Why do we review books?

D.J. Taylor reflects on nearly four decades of hard graft on the literary pages


One friday afternoon 24 years ago this month — you can see how long these things rankle — I was sitting at my desk in the marketing department of Messrs Ernst & Young, chartered accountants, when the phone rang. The caller was the man who commissioned the fiction reviews for the Sunday Times. “I’m very sorry,” he began, “but there’s a really bad review of your novel in Sunday’s paper.” How bad was really bad, I wondered, trying to find some crumb of comfort in this weekend-wrecking news. “Really bad,” my friend explained. “I mean, he absolutely hates it.”

There was nothing left to do, except to exchange a few broken civilities, fret through the next 36 hours and nervously reconnoitre the Sunday Times books section until such time as my eye alighted on a paragraph assuring its readers that the darling work on which I had lavished so much care and Roget-roughaged attention was “about as much use as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition”. If there was any comfort, it lay in the thought of a wound soon healing into a proud, professional scar. I, too, am a book reviewer, I told myself, and if you live by the sword, you must expect to die by it as well. Not for nothing are the critics in novels about early-Victorian literary life given names like Bludyer and Slasher.

The first book I ever reviewed (a rather good avant-garde novel by Sue Roe called Estella: Her Expectations) was for the Spectator, a small matter of 37 years ago. The last (John le Carré’s new one) was for Private Eye, just the other week. Filling up the space between these two marker-flags are a whole lot more, for the London Magazine, Encounter and the London Evening Standard, and later the Independent, the Guardian and the Sunday Times, before a swerve into more exotic ports of call like Political Quarterly, the Wall Street Journal, New Republic and the UAE-based National, while never forgetting such reliable coigns of book-world vantage as The Times, Spectator, New Statesman and Literary Review — a couple of thousand, maybe, running, in the peak years (1988-1993, say), at the rate of three or four a week.

If this sounds like hack-work on an heroic scale, then it should be said that many a bygone literary career more exalted than mine throws up similar statistics. Graham Greene’s biographers calculate that he reviewed nearly a thousand books in the 1930s alone. And if the sketch of the moth-eaten, bedsit-bound drudge in Orwell’s “Confessions of a Book-Reviewer” isn’t precisely a self-portrait, it is close enough to the kind of life that Orwell was leading in his apprentice years to stop any Grub Street romanticiser dead in his tracks.

Naturally, there are distinctions to be drawn, for these were not all the same kind of review, written at the same kind of length or for the same kind of audience. As any long-time adornment of what the Victorian novelist George Gissing used to call “the valley of the shadow of books” knows, and sometimes to their cost, you approach the task in one way for the Daily Express and in another way for Transactions of the Arthur Machen Society. In reviewing for the London Review of Books you may scarcely mention the book at all. In reviewing for a daily newspaper, any injurious gossip that the author may throw up will be warmly welcomed. Four hundred words may be too much for the Tablet and 4,000 too little for the Times Literary Supplement.

At the same time, the esteem in which you are held varies wildly from outlet to outlet. At the TLS a tribe of highly intelligent editors will queue up to offer tactful suggestions and discreet amendments and undertake to send you a proof in the week before publication.

At the other end of the scale, the woman who used to edit the books page at the London Evening Standard 30 year ago, would, when pressed for space, simply lop off the last two paragraphs. And at all times, at any rate at the popular end of the market, comes the constant reminder that what you do is not really serious, there on sufferance, always ripe for displacement if some bigger fish — Brexit, an interview with Margaret Atwood — comes surging into the pool.

If this is the landscape in which book reviewing takes place, then how has it changed in the 37 years since I first took up residence there? And what are the first principles that might be supposed to animate it? Grimly surveying the phantom library acquired since the days of the first Thatcher administration, I suspect that, over the years, the impulse that led me to pick up the pen separates out into five distinct categories. The trip to A.N. Wilson’s office at the Spectator was undertaken out of straightforward intoxication, the idea that here was a hugely glamorous professional stage on which, if you had the gumption and the talent, you might be able to play a part. Later came the necessity of making a splash, leaving a calling card, finding a way of ensuring respectful attention for the first novel that was going to knock John Fowles into a pile of paperclips.

Later still came the lure of hard cash: lit crit paid well in the boom years of the late 1980s and early ’90s (more of this later) and a sharp operator who reviewed for two or three newspapers and didn’t mind the odd hours could make as much as £15,000 a year. Meanwhile, the sheen of punditry could not be ignored — even a book review, after all, may be regarded as a brick in the wall of what is known as “literary culture”. And finally there is habit. Two thousand volumes in, book reviewing is, like following Norwich City Football Club or watching HBO box sets, something I do, a skill which, until now, has never forsaken me, a reflexive twitch never to be subdued.

As for those first principles, anyone who launches into print with a 300-word notice of Sadie Blackeye’s arresting first novel, It’s Nicer Lying Down, for the Cleethorpes Advertiser will be uncomfortably aware that they have two prospective audiences in view. One is a no doubt exacting posterity, but the second — unless you happen to be writing for a more exalted redoubt like the TLS or the LRB — is someone who has probably stumbled upon the page by accident, may not be especially interested in literature per se, and wants only to know whether the item before them is worth buying or borrowing from a library.

All very well imagining that in sending Ms Blackeye’s debut down the chute to a well-deserved oblivion you are making a contribution to the culture of your day, but most book reviews are read in horribly mundane circumstances by people wondering if their £16.99 mightn’t be better spent.

Written in horribly mundane circumstances, too: Anthony Powell’s memoirs offer a heartfelt paragraph about the awfulness of having to write round-up reviews for the pre-war Daily Telegraph, his defence of books which friends found unreadable being that “a novel-reviewing job cannot be held down … by writing week after week that the whole depressing batch lack the smallest merit”.

Inevitably, the suspicion that you were barely tolerated by your paymasters worked its effect. The mark of the specimen reviewer, back in the days when I first started taking an interest in them, was an absolute determination to sing for one’s supper. As Auberon Waugh, a particular hero of mine, once counselled, the great secret was “not to ask whether you approve of a book or think it good but to allow yourself to react to it, even if only with exasperation. The key quality in reviewing is not judiciousness or erudition or good taste, least of all is it moderation. It is liveliness of response.”

Naturally, there were times when that liveliness degenerated into straightforward stridency. The Friday mornings of my late teens found me keenly awaiting the weekly fiction masterclass that a youthful Peter Ackroyd ran at the back end of the Spectator, which specialised in taking serious people a lot less seriously than they wished to be taken, and where the luckless Erica Jong — to cite only one of Ackroyd’s punchbags — was once accused of stuffing herself with clichés in the same way that a scarecrow “might have to wad himself with pieces of straw and old newspaper”.

The reviewer’s task, or so I assured myself on the strength of these exhibition bouts, was a) to cultivate a modest scepticism, b) to assume that nine out of ten novels were scarcely worth noticing, and, above all, c) to impress your personality on the text put before you. All of which, it might be argued, are absolutely the worst qualities anyone wanting to appraise literature in the public prints ought to be displaying, but were, when I set properly to work in the late 1980s, exactly what most literary editors seemed to require.

Book reviewing is, like watching Norwich City Football Club, something I do, a reflexive twitch never to be subdued

Thirty years later it is difficult to appreciate just how rancorous, how combative and (occasionally) how spiteful were most newspaper books pages in the last days of Mrs Thatcher. It was quite usual, for example, to open the Observer’s literary section and discover that all five of the week’s novels had been ceremoniously trashed. “Book reviewing is becoming a blood sport again,” Private Eye’s anonymous critic (myself) observed in the autumn of 1989 after a bruised and battered Iris Murdoch and her novel The Message to the Planet had been borne miserably from the ring.

There were several reasons for this torrent of what in some cases was little more than licensed abuse. Here in the wake of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat of the printworkers, newspapers were in boom. There was more space for the arts, and the books pages of the day were swiftly colonised by a gang of young reviewers — I was one of them — bent on making names for themselves and causing trouble for its own sake.

Additionally, there lurked a suspicion that one or two senior British writers — names mentioned included Kingsley Amis, Margaret Drabble and poor Ms Murdoch — had been getting away with inferior work for rather too long and deserved every rebuke that could be flung at them. In slight mitigation may be advanced the fact that, as the Independent’s former literary editor Boyd Tonkin once put it to me, literary culture was robust enough in those times to be able to bear this kind of constant belittling. You could have a little fun with Sir Kingsley and his increasingly tortured syntax because both the space and the appetite for these assaults was in abundant supply.

Three decades later, on the other hand, we inhabit a world in which most books are not so much reviewed as endorsed and where it is not uncommon to open, say, the Guardian Saturday Review and find that every single item mentioned is being patted on the back. There are excellent reasons for this all-round determination (certain truculent ingrates notwithstanding) not to find fault. One of them is the lack of space for reviews, which tends to encourage most editors to take an emollient line.

Taxed with simply acclaiming a series of masterpieces, most literary editors will point out that about 4,000 books are published every week: why notice the duds? Another is that pressing contemporary urge not to give offence. A third is a welcome awareness of some of the sensitivities that may be trampled on in a culture much keener on inclusiveness and diversity than in the bad old days of Waugh and Ackroyd.

A white writer reviewing a black writer, or a middle-aged male Oxford graduate reviewing a book like Kerry Hudson’s Low Born, generally has to start by thinking very hard about motive, stance and a whole raft of prejudices and assumptions of which he may not be fully aware. A fourth, perhaps, is a much more general uneasiness about the whole business of making a judgment in the first place, of having the cheek to lay down the law in a world where the desirability of lawmaking is being called sharply into question.

Most literary editors will point out that about 4,000 books are published every week, so why notice the duds?

An Oxford academic, Sophie Ratcliffe, recently wrote a letter on these lines to the TLS in which, while approving the idea of a rigorous critical climate, she argued that “the notion that either individually, or as a community, critics are part of an exercise in separating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ books out, like so many sheep and goats, strikes me as utterly bizarre — not to mention arrogant.”

My initial reaction to this was straightforward disbelief. Here was an Oxford don with a first-class mind and a roomful of students to educate who seemed suspicious of her own ability to discriminate between merit and its absence. What could be more absurd? On reflection, I see that what Ms Ratcliffe was trying to do was suggest that one of the tasks facing the professional critic is to interrogate his or her subjectivity, to acknowledge that, pace Leavis, no one who approaches any cultural artefact is altogether free of bias and that the exposure of these impulses may be one of the things that makes the review worth writing. If Leavis’s views on, say, D.H. Lawrence bear reading about, then so, arguably, do the psychological impulses that led him to form them.

All the same, it is important to set Ms Ratcliffe’s insistence that we should all be a bit more thoughtful about the positions we take up and the stances we adopt in the context of the way in which most book reviews get written — that is, on the hoof, to a deadline and in the urgent desire to find something worth saying about an object which, sub specie aeternitatis, is not likely to enjoy a very long shelf life.

Orwell has some sober reflections about the necessity, when reviewing, of finding a spring balance capable of weighing both a flea and an elephant simultaneously. Then there is that urgent need to perform the highly desirable task of exposing the works of certain highly acclaimed titans of modern literature to a scrutiny that most critics are rarely prepared to allow them. Posthumous re-evaluation, is of course, a different thing: all the people now queueing up to disparage an Updike or a Mailer tend to have kept their views to themselves while their subjects lived.

But to return to that initial question: why review books?

A straight answer might be: to try to understand them better, to encourage readers to understand them better, and also, with Ms Ratcliffe in mind, to understand yourself better. All the same, a certain part of me still experiences a thrill of admiration at the sight of an opinionated Young Turk tearing into some grand eminence of the London book world who should know better.

I can’t help it. You see, it was the way I was brought up.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover