Posted by: Linda Proud | March 28, 2009

The Art of Reviewing

Ma has served her sentence and will be released on Monday. So, in between rearranging her room, etc., I can return to more literary reflections. I have just finished Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. It is certainly one of the finest pieces of contemporary fiction that I’ve read and stands head and shoulders above those which are either more commercial or more literary. I’m really not sure how to define ‘literary’ but in this context I mean novels carried sheerly by the beauty of their prose with only a passing nod to plot. I’ve read two of those recently and having exclaimed at beauty on each page, found it more and more difficult to pick them up each evening until, finally, I didn’t bother. And then I began on Brooks. This is not what this blog’s about. May be the next one. This one is about my misgivings regarding reviews. I have read what the press has said about Brooks, and I have read what the customers say on Amazon, and I believe she is the victim of a widespread disservice of being damned with faint praise.

I like Amazon reviews, but then I get good ones. In fact, my Amazon reviews are what keep me going in the dark times, to think that there are people out there completely unknown to me who have enjoyed a novel so much they’ve taken the trouble to write about it. Each time it happens, I stand amazed. Equally I stand amazed when I look up reviews of a book by a well known author and find there is none. Or, as in the case of Brooks, that she has not been unanimously awarded five stars.

Whether one connects or not with a book is, of course, a very subjective matter. Last week, for instance, I gave a class of students doing the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing a passage from Melvyn Bragg’s Credo as an example of going the extra inch in dramatising. Most of them got very exercised about it – not, to my horror, about it being a graphic account of rape, but about the quality of its writing. They trashed it. They trashed Bragg. I staggered out of the class with my self-confidence – what there is of it – severely threatened. Had I boo-booed? Had I revealed myself as someone with a terrible taste in novels? Well, no, I don’t believe I had. What had been revealed was the absolute arrogance on the part of most readers who will dismember an author’s work, his efforts and his reputation with no apparent authority or qualification for doing so. This is review by the mob. These were they who lust after public execution. I kid you not, this group was baying. Why?

It’s not the first time I’ve met it. Indeed, looking back, I think each time I select a passage to make a point I lay myself – and the hapless author – open to such attacks. Well, beware you budding writers! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that the fate of this book was set when Brooks won the Pullitzer Prize for her previous one. It doesn’t do to win prizes in literature, not if you don’t like your subsequent work being worried at by rottweilers. Why do people destroy others? Envy, that’s why. And so perhaps that’s the reason why Bragg was trashed, because he is a famous TV presenter.

As readers, let’s cultivate a more generous spirit and know that, when something strikes a false chord in us, that something is only the hammer and it’s our strings which are producing the discord. Let me put it another way: opinions differ from person to person. If we don’t like a book, by all means we should say so and say why – having the courage of our convictions – but we should not count anybody who disagrees with us as a fool. The problem may well be all our own. With regard to the two ‘literary’ efforts I tried recently, I haven’t written reviews: that is my way of commenting. And it’s my way of acknowledging that those who have read these books and absolutely loved them are at perfect liberty to hold such views.

What becomes obvious in reading most reviews is that people read as readers, not as writers. Perhaps – here I console myself – I often find myself at odds with others because I read as a writer, and that’s why my appreciation differs. If most people actually knew what it is like putting a book together, devising a plot, establishing the right narrative structure, creating credible characters, their opinions might be better informed and more gently offered. What Brooks has achieved, and I say this as a writer, is a virtuoso piece of story telling, a novel which is not only brilliantly and beautifully written but is also unputdownable.

And to whoever it was on the Amazon site who said that People of the Book is a good holiday read – i.e. reading about the relentless persecution of the Jews over the ages is a great way to relax on the beach – may we never meet, for you are truly scary.



  1. I’m afraid this isn’t a comment on your blog. (I like Amazon reviews too, as I also usually get good ones.) I am in the process of researching a mystery set in Renaissance Florence and I cannot find (I do not read Italian or Latin)any source that will tell me how members of the middle class, but of good old family, would address each other. Were all men Messer, except those who were Maestro? How would a man address a woman of his own class? An unmarried girl (but not a child)? How would a clerk in the chancery address the Chancellor? Any direction to a source that will elucidate such relationships will be very gratefully received.Roberta Gellis

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