Critical Venting in the Penny Press!
As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have sometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).
My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.
One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?
I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:
I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.
Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court judge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”
And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.
And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.
And then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)
You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:
I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.
“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.