The late Peter Reading, sacked after 22 years at an animal feed mill for refusing to wear the new uniform, once published this acerbic little double haiku about literary reviewers:
In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.
In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now.
Particularly in the small world of poetry, too many reviews conform to the pattern suggested by Reading. Even in the national press, reviews are frequently written by up-and-coming poets unwilling to damage their reputations by pointing out flaws in the work of an established writer, or even by close friends. Unsurprisingly, the reviews are overwhelmingly positive.
Whatever happened to nuance? According to David Cameron, we live in a world where ‘satisfactory’ can no longer be tolerated – increasingly, things are divided into two broad categories: either they are ‘excellent’ or they are redundant. Allowed the freedom of the internet, hack reviewers rush to praise books or to bury them: ‘bad reviews of good books‘ helpfully rounds up some of the more inarticulate responses to books that deserve closer attention, if not necessarily adulation.
We’re lucky, then, that The Omnivore has launched a ‘hatchet job of the year award‘ to ‘raise the profile of professional critics and to promote honesty and wit in literary journalism.’ A well-written negative review – the sort of piece that suggests the reviewer has actually read the book in question – can be a joy to read, as well as a sign that finally someone has noticed that the emperor is naked.
It seems worth remembering a few of the literary heavyweights who have attempted to pummel each other’s work into submission: Frederic Raphael’s dissection of On Chesil Beach remains one of the best articles I’ve ever read, while Virginia Woolf’s assessment of Ulysses is perhaps the most breathtaking piece of upper-class snobbery you’re ever likely to encounter:
I… have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first 2 or 3 chapters; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent; raw, striking; and ultimately nauseating.
Tibor Fischer’s review of Martin Amis’ Yellow Dog deserves a mention: ‘[It] isn’t bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad . . . It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.’ Amis responded with all the charm and eloquence of a teenager throwing a tantrum, calling Fischer a ‘fat-arse.’ He was outdone by Alain de Botton, who responded to a negative review by telling the reviewer, Caleb Crain, ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’ Any piece vituperative enough to prompt that response is worth celebrating…
What of the contenders for The Omnivore prize? It’s wonderful to see Lachlan Mackinnon refusing to give an easy ride to the frequently incomprehensible Geoffrey Hill (Oxford Professor of Poetry, recently knighted), and tempting to agree with Camilla Long as she dismantles Monique Roffey’s ‘unedited sexual slurpings.’ Geoff Dyer’s New York Times review of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winner seems to embody the values the prize seeks to promote, refusing to succumb to lazy thinking and deference, whilst simultaneously willing to reread the novel and consider counterarguments (‘We must be fair…’).
No writer is above criticism, just as no writer should be beneath praise, and the hatchet job of the year prize gives us a welcome reminder that the art of reviewing is very much alive.