Sunday, July 27, 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

In the latest Guardian book review pages, Alastair Campbell, former Commissar of Communication for Tony Blair, seems to think that book reviews shouldn’t be about the book you’re reviewing, but about what the book has to do with you. Reviewing Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Campbell writes:

I did have a plan to run 50 miles on my 50th birthday last year but a cycling injury to my calf - like Murakami, I also do triathlon - grounded me. Now, also like him, my running is accompanied by constant worries about aging, reflected in ever slower times.

He is in a different class to me, as runner and novelist, and throughout he gives the sense that he cannot be one without being the other. He has done 25 marathons and written 11 novels. I have done one marathon and written two novels . . .

And so, and so on, in a clumsy and mix of competitive envy and vain-glorious boasting. Pooter lives.

Meanwhile, in the same pages, M. John Harrison shows you how it’s done, framing the territory the book in question appears to inhabit, before getting under its hood and finding out what it’s really made of:

The post-disaster story has a deep ambivalence about the worth of that which has been lost. Its traditional purpose is to defamiliarise the world we know, and express our two worst fears: that the built environment will collapse, leaving us without material support; or - worse - that it won’t, saddling us in perpetuity with everything we hate about it, from office work to shampoo ads. Its purpose is to deliver a little frisson. So it’s clear from the off, then, that Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, though it appears to take place in the same querulous psychic space as, say, I am Legend or Survivors, isn’t a post-disaster story at all.

I confess to having a blind spot for Julian Barnes’s novels, but his introduction to a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters is very fine indeed, from the opening self-deprecatory anecdote about his first encounter with Fitzgerald, to his sharp observations of how novels and novelists work, and the special qualities of Fitzgerald’s writing:

Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when the material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.


[Fitzgerald] didn’t like to offend: on one occasion she went to vote, and as she left the polling station, ‘to my disgust the Conservative lady outside snatched away my card, saying - I’m only taking ours, dear - I didn’t like to say I was Liberal for fear of hurting her feelings - she had put a nice green hat on and everything - I often see her in church.’

That ‘nice green hat’ is a pure writer’s touch...

I have to say that I think the condescending ‘dear’ is a nicely vivid stab at fixing a character, too. And thanks to Harrison and Barnes, I have more books to add to my reading list . . .


Blogger King Rat said...

I prefer book reviews that acknowledge the reviewers personal experience and how it affects their view of the book. A book isn't something that exists in a pristine ideal Platonic universe. It's some weird combination of author intention, language, reader experience, and community zeitgeist.

July 27, 2008 8:42 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Well of course reviewers can't help dragging their history into their review (at least, according to po mo Theory), but Campbell's review was an extreme and extremely silly example, too much of it wasted on comparisons of the reviewer's acheivements with those of the author of the book he was supposed to be reviewing. There was some good stuff about the psychology of running, but there was too much about Campbell, and definitely not enough about Murikami's writing (which I'm interested in).

Frankly, I'm not interested in what the reviewer had for breakfast, or whether they like cats, of what books *they* happen to be working on - unless they can make all that in some way relevant to the review of course. And reviewing is a lot more than giving your personal opinion and your personal reaction to a book. Telling us you love it, or that you hated it so much that you threw it across the room, or that it reminds you of your auntie Kate, who also had a peculiar adventure in Cairo, tells us nothing about the book itself. No, a good review is about the *book* and deals with all the good stuff you mention and more - author intention (although that's another minefield right there), language, tone, plot, and zeitgeist (or context). It reveals the eseentials, but it doesn't destroy the mystery. And when everything clicks, it makes you want to go straight out and buy the book - which is what the Harrison review and the Barnes introduction both did (I'm reading Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower right now). Hey.

July 28, 2008 8:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More complaints on Campbell and Murakami:

July 28, 2008 9:21 pm  
Blogger Mopsa said...

Ha! I posted similarly on Sunday - that Campbell piece was an irresistible target.

July 28, 2008 10:40 pm  

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