Diana Athill

Too Kind?

Speaking from this pulpit in September, Francis King said that he chose not to review books he disliked, because he knew too well how much pain can be caused by an unfavourable review. This pleased me because, comparatively new to the role of reviewer as I am, when I made that same choice I wondered rather uneasily whether I was being a wimp. If so, it is cheering to know that I am a wimp in such good company.

While I was pondering the matter something which happened a very long time ago swam up into memory. Philip Toynbee, reviewing for The Observer (as he then did regularly), cast a coldly critical eye on a new novel by Iris Murdoch, saying that he failed to understand her reputation. Why did everyone insist that she was so good when her characters were unreal, the so-called philosophy in her books was hot air, and she wrote so clumsily? Having enjoyed her first two books, I had begun gradually to feel dubious about Murdoch’s work (though I had hardly liked to admit it, given everyone else’s enthusiasm), so this review of Toynbee’s delighted me – and I was dismayed when, a week or two later, the paper made him publicly eat his words. When, at a dinner party, I said how wrong I thought it that they had dealt with his criticism in this way, my neighbour at the table, an Oxford don, exclaimed: ‘Oh, but one mustn’t be unkind to dear Iris .’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Because’, he said with a fond smile, ‘she wears knitted shoes.’

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