‘A crusade against dullness’
You’ve heard of unreliable narrators. What about unreliable reviewers? I’m a recent Oxford graduate who splits time between Newcastle and London, writing reviews and arts journalism for The Spectator, the TLS, Apollo Magazine, The New Statesman and The London Magazine. I take very little seriously, but I take books very seriously. I often read reviews in English papers that are dowdy but acute, or ones with verve and panache that are light in content. Ideally, every magazine would be full of the perfect combination: exuberant reviews that are seriously well-read. There seems to be a higher concentration of these across the Atlantic.
This is less to do with the state of literary criticism than the state of print. There’s plenty good English criticism, but much of it happens in the specialist literary papers: The LRB, The TLS, The Literary review. People usually read the bigger, popular magazines and papers for other things. It makes sense that five-hundred word ‘book reviews’ will dominate.
Making the distinction between book reviewing and literary criticism is detrimental, as it allows book reviewing to remain a soft, or at least flippant, option. There is only so much understanding and appreciation you can fit into five-hundred word reviews, but this is no reason not to try. As book reviewing, rather than ‘criticism’, tends to be where the bulk of the profession rests, it is dismaying to see so much complacency. The prevailing voice of this complacency is very Middle England: brash without real assurance; priggish and boorish at the same time; educated but not particularly well informed, and with little desire to become so. It starts to look like the profession is lead by people who aren’t (or aren’t any longer) interested in books.
As opportunities to review professionally are becoming rarer, employment should act as an instant authority in a time where dilettante blogs of varying quality are on the rise.
Anna Baddeley of The Omnivore, in a conversation with Geoff Dyer for The Guardian, said that dubious review quality leads to a ‘problem of trust.’ That is why she set up the Hatchet Job of the Year Award: not primarily to reward virtuosic negative reviews, but to encourage a new vitality of seriousness from reviewers. If an author spends years on a book which will only ever get a few lines of copy written about it in magazines, they should at least have a critic’s full attention for their allotted space. In the words of The Hatchet Job manifesto, it is ‘a crusade against dullness, deference and lazy thinking.’ Here is me on their site, being a pin-up.
This blog is a means for me to write the kind of reviews I would like to read. As I’m not limited to a magazine specification, some will be longer, more to the tune of essays; others will be around standard book pages length.
I write fiction, too. Funnily enough, it wasn’t reading all my life and studying literature at university that made me want to do it: it was reading James Wood’s criticism of books. He’s one of the critics you can read continuously for his own sake, like Hazlitt. You can read that kind of criticism like fiction. Good criticism by Wood and other stylish minds like Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith, Wyatt Mason, John Updike and particularly Martin Amis, should not only make you want to read books, but to write: to write fiction or poetry or criticism. They should teach you how to write, as well as how to read. The earlier, exhaustive pieces on this blog are explicitly in conversation with the critics I most admire. I hope everything else is at least implicitly so.
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