Arifa Akbar: In defence of the literary critic – we're not all as bad as each other
The Week In Books
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Saturday 19 May 2012
Few reviewers could have remained indifferent to Joanne Harris's complaint against literary critics this week. The art of book reviewing is losing its "erudition and wit", she wrote, while some critics have axes to grind and the internet is making it easy for the public to air badly-formed opinion. Worse still, critics are giving away her plot twists.
What she didn't mention – and it deserves to be considered in the mix of her outrage – is the love-in between writers who seem to have made silentpacts to review each other's works favourably – or at least this is how it appears in those reviews that speak in gushing superlatives. For every bludgeoning review, I read far more fawning ones that offer little analysis or critical appreciation, but make trite pronouncements about the author's greatness. This isn't literary criticism, it's literary blurbism. They have none of the sense of gentlemanly jousting – Harris's erudition and wit – but they do have the dissemblance of back-scratchers: you write a glowing review of my book, and I'll do likewise. This kind of reviewer is just as insecure and self-serving as Harris suggests some negative reviewers to be.
Harris rightly complains that a review she wrote was heavily edited to read negatively by a literary editor, but she also mentions that she was reviewing a "colleague's novel". If we want to talk about the discepancies in the small world of book reviewing, we ought to mention the moral fog around this habit for friends, colleagues and authors who belong to the same publishing houses, to review each other's work. We like to think this doesn't lead to compromised reviews, but it can muddy the territory, and these associations ought to be declared.
Many critics I've met have an embarrassing story of writing an inhospitable review of a book one week, and finding themselves seated next to its author at a party or dinner the following week. I can imagine the sudden drop in body temperature. No-one wants to be in such a face-off and it may be difficult for authors to write reviews in an uninhibited, uninvested way for this reason.
I write more positive reviews than negative by far, but both require texture and qualification. When I haven't been completely honest is when I haven't enjoyed the book, but I can't pinpoint why, so I've erred on the side of caution.
The best reviews are subtle, to my mind. They don't slam into the work bluntly, but unravel it sensitively, even if it is to expose its flaws. Criticism is not a blood sport, and no-one should be savaged for the hell of it, particularly not emerging authors, but there is a hint of preciousness in the objections I hear against literary critics. How many film director do we hear complaining about film critics? Or musicians? The fact that Harris talks about reviewers rather like we were a generalised mass, a malaise, suggests that she might have an axe to grind. Reviewers are simply keen readers who are paid for their opinions. That these are informed opinions doesn't necessarily make them right. People who read the books pages are clever enough to know this, but what I think they want is analysis. And it is the job of the reviewer to analyse the plot, with all its twists and turns, and not to be part of a publicity machine which guards plotlines and puts out spoiler alerts.
It is too common for authors to express contempt towards critics. They are sometimes the same authors who claim not to read their reviews, but whose egos would be horribly injured if they were not reviewed.
I agree with Harris when she says that literary criticism can be brilliant, but it is losing neither its erudition nor its wit. Perhaps it is authors who are losing their sporting sense.
Jazzing up fiction with bestselling history
Sir Keith Thomas, the chair of judges for the Wolfson History Prize, recently gave historians a ticking-off for being too quick to jazz up research to turn into books with popular appeal, in the hope of joining their colleagues on tellie and bestseller lists. What's also interesting to consider are those authors who jazz up history to turn into bestselling fiction. Does this inspire us to dip into the history section of a bookshop, or do we stop at these creative histories? Hilary Mantel can be credited for reinvigorating public interest in Thomas Cromwell, while Kate Summerscale has done the same for the Victorians with her non-fiction. As an ordinary punter, it's a great, if lazy, way to consume history.
A slice of McBritishness in a book
Yes it's definitely Jubilee year. A deluge of books celebrating the Queen have begun winging their way to us, with such penetrating titles as Jokes to Tell the Queen and The Elizabeth II Pocket Bible (which tells the reader what the Queen eats for breakfast, though few could have forgotten tupperware-gate). I wonder whether anyone buys into such patriotic kitchness, or if these books sit there for a time, thumbed by passing tourists, before being sent back and turned to mulch. Alongside the Jubliee, the Olympics have led to a general interrogation of Britishness. Granta's latest edition, Britain, attempts to present the many faces of the nation, while the British Library has just opened its exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands which explores literature inspired by spaces around the British Isles. Both are fascinating, but in their own way, they prove that contemporary Britishness is far more elusive than the kitch publications would have us believe, and perhaps even that nationhood is a concept built on nostalgia and remembrance.
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