In Praise of Book Critics ~ the proper ones…

A few days ago, I was reminded of these lines from a novel by Patrick O’Brian, lines so deliciously wonderful, I knew I had to pick up the book and treat myself to a full wallow in O’Brian’s unerring use of language and perception:  “Just how big is she?  I mean,” he added, seeing the look of deep stupidity in Stephen’s face, “what does she displace?  What is her tonnage?  What does she weigh?” 

Not just stupidity, but deep stupidity.  It’s too uncannily accurate for comfort.  I love it that O’Brian is not above telling the truth about his characters.

But whilst carrying about this novel, upstairs and down, as I tickle my way through it, I happened to notice this quotation on the back cover, by Richard Snow of the NYTimes:  “On every page he [O’Brian] reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons:  that times change, but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.” 

Holy wow, I thought.  Must read that again! 

For is not that the summation of what great historical fiction can and should achieve?  Crikey!  I think I must blazon that on my forehead or somesuch useful place.

But then, you know, I started poking at the other critical excerpts on the back and inside back of the book and I found these:

Mary Renault wrote, “He does not just have the chief qualifications of a first-class historical novelist, he has them all.”

A.S. Byatt wrote, “What is so gripping about O’Brian’s novels is the completeness with which he invents a world which is our own and not our own…”

William Waldegrave wrote, “O’Brian has shown us that in our literary silver age, authentic gold can still be mined…He is a man whose books you would dare to give to Sterne; whose conversation would have delighted Coleridge.  It is his misfortune, but our great good luck, that he is our contemporary, and not theirs.”

Max Hastings wrote, “While his stories of men at war, he is a novelist of great gentleness of spirit.  A pervasive serenity, a generosity towards human frailty, are among the qualities which have made his books irresistible…”

Geoffrey Hodgson wrote, “The harmony between setting, character, narrative and method achieves an extraordinary power and intensity of emotion without ever betraying the slightest sign of effort.  It is a story that does not so much speak as sing, with the haunting purity of the ancient rhapsode or the bard, yet in a voice as modern and direct as today’s newspaper.” 

Note those names, if you will.  Byatt, Renault, Waldegrave…These are top writers, top intellectuals, top thinkers of the last and present centuries. 

And these are the quality of individuals who used to write book reviews.  These are they upon whom we used to rely to read and analyse and understand new novels, and then bring their extra-ordinary gifts of literary erudition and breadth of experience to the reviewing of them. 

Reading their reviews was an education in itself and a glorious one.  It was a daily treat of throwing open the windows of one’s mind on a daily basis to the wonders of language and intellectual achievement. 

What do we get now when we peer hopefully at the Books pages in any national newspaper or review site?  “I liked it.”  Well, that’s broadened my intellectual horizons.  Not.

Or we’re given an 80-word precis of the plot–preferably four per article in a round-up of historical fiction…And that tells us precisely what? 

Something that we couldn’t have worked out ourselves by reading the blurb?  (Nor is a precis a ‘review’, because it doesn’t re-view anything.)

Are any of the reviewers nowadays even capable of analysing style, tone, metaphor, imagery?  Do they themselves know how to put together a well-balanced sentence, let alone paragraph?  Do they know the writers’ art of weighing the language and forming it into a whole world?  And if not, how can they possibly discern or judge the literary merits or demerits of the works they’re intended to review? 

There is a consensus that our literary standards have slipped in the last few decades.  Many cite the plethora of self-published e-books as proof of this, pointing out the pervasive lack of proper editing and even proof-reading alongside the more worrying weaknesses of any proper grasp of plot or character development or literary style.  I can’t disagree. 

Yet surely those who complain the loudest–the broadsheet old-school newspapers–are just as culpable in this cultural slide toward mediocrity.  Instead of reviewing books as they ought, as they used to, they pander to the modern diseases of celebritocracy and lobotomocracy. 

The new books, the new novels, the new writers and old writers (I use the word in its strictest meaning and do not include ghost-written tripe in my definition)–writers of genius or not-genius–cannot get column space. 

There is no praise and certainly no eloquent praise as written above for those novels which raise the bar, which set a new standard, which re-engage the readers with the map of their own history, to borrow the wording above.  And rather than review the books that fail to meet a standard and demonstrating why a given work falls down, our Books editors just don’t bother. 

They’re always lamenting the loss of literary achievement and historical knowledge–yet do they do nothing to rescue or even ameliorate the situation.

The Daily Telegraph has recently treated us to a repetitive round-up of their favourite Dickens’ characters.  They’re on favourite character number 26 now.  Oh joy!  Oh rapture!  Throw spaghetti!  Perhaps the dozy twit who edits the Book page would like to offer Baseball cards with their pictures as well? 

(Forgive me, but I already did my time with O-Level English, dearie.) 

(Or, on another variation on a theme, they cram the Books pages with reviews of the latest television version of a book.  God give me strength…)

Because, you see, this is the problem.  The fact is good books and good reviewers can’t get page space these days.  At all.  Even the big publishers (never mind the medium-sized or indies) can’t get their books reviewed… 

The Books editors may maintain that people don’t want the intellectual challenge of a great reviewer–but that’s just a nonsense.  The fact is, they can’t be asked to find them, or to pay them.  Or to shuffle through the thousands of books they’re sent and find some likely ones and assign them to reviewers.  (What?  Would it be too much like hard work?)

And because of it, because of this complacent, idle, fatuous attitude towards the greatest invention of mankind–the book–that medium of one person’s thoughts straight into the thoughts of another, the most intimate relationship there can ever be, with no third party involved–everyone is impoverished.  But most of all, the future generation…

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7 comments on “In Praise of Book Critics ~ the proper ones…

  1. M. M. Bennetts makes some valid points, but I believe there are still some good reviewers out there.

  2. My hat is off to you, M.M. This is an excellent article, and I agree with you completely. As a writer of a self-published book, a review such as you describe would tie me in knots, but would be the greatest tool an author could have to really improve. This is yet another facet of the “dumbing down” with which we are faced today.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I have a confession to make, Lauren. I was a book critic for over twenty years. And, I’m told, a feared one. But I always, always sought to be honest and remember that I was there fighting the readers corner, and that if a publisher/author was asking someone to shell out their hard-earned dosh, there should be someone analysing and saying, “Yes, this is worth it…” Or, “No, it’s not.” And those conclusions had to be backed up with evidence from the text.

      A book, a novel, isn’t just a spilling of some random accumulation of words or ideas…but you’d never know that from the way books are reviewed these days. I love good writing. Beautiful writing. Am passionate about it. But I haven’t read a book review that cites that as a feature for yonks, so I’ve concluded that the reviewers today either don’t know what it looks like or they don’t care.

      It’s pretty depressing. And yes, a review like that does give and has given authors through the years both the kudos they deserve, when they deserve it, it certainly sells books, but it equally gives authors who are willing to listen a wake-up call when they need it.

      Very glad I struck a chord. Best–MM

  3. T.L Tyson says:

    BACKED. I shall put this on my shelf forthwith. Yadda. Yadda.

    You know, my lovely, I had a chuckle as I read this because I thought, the whole time, “My God, these people actually read the books!”

    These days, I tend to wonder if they even do read anything but the snappy blurb on the back of the jacket.

    We have things like “Mesmerizing” Yes, dear, but why?

    “Gripping” Okay, but how so?

    “Enthralling” *crickets* Would you like to expand?

    I long for quality reviews. Not length, just something that tells me why I should be enthralled, mesmerized or gripped.

    But this blog was truly Gripmerizalling!

    I made that word up. 😀

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Tyson, you know I love you.

      The problem with all of that is that all of those words are over-used PR jargon now and don’t mean what it says in the dictionary. One of the tricks the marketing people have used for decades is taking the positive words (usually out of context) and slamming them on as a review.

      So the review which stated, “One was mesmerised by the novel’s very awfulness. Just when you thought the characters couldn’t get stupider or the plot duller, it all took a turn for the toilet…” ends up as a positive review with the one word, “Mesmerised…”

      And let’s call them non-professional reviewers have taken this to mean that that’s how one reviews a book…And never mind the backing up one’s statements with examples from the text…

      Think I’ll go bang my head against a table…

  4. Apart from your comments about reviewing – and you are, of course, right – I also picked up on your very first quote “…that times change, but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.” Because not only is it a mark of good historical fiction, but also of good science fiction. Books are about people.

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