Should we judge a book by its author? Week in Books column
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, and is currently a judge of the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and the Independent Scholastic New Children's Prize 2014.
Thursday 21 August 2014
It’s hard to judge a book without regard to who has written it. Perhaps we’re not supposed to. I was reminded of this twice this week, first when a colleague screwed up her face at the water-cooler criticisms of Martin Amis’s holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest and asked, “Are we being especially hard because we have such high expectations?”
Not recently, we don’t, one could answer glibly, but the more thoughtful response brings up another question – whether we apply general standards to a book by a celebrated author or if we judge it by a harder and higher measure.
The second reminder came in a column by Rowan Pelling, former editor of Erotic Review, who hinted at another – opposite – kind of reviewers’ relativity, however unconscious, in recounting an uncomfortable meeting with Fay Weldon: “I once gave a complete stinker of a review to an erotic novel written under a pseudonym; only to be told, once I’d submitted it, that the author was almost certainly Weldon. By then I’d dismissed the book as ‘fearful tosh’ and opined that it read ‘like one of those saucy stories written by schoolgirls and passed under the desks during RE’.”
She thought to soften her criticism once she knew who wrote it, but decided to go with the original because “my first duty as a reviewer was undoubtedly to the reader.” Praiseworthy, though one immediately wants to return to reviews of Jane Somers and Robert Galbraith’s first book, before the authors’ true, starry identities (Doris Lessing and J K Rowling) were revealed – in part for sport, but also in search of opinion unhampered by reputation.
The issue of whether one can or should judge a book ‘blind’ is not just relevant to reviewers but to readers of the books pages. Most of us know that we must beware the novelist reviewing another novelist in order to perform or return a favour. We must also beware the reviewer writing about the book by an author he or she is sitting next to on a panel at the next literary festival. And we are to be wary of the critic who knows/likes an author, and just doesn’t have the stomach to be ruthless in their write-up of their latest “fearful tosh”.
Perversely, to love an author too much (through their books) can also lead to graver disappointment; our admiration leaves a new book freighted by the weight of impossibly high expectations. And is this what might happen to those Murakami “maniacs” who queued for hours for his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage? I doubt it, given that their fan-worship embodies a zeal that appears to extend beyond the book. The novel might, in this instance, be judged on the collective thrill of its acquisition and its author’s undented celebrity – the queue, the excitement of reading it on the day of publication, the cult-like camaraderie of it all. The quality of the story might not be the only pleasure giver.
Pelling’s piece was inspired by a letter sent to The Telegraph by Richard O’Smith, the screenwriter of The Unbeatables, following a film critic’s one-star review, which read: “I invested my heart and soul in the film, neglecting my marriage and missing my mother’s final birthday to create something honest, funny and engaging...”.
By similar standards, readers are owed honest critical guidance on how to spend their hard-earned cash, and reviewers earn their living by writing honest, sometimes uncomfortable criticism, as kindly as they can.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?
- 2 Friends 20th anniversary: Alison Jackson photographs reunited cast
- 3 London council removes 'unacceptable' Stamford Hill posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 The response to my Pizza Express review has been overwhelming, and taught me a lot about journalism
- 5 Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned into a PR disaster
Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams cast in Channel 4 drama about cyber bullying
Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea's 'Booty' music video is just a load of butts
Friends 20th anniversary: Alison Jackson photographs reunited cast
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friends 20th anniversary: The highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter
Scottish independence: The Queen breaks silence on referendum debate – as think tank warns of £14bn black hole if Scotland votes Yes