CAMERON LAW FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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

Romola Garai in The Writer.
Show Hide image

The Writer at the Almeida: a drama which tries to have its meaning-cake and eat it

This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

God, the Almeida’s new production knows how to push my buttons. “Don’t you know how hard it is to write a play?” one character shouts at another, two-thirds of the way through. Every fibre of my being wanted to scream back: “Try working down a mine!”

The Writer is an endlessly tricksy piece, trying to have its meaning-cake and eat it, showing you scenes and then immediately undercutting them with meta-narrative. What is it about? Good question. Impossible question. It begins with a young black woman (Lara Rossi) who has left her bag behind in the theatre. On her way out, she is cross-questioned by an older, effortlessly middle-class white man (Samuel West) about the play she’s just seen.

Her criticisms of the state of modern theatre are brutal: women are there to be judged on their looks, while we wait to hear what men will say and do. Girls in hotpants present themselves like animals on heat; actresses are encouraged to get naked on the thinnest of pretexts, when it’s very hard to be both topless and truly empowered. Even worse, the director “added a rape” because that’s seen as being both titillating and “edgy”.

I agreed with all this checklist of chauvinism, and I even recognised the lazy, patronising indulgence of the powerful man trotting out the usual defences in response. Surely, he says, you don’t want to ban people being sexy? The woman points out that she was talking about rape, not sex. Also, doesn’t he recognise her? She knows he directed the play she just watched. He once told her that her anger was impressive six years ago, when she was a student, and that she could have a career in the theatre. (Yes, apparently anger is a proxy for creative ability, which is why the YouTube comments section swept the board at the Oliviers.) Then he tried to kiss her. She didn’t want to accept a job on such compromised terms.

And – scene. Ho ho ho, what we’ve just been watching was, of course, a workshop of a new play. Perched on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, as if taking part in a post-show talk, The Writer (Romola Garai) is chided by another older white man (Michael Gould) that it’s too angry, too lacking in nuance. The problem is: while he is patronising, he is also right. It might have been entirely correct in its sentiments, but as drama, it only had one gear. If I wanted to watch people identify genuine problems with thumping earnestness and zero self-awareness . . . well, there are plenty of left-wing op-ed columnists for that.

This self-referentiality persists throughout. We get a scene with The Writer and her boyfriend, where he wants her to take a film job and she is too principled to do it. They have bad sex on the sofa he has just bought for her. The first scene had mentioned the cheapness of bringing a real baby on stage (a clear dig at The Ferryman), so a real baby is brought on stage. The audience coos appreciatively, because it’s impossible to resist millennia of genetic programming, even when you want to look cool and self-aware.

Then Romola Garai’s character monologues about having a contraceptive coil fitted, which then slips into a story of her swimming through a lake to a lost world where she has lesbian sex outdoors and feels happy for the first time not to experience the male gaze. (I don’t remember there being an obvious segue between the coil and the alfresco cunnilingus.) This "tribal shit" is no way to end a play, says Michael Gould’s Director, who has turned up stage-right. It’s not as good as your angry first scene. Again: the annoying man has a point.

Then he tells the Writer he’s only giving her these notes because he thinks she’s brilliant, which feels like incredible chutzpah in a drama which will inevitably be read as thinly veiled autobiography. (There's another moment like this, when The Director tells her that you can't write a play where the protagonist is endlessly self-involved, and she shoots back: "Hamlet!" It's a great joke, but it does also set the bar quite high for how good the rest of the writing has to be.)

The final scene also features The Writer, this time with her girlfriend, in a smart apartment, eating curry. She’s just handed in a project and wants to relax by going to her girlfriend’s bar to do something “manual” and switch her brain off. Her girlfriend gives her the same unimpressed look at this Marie Antoinette dilettantism that half the audience do.

The couple then have bad sex on the sofa. The Writer, who is clearly now rich and successful, is just as inattentive to her partner’s enjoyment as her boyfriend was before – edging towards the point made by Naomi Alderman’s The Power that it’s not some innate property of the Y chromosome which creates sex inequality, and therefore gender roles could plausibly flip one day. Give a woman a financially dependent, less outwardly successful partner and she can play all the subtle, controlling tricks we associate with rich old men.

I watched The Writer twice; once in previews, and the leaner, tighter version displayed on press night. I enjoyed it more the second time, because - whatever else you can say about this play - it elicits a strong response. Knowing that it would provoke me, not always intentionally, cleared my mind to notice the pacy direction and mostly strong performances by the cast.

In a way, I’m grateful. The Writer has made me think as much as any play I’ve seen this year. It’s prompted a series of searching conversations with the handful of other people I know who’ve seen it. (It also prompted eye-rolls at all the male critics who clearly felt boxed into being nice about it on pain of being identified as Lead Patriarchal Oppressor of British Theatre.) This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

That said, I do resent the meta-theatricality, usurping my right to my own responses by telling me constantly how to feel about what I’ve just seen. The text tries to pre-empt criticisms by voicing them within the play - this is boring, this is too angry, this doesn’t have an ending - when it could work harder to rebut them instead. Are we meant to see The Writer’s complaints about the difficulty of creative work as heartfelt sentiments, expressed with refreshing candour? Most writers I know, male and female, feel similarly, self-indulgently wronged by a world where reality TV is more popular than whatever they’ve slaved over for months. They are just clever enough not to say these things in public, where you might end up talking to, say, an intensive care nurse. Yes, there are flicks of knowingness here and there, but how much ironic distance is there between The Writer’s view of herself and the text’s, in the end? (The play's author, Ella Hickson, has spoken of her dismay at hearing the audience laugh when the female character says at the start that she wants to "dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy", as if that's evidence that we have lost confidence in the transformative power of theatre. But there's a difference between a character expressing ambition and one with a messiah complex. Put it this way: I've written some fairly scorching thinkpieces, but I don't think any of them will stop Brexit. And the closest theatre has recently come to making me want to smash capitalism is when I realised how much I'd spent on tickets to see the binbag-themed Macbeth at the National.)

The Writer invites us to hold it to a terrifyingly high standard, by presenting itself as dangerous – a vivid j’accuse to hidebound theatrical traditions and smug audiences. It elides criticisms of West End celebrity-driven flam and the lazy, highbrow male gaze merchants of the subsidised sector. Its few identifiable targets are not always the most obviously deserving of scorn. (I didn't much like The Ferryman, but there was a proper play hidden under the Riverdance and haunted grandmas.) In the first scene, there’s a glancing reference to Laura Wade’s play Posh, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. It was watched and enjoyed, says the young woman, by exactly the same establishment it sought to satirise. The choice of example sits oddly in a jeremiad against patriarchy, because this was a rare new-ish play both written by a woman and directed by one. Is The Writer on the side of these women struggling to be heard in a male-dominated industry? It doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps Posh should have featured a scene where we were told that the Bullingdon Club is bad, as is capitalism generally, just to hammer the point home? But that’s absurd, because there is no way that play left the audience in any doubt that they were meant to despise the Oxbridge window-smashers. Perhaps some people are simply beyond the reach of theatrical guilt-trips.

The Almeida has had an astonishing run over the last year, with awards and West End transfers raining from the heavens. But the Writer – inevitably – suggests on stage that her play has only been programmed because it would have been too awkward for a white middle-class male artistic director to reject it, in the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo. I didn’t like the audience’s knowing, indulgent laughter in that moment. It felt like the joke was on us, and we didn’t know it.

The Writer runs at the Almeida, London, until 26 May

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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