Saturday, October 20, 2007

Book reviews: Can you believe what you read?

Theatre directors don't review plays. And film stars don't review the new releases. So why are so many novelists allowed to pass judgement on the literary efforts of their friends? As Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the Booker Prize committee, attacks the cosiness of the literary world, David Lister argues that readers are being sold short.

This most interesting article was published in The Indpendent on 18 October 2007

It will be interesting to see whether the powers that be at Man Booker Prize ever again ask a hard-nosed businessman to chair the judging panel. Sir Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and former director general of the CBI and deputy governor of the Bank of England, has defined his tenure by cocking a snook at the literary establishment.
The first, rather startling, indication came last week in an interview with The Independent, in which he was asked about the novelist Jeanette Winterson, who failed to make this year's Booker long list. Not for Sir Howard the method or language of the conventional literary critic. He told our interviewer: "I read Jeanette Winterson's book quite quickly. It's a complete failure as a novel in my point of view."

So perhaps we should not have been surprised, when, on Tuesday night, Sir Howard cut through the bonhomie of the Booker ceremony at London's Guildhall to denounce those who did not take to his unbendingly businesslike approach to reviewing.
He said that too many reviewers praised "every effort" by established writers, while ignoring newer talents. Davies-watchers would have guessed that he was hardly likely to leave it at a fairly anodyne comment like that. Sure enough, warming to his theme, he continued: " There appear to be some novels where people leave their critical faculties at home. They decide so and so is 'a great novelist' or 'an up-and-coming novelist' and give them the reverential treatment."
Pausing only to aim a further blow at the luckless Ms Winterson ("her book was treated with absolute kid gloves by pretty well everybody") he returned to his attack on reviewers.
"The only way you can detect that the reviewer doesn't like the book is when they spend the whole time simply describing the plot. They're not brave enough to say 'it doesn't work'. They don't care whether they're readable or not. Novels are not academic works where you need to know everything about George IV to review the latest biography. Greater diversity would be better."

All good, provocative stuff – but it was Sir Howard's next comment that really lifted the eyebrows. He quoted from Wyndham Lewis's attack on indulgent critics in his 1934 commentary Men Without Art. Now, it should not be suggested for a moment that former deputy directors of the Bank of England are not well read, erudite men. But it is unlikely that the words of Wyndham Lewis are imprinted on Sir Howard's brain. This was a matter he felt strongly enough about to research his case.
What Wyndham Lewis actually said in 1934 was this: "A hundred books of fiction every month are referred to by eminent critics in language of such superlative praise that, were it the work of Dante that was in question, it would be adequate, though a little fulsome." So, from Wyndham Lewis to Sir Howard Davies, the accusation is not greatly changed. Literary reviewers lack scepticism.

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