A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn’t allow it to spoil your lunch. Kingsley Amis is credited with that remark. Another suggestion for dealing with reviews is: don’t read them; just measure them. Some authors – a suspicious number – claim not to read reviews of their books at all. What a luxury, you think (if you believe them). More pertinent might be the advice that a single bad review of your precious book is better than no review. At least somebody noticed it.
Every so often a chorus of lamentation arises about the state of book reviewing, usually on the grounds that it has gone flabby. Critical engagement has been replaced by ‘advertisement-style frippery’, which is how a writer in The Baffler put it a few years ago – ‘a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions’. For the common reader, the hatchet job holds a perennial, lusty appeal. Sooner or later in the debate, someone will reach for Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay ‘The Decline of Book Reviewing’, published in 1959, in which she despairs of the ‘listless’ condition of the book review sections of American journals: ‘Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.’ Not enough breakfasts were being spoiled to satisfy Hardwick.
The complaint about leniency has been around longer than that. The Edinburgh Review was founded in 1802, partly in response to the feeling that critics were giving ‘a dawdling, maudlin sort of applause to everything that reached even mediocrity’. Those pre-Hardwickian words are Walter Scott’s. He admired the rigour of the journal and put a brave face on continuing to do so when he became its latest victim. In the spring of 1808, it published a harsh notice of Scott’s book-length poem Marmion. The reviewer was the editor of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey. He was notorious for his critical demolitions of Wordsworth and Southey, and Scott was added to the list.
Not a man to let decorum slip, Scott told one friend after another how he and Jeffrey had shared a bottle of claret afterwards and laughed about the ‘flagellation’ of his poem. The more he told the story, the more the bruises showed. Eventually, he was saying, ‘I owe Jeffrey a flap with a fox-tail on account of his review of Marmion.’ Instead of giving it to him, Scott helped establish the Quarterly Review, a Tory rival to its Whiggish Edinburgh counterpart. Within a decade, Scott would be the most celebrated novelist in Europe. Call it revenge, if you like.
Every writer who has struggled to digest a tough review over breakfast knows the desire for vengeance. Forget the friendly bottle. If a glass of something features in the fantasy, it is for chucking in the offender’s face. Remember Dale Peck? He was famous at the turn of the century for committing
grievous bodily harm in the New Republic against novels by Julian Barnes, Rick Moody and others. Stanley Crouch, well known as a critic in America at the time but making his fiction debut in 2000, suffered a violent assault on his novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome. Violent, but stylishly so. Many a wounded author has said something like, ‘they’d better not come across me in a dark alley’. It hardly ever happens, but one day Crouch encountered Peck in a Manhattan restaurant. Crouch was a big guy, while Peck… Well, the rest is history.
Good reviewers avoid clichés like that. I would have done as well, were it not that Peck’s career as a hatchet-job critic was soon to become history too.
I admit to receiving my share of flagellation and trying not to let it show. ‘Never, never, never bear a grudge,’ Bernard Shaw wrote to Frank Harris. Ignoble thoughts occur nevertheless whenever the name of the offending reviewer crops up. Just wait until their next book comes out… We’ll see how they like it.
It’s a consoling thought at 3am, when the wisdom of GBS is apt to get lost in the haze of insomniac visions of retribution. And sometimes the opportunity comes round – not only in the world of Stanley Crouch (I also gave his novel rough handling, by the way) but also in mine. When my book Paris Interzone was published in the United States in 1995 (under the title Exiled in Paris), it was greeted with a handsome review in the New York Times by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Being in Manhattan at the time, I went to West 43rd Street late at night to buy the next day’s paper (normally, I never read reviews), and skipped home persuaded that New York was indeed a wonderful town. A couple of weeks later, Exiled in Paris was reviewed all over again by the same paper, this time in the Sunday Book Review section. The critic was Deirdre Bair, best known for her biography of Samuel Beckett.
I haven’t looked it up since, but let’s just say it spoiled both breakfast and lunch. Back in London, on my way to work at the TLS, I was going through the fantasy revenge routine: just wait, etc. I reached the office – this seems too neat to be believable, but it’s true – to find on my desk Anaïs Nin: A Biography by Deirdre Bair. A note from a colleague (ignorant of Bair’s view of my book) asked if I felt like reviewing it.
Was I tempted? I was familiar with Nin’s novels, her Diary, her relationship with Henry Miller. I’ll take any opportunity to wander the streets of Paris by proxy. But I passed it back to my colleague. If I had read Anaïs Nin and admired it, would I have given Bair a flap with a fox-tail all the same? That would hardly have counted as revenge, only a further debasement of the reviewing trade. And who would have noticed, except her? Probably no one. Possibly not even her – just me, inadvertently chucking wine in my own face. Better to adhere to Shaw’s
dictum. And look forward to lunch.