Arty Types

Gretchen Bellamy: Kindly Reviewer

Is there a book she doesn’t like?

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

You can find evidence of Gretchen’s professional calling on the shelves of every high street bookshop. Not in the volumes themselves, but in the encomia reproduced on their jackets. Here she commends the latest Zadie Smith (“An urgent and passionate work that impels our immediate attention”). There she appraises the new Barbara Kingsolver (“Of all this distinguished author’s oeuvre, possibly her most impressive achievement yet”). 

Even Seven Tales of Slut-shaming, an avowedly challenging work by the experimental novelist Hepzibah Clang found her maintaining that its 400 pages of interior monologue printed in a variety of coloured inks was “not for the faint-hearted, but take it from me, Hep knows what’s she doing”.

Who sponsors these effusions? In the world of newspaper arts journalism, Gretchen is very nearly omnipresent. The Times welcomes her as an old ally; the Guardian is her park and pleasaunce; the Mail is known to esteem her byline. Literary editors love her, not only for her relentlessly upbeat notices but for her steely professionalism. 

Equally at home with one of Lady Glenconner’s cosy crime novels (“delightfully quirky and original”) and the latest Karl-Ove Knausgaard (“bleak, yes, but wonderfully life-affirming”), she has never missed a deadline in 20 years, doesn’t mind having her copy cut and accepts the inexorable decline in reviewers’ wage-scales with a welcome stoicism.

Her real forte, it might be said, is as a festival interviewer

Does Gretchen attach any particular critical principles to her craft? She once told a symposium on the art of reviewing convened by the Author that she regarded her role as that of a messenger, “bringing the good news to readers”. Yet for all her starring appearances as a literary journalist, her real forte, it might be said, is as a festival interviewer. 

Like the editors who commission her work, authors adore her and positively clamour to have her sit beside them at Cheltenham, Hay or wherever. Not only will she turn out to have read all the books her vis-à-vis has written, rather than the one just published, but she has been known to take her own, much annotated, copy to the head of the signing queue.

It might be thought that the emollience Gretchen brings to her day-job would spill over into her domestic life. Curiously, this is not the case. In fact, her existence beyond the desk is characterised by a marked talent for discrimination. 

She is, for example, an exacting parent, keen on correcting minor behavioural defects (“Cross little boys who stamp their feet will have to stand in the corner, Kevin”), a demanding diner-out who frequently sends back dishes that fail to meet her Olympian standards, and an immensely critical partner. There have already been three Mr Bellamys, and the third’s position is by no means secure. 

On the other hand, she recently pronounced Cormac McCarthy’s latest to be “an absolutely unmitigated triumph”. 

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