Thomas Sutcliffe: The critical points of reviewers

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The Independent Online

Here's a thought experiment. Some unspecified disaster has struck the world and evacuation is now the only viable option. Fortunately, we have a congenial planet to repair to, but storage space is limited on the journey and so a selection must be made of which aspects of human culture and history will be taken with us to form the foundation stone for Earth v2. You have to make this choice: should the collected works of Pauline Kael go into the electronic ark or the collected films of Michael Winner? There's only room for one, and the other will be consigned for ever to cosmic oblivion. I take it that my answer to this question will be obvious: I assume that not a few readers would also be wearing "Vote Kael" buttons; and, in my wilder moments, I imagine that even Winner might find himself havering over the answer. Far better to have excellence in one form than mediocrity in another.

It's possible, of course, that this is just a reviewer's wishful thinking, and that a widespread prejudice against the secondary and reactive would win out. It could be argued that it's always better to choose the object that casts the shadow rather than the shadow itself, however elegantly the latter is shaped. My arguments against would be rather simple. It's not that the collected film reviews of Kael would give you an unmatched account of cinema in the second half of the 20th century (though they would). It's that there is more pleasure in one volume of her writing than in the alarming 35 titles that the Internet Movie Database lists as Mr Winner's oeuvre. More importantly, perhaps, Winner's movies teach you only never to go to another Winner movie. Kael's reviews teach you things you will take into the dark with you for years to come.

It could be said that I'm cheating a bit by picking on Winner, and that would be absolutely true. But I wanted to make the point that criticism doesn't always get its due as a cultural expression that can match or even eclipse the objects it addresses. And I was prompted to do this by reading a review that seemed to me exemplary of the high pleasures that good criticism can deliver – James Wood's review of Adam Mars-Jones's new novel, Pilcrow, in the most recent edition of the London Review of Books. This isn't, I hasten to add, any kind of Kael/Winner pairing. Mars-Jones is more than a match for Wood. But – although it isn't an unequivocal rave – I don't think a novelist could realistically hope for better in terms of a thoughtful response.

It's probably significant that I'd read Pilcrow before reading Wood's review – and it's not impossible that the enjoyment the LRB piece gave me was actually the belated detonation of charges that had actually been laid by Mars-Jones. Pilcrow is a long and calculatedly unusual book, one that knowingly withholds the crutches that novelists usually make available to the more halting reader, such as dramatic tension or emotional entanglement. So reading it was a slightly bemusing experience – its intentions and method a little blurred around the edges. Reading Wood's review of it was like putting on reading glasses after struggling with an unacknowledged myopia. Oh, of course, that's what it looks like, I found myself thinking, and how thrilling it is to see it so crisply. To borrow a phrase Wood uses in his book How Fiction Works, praising a passage by Saul Bellow, "until this moment, one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence".

It isn't just that Wood knew the book better than I did – though he spots a crucial reference to a Tennessee Williams short story that had passed me by completely. He'd also seen it more distinctly than I had – and could identify the passages in which the novel makes its best case for itself (acute quoting is an undervalued talent). He cites a description of the hero's mother cooking scrambled eggs – "Nothing seemed to happen, and it kept on happening for a very long time... Her activity seemed designed in fact to protect the contents of the pan from any changes that might be brought about by cooking" – and then acutely pins down the fact that this is a description of prose as well as eggs.

But above all the review does what really good criticism should always do, which is deliver an implicit lesson in how carefully to read all books, rather than just a personal judgement of one particular one. It's true, of course, that the review depends on Pilcrow in a way that Pilcrow does not depend on the review, but it also offers satisfactions that owe nothing to the novel. It made me think that sometimes notices deserve noticing themselves.