Arts: Trust me, this is a great book

...or not. It depends on who your friends are, argues Michael Glover
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The Independent Culture
FOUR WISE men will shortly be gathering in an upper room close to Charing Cross Station to discuss a subject dear to the hearts of many reckless book purchasers at this time of year, with a view to hosting a Royal Arts Society debate next month. Their subject? The state of book reviewing, and whether we are wise to heed the words of those near-impecunious rogues whose names return again and again to our books pages.

Anthony Burgess, a great filler of books pages himself, had very strong opinions on the matter when I spoke to him shortly before his death. "They're such cheats!" he said. I asked him how he did it. He was frank with me. I read the book and then I write about it, immediately, he told me. No time for rumination, or note taking, or staring meaningfully into the middle distance - or any of that old rubbish. He just wrote it, as quickly as possible, before he forgot what was in the book. And before he had to get on to the next review - which, such were the demands made upon his time by literary editors, would probably be a bit later that same afternoon.

One of the people who will be in that upstairs room near Charing Cross will be Tony Curtis, a former books editor of the Financial Times. Curtis once made the whole thing sound terribly easy: "the world of a review is to mediate between the book and the reader." The truth of the matter is that the commissioning, editing, writing and policing of book reviews is one of the most treacherously difficult jobs around; a potential ethical minefield.

Consider this test case: if you were an untested books editor, who would you consider approaching to review a major political biography? An academic? Another political biographer? A novelist or poet who also happens to write reviews as a way of supplementing a meagre income? The academic, though knowledgeable, may write in the area himself and have scores to settle. He may also be incapable of writing journalism. The political biographer may be too narrow a specialist. He may also turn up his nose at the magnificent cheque. The novelist may be too much of a generalist.

Virginia Woolf, who wrote regularly for The Manchester Guardian early this century, complained that the literary editor expected instant knowledge from her: "You will be surprised to learn," she once wrote to a friend, "that I am an authority on Spain - but there it is." The paper had just sent her some books on the subject.

Woolf felt uneasy about writing on a topic about which she had limited knowledge; but the Bloomsbury group in general had no compunction about the more blatant cheating involved in praising each other's books to the skies in print.

Some of the worst kind of cheating is in poetry reviewing, in which most people are somebody's friend, and the book under review may have been written by next year's TS Eliot Prize judge. Most poetry reviewing is craven, muted, and full of covertly sycophantic weaselry - the sort of thing Will Self alluded to in his Booker Prize outburst about the "nepotism of niceness". Because reputation is all, and money nothing, poets are too often unwilling to hit out without nervous glances over the shoulder.

Once upon a time, it was a tragic thing to be flayed in public. Now, amongst many poets, it's just a symptom of too much over-vigorous back- scratching. The truth is that an awful lot of crap is written and published in the name of poetry, and some of it, alas, may have been written by our best friends.

Burgess the reviewer, however, used language as a battering ram, not as a self-protective barricade.