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)