk), might seem to be encouraging more of them. The fact that Long has since appeared on Have I Got News For You might indeed play into Minor's argument that killing the big beasts is a way for reviewers to grab some attention for themselves. But generally, critics are a nicer bunch than might be believed. And I don't think it's out of fear of reprisal by a publisher or a literary 'great' themselves - they won't bother with your review because it will only be one of hundreds and they'll still sell a shitload anyway. Sometimes there is biteback, even be from the star themselves as it's happened to me. I was at least able to fight my corner (before said 'star' told me just to shut up and go away) and I got the distinct impression nobody had criticised this particular star for anything at all in the last hundred years. 

It didn't scare me into being nice about every subsequent book afterwards. Perhaps that's because when you do critique a 'great' you have to be extra-sure of your facts, you have to be extra-confident about your opinion. You do have respect for their tremendous achievements in a hugely difficult field, and it's right you should have that, without letting it cow you into a positive response. So you do question yourself extra-carefully, and you do think very hard about it. It is intimidating to critique a 'great' negatively sometimes - 'greats' are there for a reason, like I said, and who are you, anyway? But I'd hate to think anyone would want to 'take down' Alice Munro, whose writing I love, just to show off. I would hope that any critic who did had thought very long and very hard about it indeed (and you can judge for yourself by reading Lorentzen's review here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n11/christian-lorentzen/poor-rose).   



  1. I'm always in two minds about this kind of thing. If I genuinely dislike a book these days, I don't even finish it, never mind review it. Too many books to read, too little time. But then reviewing is only an occasional sideline for me and not a profession - even though I have reviewed professionally. I could name a handful of 'giants' (but I won't) who could do with the kind of reality check they will never ever get now. Sometimes, oddly enough, the reviews on Amazon can be much more balanced. I'm not thinking of the stupid, one star, 'I didn't read this book but I still hate it,' kind of reviews, but the genuine analyses of books that the press have inexplicably promoted to the high heavens, and you have to ask yourself why. There was one I attempted to read - it had been showered with praise in newspapers and magazines and on television and radio - and I thought 'is it me, or is this just very badly written?' Genuinely curious, and assuming it was some deficiency in my reading, I went to the Amazon listing and found a great many well written critical reviews saying much the same thing. I suppose my personal stance is still that I'm not in the business of hatchet jobs. That is so often the prerogative of thrusting young urban males, isn't it? But you also make a very strong point. Maybe it's a sign of the faintly incestuous nature of the 'literary' world. Genre and mid-list authors are used to being slagged off by a significant proportion of readers and still selling a shedload of books. As wise Seth Godin says, the only valid response to this kind of thing is to say 'then it's not for you,' and move on. But successful literary writers and their devotees seem constitutionally unable to do this. Not, of course, that it's easy. You invariably remember the handful of bad reviews when you've long forgotten the good.

    1. Alice Munro introduced me to the term "front-end loader." I thank her for that.

  2. Hi Catherine - yes, it does seem to be a bit of a 'thrusting thing' with the taking-down of a big star (although camilla Long is female, obvs). I'm not sure I agree about the mid-list thing entirely - if midlist writers sold shedloads of books they wouldn't be midlist, and I wonder if they get most upset about negative ones? Because a negative one would actually affect their sales, wouldn't it, whereas a 'star' will still sell millions regardless. I think perhaps it's all about status in the end?


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