That annoyed feeling you sometimes have when you have an issue with a book review — and there is no way to comment, damned dead-tree media. God forbid every review of a book you like is a cheersquad, but occasionally one smells that the reviewer has (i) overstepped the mark, (ii) is not telling us (or, does not realise) something significant about her/his biases or, (iii) as Martin Amis elaborates below — so wickedly, cuttingly and exactly –is manifesting envy. Because, book reviewing is not like other reviewing.

Reviewing is central to a culture (prepare for three portentous sentences) — a part of its continual reinvigoration, its corrective and catalyst. A good artist or creative sort is constantly in, or about to adopt, a self-critical position; it’s the safeguard against mediocrity and complacency. If one doesn’t have a dependable self-critical faculty, then one must rely on one’s frenemies. But how do critics stay on their toes? (Only their editor knows.) It’s an interesting transition period for reviewing — the days of Olympian judgement are receding as web 2.0 protocols become standard. Old media companies drag their feet on this — not only can you not comment on the review, but the dead-tree reviews are often not even online. As for the examples I have picked here, it will be clear from the disclosure below* why they claimed my attention. I’m sure you could go through the weekend papers and make a similar selection.

(An open secret — unlike, say, business or science and technology, almost anyone who can write a sentence could be asked to review the arts. That’s to say, you can fake a lot in areas of subjective values. As a singer friend said wryly on the weekend, There’s two kinds of art: art you like, and art you don’t like. (And they can’t say you’re wrong.) I remember reviewing records (unmusical me!) when I knew even less than I do now. It is almost inevitable, apart from practitioner-reviewers, that the reviewer is less able in the craft than the reviewed. The chief advantage of the reviewer is distance — a spectator can see clearly where Chris Judd has slipped up, but is also likely an impossible distance from even making that mistake, never mind making the right move.)


‘Envy’ by Edvard Munch


Do damage

Thinking of two recent book reviews** — here are their last lines:

i) But as a public figure with a huge international following, who actively seeks to influence long-term government and business decisions, he has a responsibility to think through his opinions before he speaks. That, or stick to what he is best at — telling ripping yarns…

ii) Still, sex is a commercial thing. This book will sell.

In (i) what grates on me is the patronising tone ending in the flick off. Firstly, pompously, the reviewer grandly tasks the author to be more responsible (as if the author had not really, actually considered his opinions. Arrogance, thy name is…), and in the next breath flips him off in the glibbest of fashions. (If reviewers hold book authors to scrutiny, then a much shorter piece like a review should be able to withstand the same haircombing scrutiny.)

In (ii) the whole review is patronising and (in my view, needless to say) mean-spirited, and that tone is compressed into the insulting finish — and … one notes that the book reviewed is a memoir, so the dismissal is not just to the art, but also the life. Take that! You get (I got) the strong feeling that the reviewer entertains an animus against the author that is being aired, but not explained; the review even gives away the narrative ending, so it really means to do damage. To indulge in reviewing’s pop-psych readings, I’d be tempted to think that the reviewer was a senior feminist disparaging a younger gen exemplar.

Moral stylistics

Perhaps my objections to the reviews are reactions to their moral stylistics as much as to a sense of their hiked up animosity. In the first the reviewer seems compelled to mount a high horse. In the second the reviewer wants to stick in a knife. I am reminded of reading a Wendy Bacon piece on Madonna’s celebrity; the ending had Bacon hoping that, as a result of her wild gyrations, Madonna would cause her big necklace crucifix to twist up and hit her in the face. Years later, I can still recall that line — nasty. (I immediately put on a Madonna track.)

Martin Amis has the last word

From Experience:

“Actually there’s a good reason, a structural reason, why novelists should excite corrosiveness in the press. When you review a film, or appraise a film-director, you do not make a ten-minute short about him (or her). When you write about a painter, you do not produce a sketch. When you write about a composer, you do not reach for your violin. And even when a poet is under consideration, the reviewer or profilist does not (unless deeply committed to presumption and tedium) produce a poem. But when you write about a novelist, an exponent of prose narrative, then you write a prose narrative. And was that the extent of your hopes for your prose — bookchat, interviews, gossip? Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for *you* to say this is envy. And envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy. It comes dressed as something else: Asceticism, High Standards, Common Sense. Anyway, as I said, I don’t complain about all that — because fame is so great.”


* Disclosure: I’m the designer of both books reviewed above. Which you can take in one of two ways (or both): that I am biased/self-serving, or that I may know whereof I speak.

**I can’t link to one and the other can go on to its fish-wrapping duties. Both are from Fairfax: (i) is Liz Minchin on Tim Flannery’s Here on Earth: An argument for hope; (ii) Helen Elliott on Kate Holden’s The Romantic: Italian nights and days. (Google: “smh review the romantic”)