Monday, April 23, 2012

Blood and Gore in Book Reviews

John Sutherland has a terrific piece in The Guardian: Which book reviewer will win the 'hatchet job of the year' award? Not only does he have links to some of the juiciest of them, he even links to a review that demolished one of his own books!

I should make full use of this opportunity to link to demolition jobs that are pure fun: Matt Taibbi and Mihir Sharma. But they reviewed non-fiction, while Sutherland's piece is about reviews of fiction, poetry, anthologies, and the like.

Some excerpts:

Give someone a hatchet and, quite likely, they'll get bored of clearing the literary undergrowth and sink it in some luckless writer's skull. More so in a hothouse literary world like London's. And it's fun to watch, so long as the hatchet isn't descending on your own cranium. Every sport benefits from a bit of blood. Personally I stop reading reviews at the first mention of words such as "splendid", "magisterial", or "meticulous". Gore beats puff every time. [...]

I've published some 28 books ("Splendid", all of them), over what some unfriendly reviewers have recently been implying is an overlong career (notably that young stripe Sam Leith, damn him, who I see is one of the hatchet judges). Most reviews of my books have been friendly. But there's always been a couple of stinkers. And those are, inevitably, the ones you can – 40 years later – still recite by heart. More so as, when time passes, you begin to suspect your assailant may have got some things right.

My most recent effort, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, has received the kinds of review that would please my mother in the Spectator, the Times, the Financial Times, the Independent, the Evening Standard. But it got the loo read of the year award in Time Out ("top of the world, Ma!").

It also got a review of such savagery in the Telegraph that, if I were a betting man, I'd go down to Paddy Power and put a tenner on Jonathan Bate walking away with the 2012 hatchet of the year award, still dripping with my warm blood and brains. (That's the one link you clicked on, isn't it? Point proved). Forget loo read of the year. As far as Bate is concerned my luckless volume wouldn't even qualify as toilet paper.