Book reviews — or rather the increasing lack of them — has been provoking debate. As a book reviewer myself, I enjoyed reading a piece by novelist and Telegraph chief fiction critic Lionel Shriver on the dangers in reviewing books from the perspective of a writer. In the aptly titled “From the Glass House” in The Telegraph, she begins:
Tossing off reviews of other people’s novels when I’m poised to receive reviews of my own feels like throwing knives in a rubber room. Since in this trade one is often appraised by fellow novelists, my last lacerating one-liner might bounce right back and stab me between the eyes.
Were I to believe in karma — or in the equivalent Western aphorism that what goes around comes around — in preparation for my own UK book release this month I’d have been filing only fawning review copy for the past year.
Instead, I recently slashed two novels to ribbons. Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest was one of the “worst books I have ever read.” And the first paragraph of my review of Graham Swift’s Tomorrow left no room for ambiguity: “I hate it.” (A shame, since I am such an admirer of his other work.) Any sussed literary insider would chide: “You’re an idiot.”
I am an idiot. Given that publishing honest and thus sometimes unfavourable assessments of the work of colleagues is violently at odds with a writer’s self-interest, it’s surprising that literary editors can cajole any author into reviewing. But then, plenty of writers like me don’t know what’s good for them, and some writers plain need the money.
The same can be said for reviewing generally. Recently I wrote enthusiastically about my admiration for the audacity and brilliance of a debut novel entitled The Accident Man by Tom Cain, due out in the UK this June. Later in the week, I bumped into a colleague and respected reviewer and critic at a literary dinner in London. He had read my piece — and the follow-up — at The Rap Sheet. He was amused and held the exact opposite opinion, being much less impressed by this debut, but he applauded my enthusiasm.
Shriver suggests that conflicting opinions, once printed, can cause problems in a field that has so much inherent subjectivity, especially when carving out opinions for the world to read. She concludes her excellent article with these poignant words:
Why is writing criticism self-destructive? Because reviews are deeply personal. The average book represents years of hard work. Most novelists will have invested heart and soul into their text, imbuing characters with a measure of themselves. Although a necessary conceit, the line between the writer and his book is a smudge. The experience of having your book rubbished is of having your character rubbished — for all the world to read. The adversaries you bring into being by writing negative appraisals are like diamonds: forever.
In avoidance of the bandwagon effect, I shield myself from other critics’ reviews until I have filed mine. I try neither to be cowed by big names, nor to succumb to the pathetic illusion that by trouncing accomplished writers I make myself superior to them. I always read the entire book. And my naiveté — my refusal to think twice about alienating a colleague who down the line might help or hurt me — may make me a fool, but it also makes me fairer.
I like to stay current. I may not always be right, of course, but I think I’m right. Because I know what it’s like to get a rotten review, I try to be as selective about writing one as I would like others to be in relation to me. Perhaps most of all, I relish discovering a novel that I adore, and commending marvellous, perhaps as yet uncelebrated books to other people. That’s doing a favour for the author and the reading public both. If this does not sound too pompous, I cherish being able, once in a while, to do good in the world.
I respect my colleague’s opinion. It will appear shortly. At least he didn’t join my band-wagon, though I still remain violently opposed to his viewpoint. That’s what makes reviewing so much fun.
You can read Shriver’s article — including some of the more amusing excerpts from her own reviewing — here.