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Death of the hatchet job

Book reviewing used to be a blood sport. How has it become so benign and polite?

Twenty years ago, I published a novel called English Settlement. It attracted what is known in the trade as “mixed reviews”, which is to say that a handful of people remarked that clearly a new star had risen in the cultural firmament, while a rather larger number declared themselves surprised that a fine old firm like Chatto & Windus should waste its money on such talentless dreck. Absolute nadir among the detractors was plumbed by the gallant ornament of the Sunday Times’s books section – a chap named Stephen Amidon who concluded, after much incidental savagery, that the book was “about as much use as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition”.

If this sounds bad – and it was no fun at all to sit at the kitchen table reading the ­review while one’s three-year-old romped around wondering why Daddy was looking so glum – then I should point out that this was an era in which wounding disparagement was, if not absolutely routine, then a frequent feature of newspaper books pages. Comparable highlights from the period include Philip Hensher’s dismissal of James Thackara’s The Book of Kings in the Observer (“could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall”) and, a little later, Tibor Fischer noting of a below-par Martin Amis that being seen reading it would be like your uncle getting caught masturbating in the school playground. Even I once submitted, to this very magazine, a review of a collection of journalism by Jon Savage called Time Travel, which the then literary editor ran under the headline “All the young pseuds”.

There are several questions worth asking about these outpourings of bygone critical spleen, in which the pretence of objective criticism very often disappears beneath a tide of ad hominem bitchiness. One of them is: would anyone be prepared to print this kind of thing on a magazine or newspaper in Britain in 2016? Another is: would anyone – writer, publisher, reader – or literary culture, in general, benefit in any way if they were? The answer to the first question, as the merest glance at a modern-day newspaper arts section suffices to demonstrate, is no. Here, by way of illustration and picked at random from the recycling pile by the back door, are an edition of the Saturday Guardian’s Review and a six-page review section taken from the Spectator.

The latter carries nine book reviews, all of them decent to enthusiastic, although Brian Switek, appraising a work entitled The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: the Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs, does note that it “exists in a strange place between popular science narrative and textbook”. The former runs to 13 solus reviews – I am omitting the paperback round-up – of which 11 are broadly favourable. The most striking thing about the Guardian selection, it might be ­argued, is how desperately the reviewers try to admire what is put in front of them even when it manifestly fails to shape up. James Lasdun, for instance, seems almost to weep over the fact that the new Don DeLillo novel isn’t the masterpiece he so urgently desires, writing: “I have to confess, reluctantly, that I found this section (which occupies two-thirds of the book) hard to like.”

The same air of fundamental good nature hangs over my third source, an edition of the Literary Review. Fifty-six books are covered, with scarcely a makeweight among them, though the polemicist Douglas Murray, seizing up Timothy Garton Ash’s Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, does quietly hazard that “not very much has been accomplished” and Susan Doran hints that the presumed originality of John Guy’s study of Elizabeth I may be taken with a pinch of salt. In fact, the only halfway equivocal notices come in the fiction section, where, like the man in the Guardian, Sam Leith has trouble with Zero K (“a simulation” of a Don DeLillo novel) and Claire Lowdon is very nearly rude about A L Kennedy (“It’s impossible not to admire the risks that Kennedy takes with her ­fiction, but in the case of Serious Sweet very few of them pay off”).

It can also be detected in an issue of the New Statesman from roughly the same time. Fourteen books reviewed, nearly all of them positively (“I . . . am struggling not to finish this review with a smiley emoticon”), though once again Leo Robson wonders about DeLillo (“suddenly at risk of seeming neat and even cheap”) and a book by the New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff is described as a great idea hitting a wall fast.

This is not a complaint about the Spectator, the Guardian or the Literary Review, nor, indeed, about my current sponsor, all of which are edited with tact, dash and discrimination and are consistently excellent in their books-world coverage. It is merely to note that a literary culture whose tough-mindedness 20 years ago often verged on outright cruelty, has turned horribly emollient, to the point where it sometimes seems that books are not so much criticised, favourably or unfavourably, as simply endorsed. Interestingly, the suspicion that the review pages exist only to bring good news to the true believer has crossed over into other areas of the arts. The music magazines Mojo and Uncut often carry letters from readers complaining that virtually every new album under review gets three or four stars out of five, or seven or eight marks out of ten, and surely they can’t all be that good?

Here, perhaps, a little historical context is in order. The politeness, or otherwise, of British literary culture oscillates wildly from one decade to the next. The early Victorian era was a notoriously spiteful age, in which the writer Grantley Berkeley flogged the publisher of Fraser’s Magazine in his shop doorway after the paper ran an abusive review of his debut novel, Berkeley Castle. The Victorian critic George Gilfillan, author of the three-volume Gallery of Literary Portraits (among much else), could be found lamenting “that tissue of filthy nonsense, which none but an ape of the first magnitude could have vomited” when he was forced to inspect a satirical critique of his sponsorship of the notorious “Spasmodic” school of 1850s poets by the Edinburgh professor of rhetoric William Aytoun. Set against this, Stephen Amidon’s gripes about butt-kicking seem the merest froth. The 1930s, on the other hand, were noted for their reluctance to take offence, or rather for a suspicion that the pundits framing the judgements had so little authority that they could be safely ignored. It was an age when, as Graham Greene once put it, “Gerald Gould, a bad poet, and Ralph Straus, a bad novelist, divided the Sunday forum between them. One was not elated by their praise nor cast down by their criticism.”

Two decades later the wheel had ratcheted back again in favour of retributive score-settling. “The literary criticism that arose in this country after the Second World War was as judicial, as fault-findingly ambitious and as youthful and generationally vengeful as any that has ever been,” Karl Miller recalled of that critical golden age, the 1950s to 1960s, when he served successively as literary editor of the Spectator, New Statesman and Listener. There followed another couple of decades of relative slumber until suddenly we were in the legendarily vindictive late 1980s, a period of mudslinging and reputation-harrying of which Private Eye’s anonymous critic remarked, following several steely-eyed dissections of The Message to the Planet (1989) by Iris Murdoch, that “book-reviewing in this country is beginning to look like a blood sport again”.

 

***

In trying to establish why one or two long-dead generations of writers enjoyed chewing themselves into pieces, it is worth pointing out that the flavour of a particular literary culture, its tone and the protocols by which it operates are nearly always detachable from the identities of the personnel available and the nature of the material they are given to review. If the reviewing circuit of the 1930s was at times absurdly complimentary it was because of the cosy relationship between certain books pages and the publishers that bought advertising space in them, and a degree of collusion that, as George Orwell points out in one of his book-trade jeremiads, encouraged publishers to veto critiques of inferior items on the grounds that there was no benefit in printing straightforwardly damning reviews.

The statue-toppling conditions of the late 1980s, on the other hand, were attributable to security and self-confidence. The aftermath of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat of the print unions was a boom time for newspapers. There were new titles – five quality Sunday papers, at one point, until the Sunday Correspondent went west – with expanded arts section and increasing amounts of space for new blood: James Wood, David Sexton, Anthony Quinn and Nicholas Lezard each made their debut around this time. More importantly, the new blood, in the interests of controversy, was allowed, and sometimes actively encouraged, to set about the reputations of the generations above it with a metaphorical billhook. In this atmosphere it was at all times possible to earn a few pounds by denouncing Kingsley Amis, say, as an ancient philistine, or complaining that the characters in the latest Margaret Drabble took their opinions from Guardian leading articles.

As for the decorousness of the present reviewing pool, and the succession of masterpieces it often throws up: much of this, it seems to me, is down to what might be called environmental timidity. This is the suspicion – common to nearly everyone who reviews literature professionally and also to the people who commission those reviews – that it is a bad time to be a critic; that here in the age of instant online opinion and internet trolls, what used to be called “critical authority” is much less sanctified than it used to be, and that in a world of declining print circulations and concertina-ing arts pages the best option is a modest thumbs-up, the print equivalent of Richard and Judy’s book club or the “Like that? You might like this” suasions of Amazon. Far better in these circum­stances, the argument runs, to encourage general enthusiasm, rather than commission a series of variations on “could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall”.

Yet there is a wider, almost ­philosophical dilemma here, which has nothing to do with the apprentice critic’s understandable desire to prove to some literary panjandrum that he, or she, has been barking up the wrong tree for the past 40 years. For the critic, even the critic of the latest B-plus-level novel, has two audiences: readers who want something to entertain them for the next couple of evenings, and that much more exacting long-term judge, posterity. It was Orwell, again, who pointed out that to do their job properly book reviewers need a spring balance simultaneously capable of weighing an elephant and a flea: some delicate mechanism that will enable them to advertise the true merits of a work that may capture the public imagination for a fortnight and gesture at the row of timeless classics that lie on the shelf behind it.

A quarter of a century ago, the solution would have been a hatchet job. The books pages of the early 1990s were full of these detonations of affronted taste, in which highbrow critics solemnly rebuked the authors of innocuous bestselling novels (Clive James, say, on Judith Krantz) for their bad grammar and mixed metaphors. Let loose on a novel by Shirley Conran at about this time, I gamely opined that while orthodoxy might contend that anyone could write a middlebrow blockbuster, the evidence of this one’s three and a half pages of fervent thank yous to associates suggested that, on the contrary, everyone had written it. They are still being filed today by such titans of the form as Lachlan Mackinnon (a 2011 review in the Independent that rated a collection by Geoffrey Hill “the sheerest twaddle”) or Michael Hofmann, with an inspired London Review of Books takedown of Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (“The writing is overstuffed, and leaks sawdust . . . [it] lacks the basic dignity of prose”).

But the hatchet job, a certain amount of experience insists, should be used sparingly, especially in a world where everything is preserved online and a momentary irritation becomes an eternal hurt. I once overheard a quite well-known novelist earnestly entreating Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian to kindly do something about his newspaper’s website, on the grounds that, were you to google the petitioner’s name, the first result was a wholesale monstering of one of his books. Then again, if hatchet jobs are positively encouraged, everyone will start filing them – with the result that reviews stop being considered criticism and turn into straightforward personality stunts. The “Hatchet Job of the Year” award, pioneered by the Omnivore website and now apparently defunct, seems to have foundered on precisely these grounds.

On the other hand, it may be that the hatchet job is the only means of countering the modern literary establishment’s greatest procedural failing, which is the charity extended to some of its senior members. Three or four times a year at least, there comes a flourish of publishers’ trumpets and some grand eminence who began his (and it is usually his) career in the 1983 Granta Best of Young British Novelists promotion brings out yet another moderately, but only moderately, accomplished work – only to have garlands flung around his neck by the critics. It is this part of the book-world demographic on which Stephen Amidon’s descendants should be training their howitzers.

D J Taylor’s latest book is “The New Book of Snobs” (Constable)

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse