Margaret Forster

On Reviewing

Reviewers are universally reviled. It is alleged that they do not read the books they review (or that they read them blinded by envy because they are failed authors themselves). It is said they only review for the money (or alternatively that they get paid so little they cannot afford to take the time to do their job properly). It is rumoured that they use their wretched reviews as platforms for their own ideas (or that they lack originality and are mere echoes). Only reviewers who are dead are revered and they of course were a different breed: Literary Critics to a man.

God knows why, in these circumstances, I ever wanted to do the job, but I did. I have always liked not just reading books but discussing them and turn eagerly to reviews to match my opinion with others. The only reason I held back from reviewing for so long was that I feared committing myself to print would spoil my fun – wouldn’t the worry hang over me? But three years ago when I was asked to be chief non-fiction reviewer on the London Evening Standard I decided I was in no danger of wrecking my own pleasure: I only ever read fiction through choice, except in the course of work, and there would be no clash.

I liked the job at once, but I realised very quickly how difficult it was. That reading of a book and giving my opinion view of reviewing didn’t hold water for a single week. There is much more to it than that. I have to review a book every week in approximately 800 words which, considering the main non-fiction choice of the week is nearly always a fat volume of around 400 pages, means considerable pressure. I cannot afford to slip up – mistakes of fact are spotted straight away. This element of learning as I read I find unexpectedly hard. Take, for example, a book of T. E. Lawrence I had to review early in my new career. I knew nothing about Lawrence. I said so. The Literary Editor said hard luck and anyway lots of our readers know nothing about Lawrence – this is the book of the week and we must do it. So I read a short book first, to get the hang of the main facts, and then turned to the real book. This, of course, would not happen if I was an occasional reviewer but every reviewer with a weekly slot encounters this problem some time or other. A good literary editor will try to choose books that his reviewer is likely to enjoy but it is not always possible and the odd bit of compulsion is not always a bad thing. At any rate, it is something a reviewer must be prepared for and not jib at.

Once the choice is made (and until recently I had little say in it) I read the book with pencil in hand annotating it as I go (which means I can’t ever sell the copies but then keeping them is part of my pleasure in the job – such a library I have). The average book takes me two evenings but then at around 100 pages an hour that is very quick. I mark beastly facts I must learn, good quotes, examples of good or bad styles, striking anecdotes, and inconsistencies. When I’ve finished reading the work begins (the reading is never work). I spend a long time going through all my marks and transferring them in some sort of order into notes with page references. I hate doing this. Then I leave the notes for a day. I spend a lot of time thinking about the general feel of the book in the interval, which is odd because I never ever think about my own creative writing when I am not doing it. I find myself wandering around Hampstead Heath on my afternoon walks trying to decide what is important about the book I’m reviewing – what do I want to get over to readers?

The next day I write a rough draft which takes me about two hours. I fiddle about with this for another hour or so and then again I leave it. I set one morning a week aside to write out the final draft and often change it a lot. As soon as I send it off it is time to start the next book.

I think if I were reviewing for a paper or magazine with a committed literary public then I might not find the writing of the review so lengthy. But the Evening Standard presents special problems. The Standard is read by the literati in London (than which there can be no more demanding public) but it is also read by people strap-hanging their way home who will give the Book Page two seconds and then, if their attention is not caught, turn over. I see absolutely nothing wrong with trying to catch that attention: the art of reviewing must concern itself with entertainment or it is worth nothing. This means a journalistic approach to an opening paragraph that I wouldn’t have to bother with on another paper. I like to bother. Getting the right introduction and then making sure the review flows steadily on gives me my biggest headache but I see it as all part of the job.

But however arresting I am trying to be I never lose sight of what my review should be doing. It must give an account of what is in the book; an impression of the style; and a judgement on the worth. I refuse to simply gut a book – reviewing has nothing to do with blurb writing. I see myself not just as writing an essay on each book but as offering a service to readers (not, however, to writers). I feel a review has to be an opinion above all else, an opinion backed by demonstrable evidence, and I see it as my duty to give it. I cannot bear to read a review in which there may be a lot of interesting material gleaned from the book but no opinion on its merits.

I don’t suppose I am satisfied with my review more than one book in ten. It is easy to rave, it is easy to condemn, but it is very hard indeed to strike a balance and most books under review require that balance. I want to be informative and I want to assess and this means selecting all the time. Take, for example, Charmed Lives by Michael Korda. I am reviewing it this week (for April) and it is my particular nightmare. It is a long, discursive book with a highly complicated framework and a great deal in it. Just telling. the basic story of Alexander Korda’s career could use up my 800 words, but then what about the fascinating film stuff, what about the funny stories, what about Michael Korda’s own experiences? Which shall I concentrate on? And then that elusive sixth sense which tells me whether a book is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ seems to have left me. I enjoyed reading every word but now as I sit at my desk I seem only to remember the bad points. I am in a panic trying to decide which way to go. (Yet last week I did a book on Macmillan which was so easy to do – easy to read, easy to be quite sure about, easy to write entertainingly on.) When I have decided I’m pretty sure I will feel gloomy about the result. I don’t think this review will have that cutting edge it ought to have – it will be bland. Blandness is what gives reviewers a bad name. They are too afraid to appear fools or to be put out of step so they hedge their bets and bore instead.

Next week it is D. H. Lawrence and I look forward to D. H. as much as I dread T. E. I don’t regret in the least not being an actual expert – most literary editors will be dashing to the telephone at this minute to get a D. H. Lawrence expert. Occasionally I have had a book in my hands upon which I can be expert and I am always glad this is not normally the case because I notice my expertise turns out a review useless to anyone except other experts. I have read all D. H. Lawrence’s novels and know the main parts of his life and have read some of his letters – that is quite expert enough for me to tell whether the book is any good.

I am always being told that this arduous weekly stint will dull my own creative faculties – rubbish. This only goes to show how much reviewing is despised as hack work, as something that cannot elevate but only blunt the intellect. During the three years I have been reviewing I have never been more prolific. Reviewing seems to complement my own writing, it uses a part of my brain not otherwise used and I am grateful for the exercise. I do not find it tires me or leads to unconscious plagiarism – I’ve seen no evidence of this and neither has anyone else.

I think writing a good review is at least as exciting – and much more exacting – than writing a good thousand words of a novel. The art lies in successfully communicating to other people what you have found in the book. When I succeed – when I know I have stirred enthusiasm or provoked dissent – I am well pleased. It is a challenge I am unable to resist. When that sense of challenge disappears – when reviewing becomes a chore – I shall give it up.


Donmar Warehouse

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