Book reviews: Can you believe what you read?
Theatre directors don't review plays. And film stars don't review the new releases. So why are so many novelists allowed to pass judgement on the literary efforts of their friends? As Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the Booker Prize committee, attacks the cosiness of the literary world, David Lister argues that readers are being sold short.
It will be interesting to see whether the powers that be at Man Booker Prize ever again ask a hard-nosed businessman to chair the judging panel. Sir Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and former director general of the CBI and deputy governor of the Bank of England, has defined his tenure by cocking a snook at the literary establishment.
The first, rather startling, indication came last week in an interview with The Independent, in which he was asked about the novelist Jeanette Winterson, who failed to make this year's Booker long list. Not for Sir Howard the method or language of the conventional literary critic. He told our interviewer: "I read Jeanette Winterson's book quite quickly. It's a complete failure as a novel in my point of view."
So perhaps we should not have been surprised, when, on Tuesday night, Sir Howard cut through the bonhomie of the Booker ceremony at London's Guildhall to denounce those who did not take to his unbendingly businesslike approach to reviewing.
He said that too many reviewers praised "every effort" by established writers, while ignoring newer talents. Davies-watchers would have guessed that he was hardly likely to leave it at a fairly anodyne comment like that. Sure enough, warming to his theme, he continued: " There appear to be some novels where people leave their critical faculties at home. They decide so and so is 'a great novelist' or 'an up-and-coming novelist' and give them the reverential treatment."
Pausing only to aim a further blow at the luckless Ms Winterson ("her book was treated with absolute kid gloves by pretty well everybody") he returned to his attack on reviewers.
"The only way you can detect that the reviewer doesn't like the book is when they spend the whole time simply describing the plot. They're not brave enough to say 'it doesn't work'. They don't care whether they're readable or not. Novels are not academic works where you need to know everything about George IV to review the latest biography. Greater diversity would be better."
All good, provocative stuff – but it was Sir Howard's next comment that really lifted the eyebrows. He quoted from Wyndham Lewis's attack on indulgent critics in his 1934 commentary Men Without Art. Now, it should not be suggested for a moment that former deputy directors of the Bank of England are not well read, erudite men. But it is unlikely that the words of Wyndham Lewis are imprinted on Sir Howard's brain. This was a matter he felt strongly enough about to research his case.
What Wyndham Lewis actually said in 1934 was this: "A hundred books of fiction every month are referred to by eminent critics in language of such superlative praise that, were it the work of Dante that was in question, it would be adequate, though a little fulsome." So, from Wyndham Lewis to Sir Howard Davies, the accusation is not greatly changed. Literary reviewers lack scepticism.
Interestingly, across the arts there are brickbats being aimed not by the critics, but at the critics. Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, recently attacked the nation's best-known theatre critics for being out of touch, in their jobs for too long and failing to appreciate the sort of work that draws in younger audiences.
Keith Richards recently attacked a music critic for not reflecting the euphoria of the audience at a Rolling Stones gig. And Lord Puttnam, the Oscar-winning film producer and eminence grise of British cinema, once told The Independent that he disapproved of film critics seeing movies only with other reviewers. "I always see them with an audience," he said. " Then I know that if 20 people go for a pee at the same time, there is something wrong with that scene."
It is, in part, the same complaint being made, namely that specialist reviewers do not give sufficient consideration to the audience of the work and especially to newer audiences who are less specialist than themselves. As Sir Howard Davies said in a key phrase in his tirade on Tuesday night: " They don't care whether [the novels] are readable or not."
Book reviewing raises questions that do not apply to reviewing in any other art form, questions more delicate than even Sir Howard Davies dared attempt. The central problem is that of reviewers reviewing books by their friends or books by fellow writers with the same publisher. This, of course, cannot happen in any other sphere of the arts. Theatre critics don't, by and large, write, direct or act in plays. Film critics don't go behind or in front of the camera. Dance critics don't pirouette. Opera critics don't practise their high Cs. Art critics don't exhibit in galleries. And rock critics keep their pub bands in the pub.
It is only the art of book reviewing that sees novelist reviewing novelist, academic reviewing academic, historian reviewing historian, friend reviewing friend. Thus, what should be a critical discipline can become an old pals' act, a networking club, a publisher's convention. The examples on these pages speak more clearly than any amount of analysis can. And certainly, this is not a new or revelatory assertion. The satirical magazine Private Eye has for years published a weekly column looking at the hypocrisies of book reviewing.
Indeed, it is a full 15 years since the Spectator surveyed 5,000 reviews of 1,200 books published that year and found a frighteningly incestuous circle. As the piece said, Martin Amis reviewed a book by Bill Buford, who had published a novel by Nicholson Baker. Baker's book was reviewed by the poet Craig Raine, who taught Amis, who had also reviewed Baker and been published by Buford. The survey found that one in three of the authors of those books had also reviewed other writers on the top 100 list.
It would take a similar survey to find out whether things have changed. But the signs even in the last few weeks are not good. Private Eye notes that Jeanette Winterson, chief books columnist of The Times, gave a glowing review in the Financial Times to Peter Ackroyd, chief reviewer of The Times. Undoubtedly she said what she thought, but was it fair on her or Ackroyd to ask her? Should The Times itself have asked Martin Jarvis to review audio books, one of which was read by his wife? Andrew Roberts no doubt praised James Delingpole's latest in The Mail on Sunday as "clearly written with a sequel in mind... and a good thing, too" because he meant it, and not because Delingpole had called Roberts' own latest a " masterpiece." And so on and so on.
There are, though, at least partial answers to the concerns of Sir Howard Davies and others. On the question of too high a degree of generosity, it can be countered that with only a finite amount of space given to review the huge number of books published each week, it is not unreasonable to guide the reader towards the ones worth spending their money on. The household names must of course be reviewed; but beyond that, why waste space on the pedestrian and downright bad?
Equally, his accusation that critics concentrate on established talents and ignore new writers shows he has not been reading newspapers closely enough. The exposure given by newspapers to the regular lists by Granta magazine of new novelists is one demonstration of the media's appetite for showcasing emerging talent. If one may go in for a moment's trumpet-blowing, The Independent reviews dozens of new novelists each year and gives space to books in translation by names barely known in this country.
The Sunday Times' literary editor, Susannah Herbert, points out that in recent weeks her paper has given bad reviews to Philip Roth, Michael Ondaatje, Nobel-prize winner Doris Lessing – even Anne Enright's Booker-winning novel was castigated for an "obsession with penises" . So, which papers has Sir Howard been reading?
Again, his assertion that literary critics don't worry about whether a book is readable is an easy jibe, but hard to prove. It would be an odd reviewer who gave a glowing review to a book he or she found unreadable. What Sir Howard is belatedly stumbling upon is the essay topic of many a current English A-level student – that modern novels sacrifice plot for form and structure. If that is the case, it is literary trends that Sir Howard should be annoyed with, not reviewers, who have every right to take a contrary view to him on the supremacy of form over plot.
On the question of chum reviewing chum, it should be said that things are better than they were. Most newspapers now have key reviewers, often chief reviewers, who are not themselves novelists but salaried journalists often on, or attached to, the staff of the paper in question.
And a new generation of novelists, perhaps particularly women novelists, are not buying into any notion of being nice to their peers. Here is what the award-winning writer Lionel Shriver told this paper about a review she wrote of former Booker winner Graham Swift's novel.
"I was very nervous of reviewing him because he had a reputation. In fact when I sent it in I said to my editor, 'Sometimes this job is not in my self-interest.' I had no desire to make an enemy of Graham Swift, and if he reads it – I'd be perfectly happy if he didn't – then he's going to hate me, and you know if somebody wrote that review of my book I would hate them. That's the way it happens, this is a very personal profession."
It's interesting, that word "hate". The literary world is a village – and it's a very emotional village. Shriver would "hate" anyone who gave her a bad review. Jeanette Winterson has called Sir Howard Davies an "idiot" for reading her novel quickly. Feelings can run high on the negative side as well as the more publicised gushing side.
But, equally, there is an onus on the editors of literary journals and those who commission book reviews in newspapers to demonstrate to a wider public a proof of independence and rigour that will assuage any suspicions, however unfounded, of an old boys' network, or a publishers' cabal.
Three measures would serve the purpose. The first is simple to state, and actually pretty simple to implement. It is that no book should be reviewed by a writer whose work is published by the same house as the writer he is criticising. And yes, before any reader makes the point, no book by a journalist should be reviewed by a colleague on the same paper. Reviewing must not just be objective. It must be seen to be objective.
The second is simple to state but much harder to implement. It is that no book should be reviewed by a known colleague and friend of the book's author. That's not easy. The arts are a village, and the literary world a very confined village. Most of the big players know each other. Nevertheless, a publication as eminent as The Guardian could easily have spotted and should never have allowed Colm Toibin (pictured left) to review Carmen Callil, when the two were not just friends but had co-edited a collection on fiction. Toibin's review of Callil was glowing.
The third measure is that no reviewer should be allowed to review a book by a writer who has reviewed a work by that self-same reviewer. It requires a bit of library research, but not more than 60 seconds' worth. And it prevents accusations of both back-slapping and bitching.
As for some novels not being readable enough – sorry Sir Howard, but that's contemporary fiction for you. And it's also your opinion. The critic's opinion might be different, but it's just as honestly held. And no amount of charters can legislate for that.
Besides, bad reviews aren't always right, just by virtue of being bad. In 1847, first reviews of a first novel by a young writer from Yorkshire described it as the most appalling example of contemporary fiction. The author's name? Charlotte Bronte. The book's title? Jane Eyre.
Hardbackscratching? a selection of literary love-ins...
Colm Toibin and Carmen Callil
Toibin – Books of the year, The Guardian, 25 November 2006 – " Carmen Callil's Bad Faith is a meticulously researched and shocking account of the rise and the rule of the venal anti-Semite Louis Darquier, who, amazingly, held power in Vichy France and was responsible for the deaths of many people. The complex story is told with real narrative skill and contained indignation."
Callil – Introduction to The 200 best novels in English since 1950, a book they co-edited for The Modern Library in 2000 – "We chose these books together on the basis that the idea of two people disputing – hotly at times, not at all on other occasions – is... preferable to one person laying down the law."
Rachel Johnson and Jilly Cooper
Johnson – The Observer, 13 August 2006 – "I love Jilly! She is my all-time heroine. Jilly represents to me all that is fine and good about English women. I really do worship her."
Cooper – Quoted on the cover of Johnson's 2004 novel The Mummy Diaries – "Wonderful! Such joy, such giggles – Rachel Johnson writes beautifully and I thank her for cheering me up."
Andrew Roberts and Justin Marozzi
Marozzi – Books of the year, The Sunday Telegraph, 3 December 2006 – "With much of the West engaged in self-flagellation and a baffling inability to recognise a mounting threat in its midst, Andrew Roberts steps into the fray with a timely and... Churchillian defence of the Anglo-American world in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900. "
Roberts – Evening Standard, 9 August 2004 – "The explorer-author Justin Marozzi... never seeks to downplay the monstrous viciousness that made Temur what he was, but he also provides a superbly rounded and vivid portrait of one of history's most fascinating personalities (review of Marozzi's Tamerlane: sword of Islam)."
Richard Ingrams and Beryl Bainbridge
Bainbridge – Books of the year, The Observer, 26 November 2006 – "The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett by Richard Ingrams... Ingrams is ideally suited to capture Cobbett's pugnacious and satirical spirit."
Ingrams – Profile of Bainbridge, The Guardian, 1 June 2002
"[Bainbridge] has a terrific enthusiasm and is very positive, whereas most theatre critics seem to hate the theatre. She's also very reliable and on time, although [her] spelling is slightly erratic."
Siri Hustvedt and Peter Carey
Hustvedt – Books of the year The Observer, 26 November 2006 – " [Carey's] sentences always crackle. In Theft, it was the relation between the two brothers and the keen realisation of each voice that I especially loved."
Carey – Profile of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster, The Guardian, 26 October 2002 – "Paul is an extraordinarily calm person, and this, I think, comes very much across in his writing."
Jan Morris and Colin Thubron
Morris – Books of the year, The Observer, 26 November 2006 – " My most memorable book of the year was Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road, as appalling in its experiences as it was beautiful in its writing."
Thubron – Interview, The Guardian, 9 September, 2006 – "My inspirations: Venice, by Jan Morris."
Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens – The Daily Telegraph, 6 June 2005 – "There are bits of Money I can quote almost verbatim, in particular the visit to the knocking shop in New York, which is a field trip Martin made me come on. I was thunderstruck by how much he'd got out of this squalid expedition. He doesn't like it particularly when I say I still think it's his best. Let's say I don't think he's done better. Martin taught me a lot about how to write."
Amis – The Independent, 15 January 2007 – "My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May."
William Boyd and Justin Cartwright
Boyd – Books of the year, The Guardian, 1 January 2003 – " Justin Cartwright's new novel, White Lightning, may well be his finest in an already formidably accomplished oeuvre. Wry, achingly true and profound without being sententious, it's a moving and bleakly funny look at life's hellish demands and occasional moments of happiness."
Cartwright – Books of the year, The Independent on Sunday, 24 December 2006 – "William Boyd's Restless is a compelling and elegant spy story, full of subtle observations about identity."
A C Grayling and Howard Jacobson
Grayling – Books of the year, The Independent on Sunday, 24 December 2006 – "Mightiest of all in the waltz this year is Howard Jacobson's breathtaking... excoriating Kalooki Nights, a great work by a truly brilliant novelist."
Jacobson – report on Jacobson's wedding, The Independent, 21 April 2005 – "I think it was the sight of the Chief Rabbi dancing with Melvyn Bragg that most brought home to me the fathomless oddity of modern marriage... Or perhaps the sight of A C Grayling, the distinguished but incontrovertibly gentile philosopher, wearing a skull-cap the dimensions of a super-size contraceptive diaphragm..."
Henry Porter and Carmen Callil
Callil – Summer reads, The Guardian, 17 June 2006 – "I shall wallow in the company of... Henry Porter's Brandenburg – he's often compared to John le Carré, but actually he's in a class of his own."
Porter – Books of the year, The Observer, 26 November 2006 – " I also greatly enjoyed Carmen Callil's magnificent Bad Faith."
Frederic Raphael and William Boyd
Raphael – The Guardian, 17 June 2006 – "William Boyd – Bamboo – is another essayist sparkling with variety and intelligence."
Boyd – Books of the year, The Observer, 26 November 2006 – " Those of us with 'small Latin and less Greek' can do something about rectifying the second deficiency by reading Frederic Raphael's tremendous Some Talk of Alexander. This personal, erudite, witty and fascinating exploration of the Greek world is... rich in sagacity and insight. It is also a labour of love – and it shows."
Anthony Howard and Robert Harris
Howard – Books of the year, New Statesman, 4 December 1998 – " I tend to enjoy most of the books I have not been sent for review, so my list is topped by Archangel by Robert Harris."
Harris – Mandrake, The Sunday Telegraph, 15 February 2004 – " Robert Harris was on fine acerbic form at the 70th birthday party of his mentor Anthony Howard... last week. He described Howard as: 'that rare oxymoron: a distinguished journalist'."
Martin Amis and John Banville
Amis – Quoted on cover of Banville's novel The Sea, 2005: "He is a master, and his prose gives continuous, sensual delight."
Banville – Books of the year, The Independent on Sunday, 24 December 2006: "Martin Amis's House of Meetings is a frighteningly convincing account of the lives of two castaways in Stalin's Gulag archipelago. In a short span, Amis has written the modern equivalent of a great 19th-century Russian novel... It is his best book yet."
Antonia Fraser and Sarah Bradford
Fraser – The Guardian, 25 November 2006: "Sarah Bradford's Diana might, in a sense, also be described as chronicling a rise and a downfall. It's a very sad story, I found, although the marriage of Diana and Prince Charles was probably no more unhappy than many similar dynastic marriages throughout history. (Think Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette: at least this modern marriage was swiftly consummated.) Bradford tells it eloquently but it's her admirable detachment that leaves one pitying all, not one, of the characters involved."
Bradford – Evening Standard, 21 December 2006: "[In The Gunpowder Plot] Antonia Fraser has written a scholarly, brilliantly told study of the inner workings and wider implications of an episode which has reverberated down the centuries."
John Mortimer and Kathy Lette
Mortimer – Books of the year, The Observer, 26 November 2006: " Kathy Lette wrote How to Kill Your Husband (And Other Handy Household Hints), a very funny book."
Lette – New Statesman, 27 November 2006: "Rumpole and the Reign of Terror finds our favourite defence barrister still ensconced at Pommeroy's wine bar, liberating the world's underdogs from their kennels. Urbane and humane, with lashings of Wodehousian humour, John Mortimer satirises new Labour's anti-terrorism laws. Our befuddled, bewigged one is also a victim of terror, from She Who Must Be Obeyed. Love should end in marriage – and believe me, in many cases it does. Especially when your wife, the indomitable Hilda, is penning a memoir listing your faults and foibles. Pithy and witty."