Arts: Trust me, this is a great book

...or not. It depends on who your friends are, argues Michael Glover

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum