Should we judge a book by its author? Week in Books column


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The Independent Culture

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.