A Radical Proposal: Book reviews should review books
Give us more judgement, more opinions and more criticism
Last weekend, I had a modest epiphany. It came about after I’d been reading the book reviews in the Sunday papers, seeing what was worth purchasing via whatever medium I could manage given the (hopefully temporary) closure of bookshops and libraries. Yet over and over again, I found myself reading potted summaries of the subject in question, rather than any especially pertinent criticism of the book at hand. An especial contrast came when I read Rachel Cooke’s review in the Observer of Alexandra Shulman’s autobiography, and John Carey’s piece in the Sunday Times about Toby Musgrave’s biography of the botanist Joseph Banks back to back. Cooke’s piece was fair-minded, balanced, personal and very engaging, and left the reader in no doubt what she felt about the book, and why. It was by no means a rave, but it took the book, and its intentions, seriously, and one finished the piece feeling edified.
I would have hoped that any critic, whether one as knowledgeable as Donoghue or someone further down the food chain, would be able to deal with the merits and virtues, or the flaws, of the book in an interesting and original fashion
I had to read Carey’s review twice to find out what his opinion of what he had reviewed was, meanwhile. He describes it as ‘illuminating’ in the first paragraph, and then in the last paragraph offers the detail that ‘Musgrave’s claim that [Banks] changed our world is not an exaggeration’. Other than that, the thousand word-long article was devoted to a précis of what was in the book, summarising Banks’ achievements in brief form. Some will have been intrigued enough by what Carey wrote to have ordered the book, but I fear that many more will have been briefly diverted for a few moments, considered themselves more knowledgeable about Joseph Banks thereafter, and not bothered about it again.
I would not wish to pick a fight with Carey, one of the most consistently readable and knowledgeable literary critics writing today – and usually much more concerned with the merits of a book – but his review did join a sub-genre of criticism which is next to useless from many perspectives. It is of little use to an author or a publisher, because it is unlikely to sell many copies; ‘illuminating’ may be praise, but it is also a good deal less fervent than a writer or his editor would hope for. It short-changes a complex subject by offering the most potted of summaries of what is in it, and it leaves the reader feeling faintly disappointed, rather than intrigued. All in all, one has to chalk this up as a missed opportunity.
But why does it matter, you ask? Surely it’s just one review amongst many, and at least offers exposure. But I would argue that the Carey-on-Musgrave pieces are far more common than the Cooke-on-Shulman, and that the trend in book reviewing has gradually become for a critic to show off his or her erudition for most of the piece, before remembering to say something about the volume in front of them in a couple of hurried lines at the end.
The most frustrating instance of this, from my own experience, came when the literary critic Denis Donoghue, the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters, at New York University was commissioned to review my first book, Blazing Star, for the Irish Times. Donoghue wrote an intriguing, engaging piece about Lord Rochester and his reputation, but did he enjoy the book? I’m still mostly at a loss. The closest thing to praise, or any critical comment, was his final statement that ‘His last chapters are honourably moving.’
While one would of course take a slightly cryptic remark like this over an out-and-out pan (and there were certainly a couple of those, including one, from the ever-waspish Philip Hensher in The Spectator, which reduced me to helpless despair upon reading it), it nonetheless left me disappointed. I would have hoped that any critic, whether one as knowledgeable as Donoghue or someone further down the food chain, would be able to deal with the merits and virtues, or the flaws, of the book in an interesting and original fashion. I had deliberately written it to be provocative and even controversial; was the reader provoked? Or had I failed in my objective? I was none the wiser myself, which meant that the average interested reader was likely to be just as mystified as I was.
Broadly speaking, then, there are two main aims of a non-fiction book review in the general press. (I’ll come onto the more specialised organs, the TLS and the LRB, in a moment.) The first is to allow a significant literary figure to write a lengthy piece displaying their erudition, and which permits sub-editors to come up with a headline along the lines of ‘Julian Barnes on Jean-Paul Sartre’ or similar. The book itself is secondary, its coverage almost an irritation. And the other is nuts-and-bolts criticism, an engagement with an author’s intentions and aims where the fascinations of the subject are secondary to whether the writer has managed to make them accessible to a general audience. This may be less lofty, but is undeniably of more use to the profession, and probably to the potential purchaser, too.
It is incomprehensible that the first category has been so popular in the books industry for years. It would not be permissible or desirable in any other art form. It is inconceivable that one would read a review of a new staging of Hamlet which muses on the difficulties of staging the play, textual issues with the First Folio etc, and then concludes with the words ‘most of the performances are fine’ or ‘the lighting is excellent’. And in a culture that decries spoiling cinematic revelations, film criticism is an even harder art to perfect: writers who spend too long on plot synopses, or inadvertently give away surprises, are likely to find themselves subject to a barrage of aggrieved abuse on social media from disappointed fans.
So, why does it happen? As DJ Taylor wrote in the magazine a few months ago, ‘even a book review, after all, may be regarded as a brick in the wall of what is known as “literary culture”’. As Taylor accurately remarked, one writes a review hoping that it will be the final word on an author’s book, and that it will be cited forever afterwards, but the reality of it is that most literary critics writing for newspapers and magazines are doing so to entertain, and to inform. There are other opportunities, too – to puff your friends’ work, or to damage the reputation of an enemy, or a competitor – but those tend to lie behind the scenes. What the average reader expects to discover from a review is whether they should spend their money on a book. If they do not do so, then someone, somewhere, has blundered.
The question then is whether the fault lies with the writer, or their editor. It is frequently the cry of the disappointed author, incensed by a poor review, that ‘X has always had it in for me…he or she gave Y the book and told them to trash it.’ I am sure that this has happened, but I can only cite my own experience, which is that no literary editor has ever told me what to write in a review. They may well come back with suggestions for refining my comments, and once or twice have gently suggested that the ferocity of my criticism might be toned down, but I have never been given any explicit instruction either to praise or bury a book. That is not how the industry works, despite dark whispers to the contrary.
Whatever one believes the ultimate purpose of book reviewing is, it is far from simple work
Nor, for what it’s worth, have I been told to write in a certain style. As a jobbing author and journalist, rather than an acknowledged homme des lettres, I have never been fortunate enough to write for the TLS or the LRB, but the whole point of the articles in those is to allow a distinguished expert the space to offer a more or less definitive opinion on a subject, usually sparked by the publication of a book on that topic. The pieces are not designed for the average layman to make a quick decision whether to buy the latest Hilary Mantel or Craig Brown, but to spark conversation in the London Library members’ room or an Oxbridge SCR. It is to the energetic Stig Abell’s credit that, under his editorship, the TLS has combined learning with accessibility (‘as you’d expect from a former managing editor of The Sun’, the jealous have been known to sneer), and the LRB is probably the last surviving major bastion of a British literary tradition that used to include such titles as Horizon and The Criterion. But one does not expect simple consumer advice from these magazines; they have another purpose altogether.
Whatever one believes the ultimate purpose of book reviewing is, it is far from simple work. Speaking from personal experience, I find that I have to read a book twice in order to write a long review of it, once to appreciate it as a narrative and once to take notes on it and to consider its successes and drawbacks. Writing and editing one’s piece takes a decent amount of time, too, and there is editorial feedback to take into account, too. Then there’s the responsibility to promote it on social media, and the conscientious even attempt to engage with online commenters, if such a thing is allowed. It is not an easy way of making money, even if the rates are good.
In many cases, they are pathetic. I stopped writing for one daily newspaper (the Daily Express, for what it’s worth) when my apologetic editor informed me that they no longer had any budget for book reviews ‘but would a free book be OK?’ I replied that a free book would be more than acceptable, when my mortgage, bills and shopping were all free, too, and added a couple of choice remarks about Richard Desmond into the bargain. Still, I had had a fair run of it, and I remain pleased that my fees for reviewing decent middlebrow literary fiction were somehow subsidised by his TV channels Television X and Red Hot TV (sample programmes: Viewers’ Wives and Fit and Over Forty). I doubt that Mary-Kay Wilmers and the LRB function in the same way.
George Orwell wrote a memorably lugubrious essay, ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, in which he described the low-rent antics of a ‘literary man’, aged thirty-five ‘but looks fifty’, with varicose veins, a moth-eaten dressing gown and either a hangover or malnutrition. This unfortunate figure reviews books for what passes for a living, but the necessity of covering the likes of Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa or It’s Nicer Lying Down has led him to pour his immortal spirit down the drain, ‘half a pint at a time’. Has that much changed since Orwell wrote this in 1946?
Sometimes, a reviewer, carried away by their own enthusiasm for the subject, will end up producing a piece that says more about them than it does about the book
There are many things wrong with the world of books, but, in Britain at least, there is an awful lot right with it as well. Most mainstream historical and biographical titles, for instance, that are published are of an excellent calibre, and often rather better than they were a generation ago. And many of these writers are to be found in the papers and magazines reviewing their peers’ work, often with a depth of experience and knowledge that is seldom to be found outside academia, but without the obscurity and superiority. If you have a favourite novelist or historian, the chances are that they diversify their career with this kind of journalism. Does that make them any less accomplished? Hardly. Instead, it indicates a constant adherence to new writing and new ideas, and a willingness to engage with a range of authors. Very few of these people are doing it solely for the money, but instead for the genuine love of it.
Yet, sometimes, a reviewer, carried away by their own enthusiasm for the subject, will end up producing a piece that says more about them than it does about the book. Then, I think, it becomes the responsibility of a conscientious literary editor to return to their writer and, however distinguished and successful they are, to suggest, gently, that it would be a useful public service to the reader to indicate whether the book in front of them for review is worth purchasing.
There is certainly a time and place for long thinkpieces about authors and subjects, but one also hopes that a brave editor will have the courage to say to the fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has filed their piece, ‘Sir David, this was marvellous, but could you please let us know whether you thought the book was any good?’ There may be a moment of wounded pride, but the extra paragraph of pure criticism appended to the review could make all the difference for the practice’s survival in its current form. And, on behalf of writers and reviewers alike, I can only hope that such a survival takes place, to give us all something good to read.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe