AN ARCADIAN LANDSCAPE, A THEATRE WITH LEVITATING
CHANDELIERS, A RESTAURANT IN A RUINED MANSION,
A HUGE MODEL TRAIN IN THE FOYER FLOOR
. . . and much else to amuse . . . FROM THE PULPIT
WHAT IMAGE DO the words ‘book reviewer’ conjure? For me, thanks no doubt to George Orwell’s essay ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, they bring to mind a bespectacled tea-dr inking man who s i t s in a dressing gown at a wobbly table, surrounded by unpaid bills and volumes that bear inauspicious titles such as Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa.
D r i p p i n g w i t h a n E a s y S e n s u a l i t y. . .
read it. Less odious yet still toxic is the practice, among reviewers who are also authors, of a sort of mutual masturbation. The satirical magazine Private Eye from time to time draws attention to i t s more circuitous forms. While it is not a cr ime to review a book by someone you have met, seeking opportunities to puff
A critic of this kind is inevitably jaded. (I shall use the words ‘reviewer’ and ‘critic’ interchangeably.) Among the more obvious vices of the jaded critic – or the merely talentless one – is lexical laziness. We are all aware of the argot of the more letharg ic sor t of reviewing. For instance, if we read that a book is ‘richly detailed’, we understand that it has a vast number of endnotes and bibliographical references and is unlikely to be suitable for the beach or our daily commute. Then there are the euphemisms: ‘magisterial’ means ‘boring’; ‘long-awaited’ means ‘embarrassingly overdue’; ‘cultish’ means ‘unreadable’; ‘subversive’ means ‘childishly unreadable’.
In addition, there is a class of ten-dollar words used only in reviews: ‘coruscating’ (often in fact muddled up with ‘excoriating’), ‘compelling’, ‘tour de force’, and ‘masterful’ (traditionally the word has connotations of imperiousness, but it is now in effect a synonym for ‘masterly’, which it has supplanted).
Critics are wary of saying that a book is ‘beautifully written’. Accordingly, they find prolix ways of conveying this: ‘his prose is lyrical and exacting’, ‘her sentences drip with an easy sensuality’ – that kind of thing. (Any book that is actually described as ‘beautifully written’ is likely to be nothing of the sort.)
C S Lewis told his Oxford students to be careful in their choice of adjectives of approval and disapproval, which should be diagnostic rather than assertive. We know this because one of those students, Kenneth Tynan, recorded the instruction. Tynan took it to heart. All critics should do so. To reiterate the words of innumerable maths teachers, ‘Show your working!’
But critics are perennially guilty of being insufficiently diagnostic – or of overusing favourite diagnostic words. As an occasional reviewer of books and a less occasional reviewer of theatre, I know I have been guilty of this. It is always with a twinge of self-loathing that I find myself reaching again for ‘poignant’ or ‘arresting’. I used to have a particular weakness for ‘toothsome’, which now seems to have given way to the more pedestrian ‘delicious’. At least readers know what these words mean: it is better for a critic to use a hackneyed term of approval or reproof than to strain for novelty and slide into obscurity.
There are offences far worse than inexact or unimaginative terminology. Deliberately misrepresenting the content or character of a book is shameful. So is not troubling to the efforts of your friends – on the understanding that you’ll get puffed in return – isn’t slick or clever, as some seem to imagine, but just tawdry. Often this practice stems from an editor trying, judiciously, to match reviewer and book. It makes sense for an expert on military history to evaluate a new account of the Battle of Verdun, and for a geneticist to scrutinise an essay about human cloning. But sometimes the result is scholarly incest.
The alternative is a pedantic skirmish: the trouble here is less that the reviewer has an axe to grind than that the noisy grinding of the axe may drown out the content of the work that is notionally under review. It is not just the veteran axe-grinder who mistakenly thinks that a review is an exercise in Schadenfreude. For the tyro critic, trashing someone else’s undistinguished efforts can seem kinkily enjoyable. Yet no one who has toiled to produce original work will relish trampling on another person’s creative endeavour.
By convention, one doesn’t savage a writer’s first book, even if it is pretty feeble. But where established reputations are concerned, critics may take an excessive delight in savagery. There is a forensic kind of censure, as performed by failed novelist Richard Tull in Martin Amis’s novel The Information: ‘When he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed.’ And then there is the obloquy directed at good writers deemed to have wasted their talents. However shocking the waste, this disparagement should never sound gleeful.
There is another routine, common among critics of non-fiction, which is less readily recognised as a vice. This consists of penning a review that concentrates on the subject covered, confining its assessment of the book itself to a single sentence or even a single word. A review of this type is a chance for a reviewer to flaunt his learning, though in fact it may be very recently acquired: the reviewer nabs the best material from the book, then weaves it into a blanket of erudition.
Finally, as Orwell mentions, many seasoned critics are adept at inventing reactions to books that leave them cold. A reviewer may go to elaborate lengths to avoid appearing tamely equivocal; he would sooner be called a shit than a fence-sitter. A critic who often professes neutrality will worry not about the flatness of the work he is encountering, but about being perceived as a drudge devoid of spirit. To quote the American essayist Harold Rosenberg: ‘No degree of dullness can safeguard a work against the determination of critics to find it fascinating.’ ❑
LITERARY REVIEW April 2011