Reviewing Irish books: the good, the bad and the ugly truth
Eileen Battersby’s scathing review of Paul Murray’s new novel was the talk of literary circles. But do too many Irish reviewers pull their punches? And what’s it like to get a bad review? We asked the experts - now with added Gerald Dawe!
There is a tendency among some reviewers to pull their punches – heck, some even refuse to get into the ring in the first place or duck back out as soon as they read a few pages and realise their subject has a glass chin
When in their Irish Times reviews earlier this year Joseph O’Connor praised Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies to the heights and John Boyne did the same for Belinda McKeon’s Tender, it seemed to confirm the return of the feel-good factor to an Irish literary world that was not immune to the economic downturn.
Last Saturday, however, the warm glow turned from Ready-Brek to radioactive as readers and writers took to social media to respond to an excoriating review of Paul Murray’s new novel, The Mark and the Void, by Eileen Battersby, the Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times.
The negative review perhaps came as a particular surprise, given that the same critic had been such an enthusiastic champion of his much-loved previous novel, Skippy Dies. As Róisín Ingle reminded her Twitter followers: “So Man Booker wanted a comic novel? This was it & twice as funny as The Finkler Question.”: Eileen Battersby on Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies.”
Some fellow authors used humour to make their point, Belinda McKeon tweeting: “If Paul Murray’s new novel had one last bonus chapter, it would’ve been that Eileen Battersby review. Fits perfectly with plot.” while Liz Nugent joked: “I think Paul Murray should give Eileen Battersby’s puppy back.”
Others condemned the review as vicious and nasty, offered up conspiracy theories about it being a Trinity College thing (eh?) or speculated that the unflattering portrait of a female literary critic in the novel, Mary Cutlass, may have played a part.
However, the spoken word poet Brendan McCormack was representative of those who took a different view of the outcry: “Irish novelist gets bad review on home soil. Nepotists up in arms. Quelle surprise”.
He may have a point. John Boyne found himself in the stocks last year after he gave an Irish author a stinker of a review. Yet when he gave Irvine Welsh a similar drubbing, it passed without comment.
Part of the problem, in my view, is that there is a tendency among some reviewers in Ireland to pull their punches – heck, some even refuse to get into the ring in the first place or duck back under the ropes as soon as they read a few pages and realise their subject has a glass chin. I don’t think any reviewer punches below the belt, certainly not intentionally. But occasionally they come out swinging from the first bell, or sentence, and just keep on punching to score their points, even when their opponent is already helpless on the floor, which entertains some but upsets many others.
It’s also easy to overlook the fact that critics too are exposing themselves to criticism – of their judgment, prose style, background knowledge, fairness etc – and they too are entitled to be treated with respect and a fair hearing.
So, in an attempt to clear the air and open up the subject for debate, I asked a wide cross-section of authors and critics who review for The Irish Times these questions: How honest can you be reviewing books by Irish authors in a country like Ireland, where the literary scene is so small? And as a writer, how do you respond to a bad review? Is it possible not to take it personally?
Perhaps the most telling – and ironic – response was this, by an author who by necessity must remain anyonmous: “Actually, as I try and write this, I realise I probably can’t say what I really think – both because [redacted] and for the sake of my future as a writer! So, interested as I am, I’ll pass – what I could actually write would be so mealy-mouthed you wouldn’t want it anyway. And my agent advised me against it.”
Here are the other responses.
I’ve worked as a critic in both Ireland and the US and Ireland is much harder. It’s an intimate place and the number of people directly involved in fields like theatre or fiction is small. Over time, you’re bound to meet most of them. That puts a huge premium on honesty. People come to expect that the critic is somehow part of the scene and therefore obliged to be supportive. Praise is increasingly considered as the default setting and anything less must be motivated by some personal grudge or conspiracy.
But just because it’s hard to be honest doesn’t mean you can’t do it. A critic’s job is really quite simple – to say what you feel about a piece of work and why. You’re not there to reflect a general popular opinion(even if you could possibly know what that is); you’re there to reflect on how the thing struck you and to shape that reaction into a coherent argument. You can’t force yourself to like something you don’t like or be moved by something you find cold or laugh at lines you find witless – the critic is a prisoner of the work.
It comes down to a basic question – who is the critic accountable to? Artists tend to feel that the main duty of a critic is to themselves and their work. But it’s not – it’s to the critic’s own readers. They deserve an honest opinion – even if it’s bad news for the artist. A critic who disrespects his or her own readers by feeding them bland and adulterated platitudes doesn’t deserve to be read at all.
As a writer, I’ve been on the other end of this process and of course you see things differently. It’s merely human to feel that the person who says your book is brilliant is a perceptive, sensitive and illuminating critic, while the person who says it’s crap is a thick-headed chancer. But in the end, you learn to treat reviews like the weather – it’s lovely if it’s sunny all the time but the chances are you’re going to get rained on sometimes. You can’t do anything about it and, after all, you’re the one who chose to step outside naked and ask people to admire your wares.
Fintan O’Toole is an author and literary editor of The Irish Times.
You can be honest if the book that you are reviewing is a genuinely good novel, like Belinda McKeon’s Tender, which I reviewed recently. Then it’s a pleasure to say something positive about it. Last year I wrote a very bad review of a novel and regretted it deeply afterwards, not because I didn’t believe what I wrote but because I did not want to be a person who ruined someone else’s day. More recently I handed back an Irish novel after reading it because I knew that if I wrote an honest review, I would not only end up trashing the book but I would be vilified in the Irish writing community afterwards. The truth is, and I know this from experience, you can’t even criticise another Irish writer’s work any more without being accused of professional jealousy. It’s utterly ridiculous, particularly when we live in an era where mediocrity is so celebrated. In my view, books by Irish writers should be reviewed by complete outsiders who have neither axes to grind nor friendships to maintain.
A writer can spend anything from a year to a decade on their novel; a reviewer might read it in a day and review it in an afternoon, completely ignoring all the work that has gone into the book. If you didn’t take it personally, it would suggest that you don’t care about your work and we all do. Some reviews, however, are so over the top that it says more about the reviewer than the author. Eileen Battersby’s recent review of Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void is an example of this and I don’t say this because Paul is a good friend of mine. In fact, I haven’t read the novel yet and generally respect Eileen for how she brings attention to little known novels that otherwise might not find an audience. But when a review is unnecessarily vicious and deeply unkind you would have to have a heart of stone not to take it personally. Reviewers need to remember that authors are human beings with emotions and that the weeks surrounding publication are particularly vulnerable times. In my view, that review should never have been published and a ‘second opinion’ should have been sought.
John Boyne is an author and critic.
Years ago I was a regular fiction reviewer on the Irish Times books pages but I found myself turning down a commission (and subsequent ones) from the then literary editor Caroline Walsh. I had previously written a glowing review of a new Irish novel and soon discovered that the author and I had a mutual friend who went out of her way to tell me how delighted he had been, how much it meant to him and his family and then listed all the trials he had gone through – mostly financial, but also personal – to write the book. The good review, she said, went down very well with his publisher. How different it would have been if the review had been negative was the great unspoken.
And so I explained all this to Caroline – that my skin was too thin, my shoulders too light for the responsibility which suddenly seemed huge. (As the Irish Times television reviewer – and former radio reviewer – on the same small island I am just as likely, maybe more so as my corner of Dublin is small, to meet the programme maker on the day my briskly negative review comes out . The responsibility is still big but my skin is rhino thick now and I am confident in my critical ability to see and assess the programme as it is. If I give a negative or positive review it’s not personal, it’s professional – although I have had (nasty) feedback from programme makers, and one presenter, who have taken reviews personally – people I don’t know from Adam assuming, incorrectly, there’s some personal motivation on my part. I now find that sort of thing at worst perplexing, at best amusing. )
A long time later I was standing in for Caroline as Irish Times literary editor. A big name in Irish writing had published a new book. It had to be reviewed. As is convention – not a good one I think – I tried, one after another, three other Irish writers to write the review. Two of them rarely review – one simply laughed and said “Ireland is too small”; the other said no, they have many mutual friends and “it wouldn’t be worth it”. The third try, an experienced reviewer, said yes – on one condition. The author’s last book was not good, she said, nothing as good as her previous work, and she had heard this one was no better but she would review it but she would be “kind”.
On RTÉ radio this week on the Sean O’Rourke show, Eileen Battersby’s robust review of Paul Murray’s book was discussed at length in an item on summer reading. (That it was mentioned at all shows how rarely Irish writers are truly put under the critical microscope and come out badly on the other side.) Contributor and writer Cathy Kelly said that a reviewer, if they really hate a book, should decline to review it, given the impact it might have on the author. O’Rourke, a robust critic in non-literary areas (politicians quake) challenged this nice-to-be-nice view – the logical extension being that no Irish writer could ever get an honest review in this county. Kelly stuck to her guns. The other contributor, Bob Johnston from the Gutter Bookshop, dismissed the Battersby review, saying he detected “an anger” in the writing. The implication being there was something personal afoot and it was therefore intellectually tainted. I didn’t detect that, and I would put my house on it that Battersby has no personal opinion on Murray at all. The review, as I read it, was purely about the text. It was an honest, impersonal literary view – her view, just hers – and one that readers are free to disagree with. A debate is what good criticism should always kick off.
Bernice Harrison is TV critic for The Irish Times – when she wrote a negative review of Love/Hate she got approving emails telling her she was “brave”.
Irish readers are such shrewd readers that there is a moral responsibility to be honest in your reviews. I know from reading so many international novels in translation Irish readers read them – they are really sophisticated readers. More and more publishers around the world are aware of what Irish readers are reading. So it’s not me waving the flag for Mother Ireland. Because of that you owe it to say what you think. It’s not about being funny at the expense of the writer; honesty is very important.
My function is mainly reviewing international fiction in translation. The high-profile books are reviewed by high-profile writers. Many of the books that I’d review are not well known but I like to think they are good books and that people will want to review them. It is always down to individual preference but I am always pleased when readers contact me about a novel that they may not have read otherwise but that the review directed them towards. So for me it's about being an information service.
Eileen Battersby is literary correspondent of The Irish Times.
I write and review. Here are my rules regarding reviewing, or four of them at any rate:
1 Never review a book you hate. Return it.
2 In this tiny country you will very likely know the authors of many of the books you review. The only answer to this problem is glasnost. Tell the reader how you are connected to the author of the book you are reviewing. The reader of your review can then make up their own mind as to the value of your review and judge whether your relation to the author has or has not affected what you have written.
3 If you, the author, get a bad review NEVER EVER under any circumstances write a letter of complaint to the editor of the paper that published the review, or get your friends to write letters of complaint, or whinge on the airwaves or do anything of that kind. Do not show your disgruntlement, period. Just sit with it, endure it and imagine yourself a latter-day Sisyphus.
4 If you should meet socially a reviewer who has savaged you, treat this reviewer with love and kindness and do not refer to their horrid review ever and, if they, the reviewer, mention the horrid review pretend you either did not read it or else that you did read it but you have completely forgotten what the review said. The showing of sweetness and composure in these circumstances to your enemy critic will give you far more pleasure than a vendetta or a row and in the far future it will be your forgiving that will be remembered while the reviewer’s savage copy will be forgotten – and what’s not to like about that? There’s nothing like the revenge delivered by decency plus history.
Carlo Gébler is an author and critic.
I’ve been on both sides of the trenches. Because I write books and also review them, I try to avoid reviewing writers I’m likely to run into on the campaign trail. I’ve made exceptions, but only when I know the writer is a professional who’s established and secure enough to take a review as no more or less than a verdict on the work.
I didn’t like the tone of Eileen’s review, it seemed based more on opinion than analysis. To be honest, I rely on reviews less and less these days, and depend more on word of mouth from friends. I’ve seen too many great books mauled online – and sometimes in the mainstream press – by readers and reviewers who seem to adopt some sort of weird consumerist approach. I call it the pizza toppings syndrome: “This has pepperoni on it! I wanted cheese!” I’ve also seen some shockingly bad novels praised to the skies by blurbers and reviewers. Beware the herd.
Regarding being on the butt-end of a bad review, you get older, and your skin gets thicker. I’ve had raves and hatchet jobs for the same books. It’s hard to see three or four or five years of work get it in the neck, but you can only write the kind of book you want to read. We’ve got some great critics around, especially younger ones. We’ve also got some established critics who are hopelessly narrowly read, who still cling to Victorian notions of what constitutes a novel, and who seem completely unaware of what’s going on in modern fiction, let alone genre stuff. I don’t write for them. Jesus, I wouldn’t even want to have a drink with them.
Peter Murphy is an author and critic.
Honesty is imperative. If a critic cannot be honest about a book, they should reconsider their line of work. A reviewer approaches every book wanting to be blown away by it, but often a work can disappoint, frustrate or fail in what it set out to do. If a reviewer thinks a book unsuccessful - in execution, pace, style - they must say so, but ad hominem attacks are never justifiable. I think John Updike’s rules for reviewing are very astute, particularly this one: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”.
It must be very difficult for writers to remain silent when seething after a particularly brutal review, but there’s only one thing to do: never respond. Grit your teeth, channel grace and dignity, and move on.
Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTÉ. The Long Gaze Back, her anthology of Irish women writers, is published in September by New Island.
I’m not sure that the small scale of Irish literary culture is a huge problem. Literary fiction is a minority sport, and literary scenes everywhere are small. You often hear the complaint in the UK, for example, that novelists such as Ian McEwan are reviewed “kindly” because the reviewers and editors are all friends of his. I’m sure that’s not true, but it shows there’s a similar perception in what is a vast literary territory compared to Ireland. I think it has more to do with the Irish way of doing things. You know how we score highly in all those happiness indices, and describe lashing rain as “a grand soft day”? Perhaps we do something similar when reviewing. It’s not a question of deliberately “going easy” on a book or refusing to offer criticism because the author is someone we might meet in the street or at a literary event. It’s more a matter of, I don’t know, a reluctance to condemn outright. Savage reviews make us uneasy. Personally I’d prefer to read reviews of the more measured sort. Many, many books are published every year. Of those we review a tiny fraction, so the books reviewed have already been selected by one or more editors before being sent to critics. Can those books really have no merit at all, after all that?
I’ve never written a novel but I do write a weekly column based around Irish Times archive photographs, The Times We Lived In. When, as sometimes happens, people write to point out mistakes I’ve made, I feel like digging a big hole in the ground, climbing into it and never getting out again. And those people are usually kind, and often apologetic. How it must feel for a novelist who has spent years working on a book, only to have it eviscerated in an instant by a hostile review, I can’t even begin to imagine.
Arminta Wallace is an Irish Times journalist.
Reviewing a book by somebody you’re probably going to encounter at some gathering is undeniably fraught. You have to be prepared for hostile stares across crowded rooms. As a writer I’m always aware of the work that goes into writing any novel and try to remember that. But it’s a betrayal of books, readers, writers and yourself to capitulate to the inevitable pressure to manufacture praise. I have a principle that reviewing should not descend, as often seems to be expected, to being a tool of the PR machine. It’s important for the health of literature that any work must be seen in a more universal perspective than the particular literary world we Irish writers inhabit. I also have a principle of never reviewing books by friends. I like a good party as much as the next!
If I get a bad review I might break a bit of crockery and sulk for an afternoon. But if the review is thoughtful and well-written I try to see it as a learning experience. If the reviewer has clearly not read the book, as one of mine had obviously not, I dismiss it – and practice my hostile stare.
Anne Haverty is an author and critic.
I’m reasonably new to reviewing, and duly cautious. I’d be reluctant to write something negative about a book by a writer I know, but nor would I be comfortable writing something insincerely positive about a book I don’t like just because I know its author. I wouldn’t want my own book to be praised for “personal” reasons; I doubt any writer would.
I’ve been lucky [AS A WRITER], but even when a review is broadly positive, of course it’s the negative bit that churns around my brain in the dead of night. I don’t think of my writing as a profession in any conventional sense; I don’t approach it in a clinical way and so I can’t respond clinically either. When I read an excoriating review of somebody else’s book, it always makes me wince. It can happen to any writer; we all drift in the same roily sea of subjectivity.
Sara Baume is an author and critic.
How honest can you be? With difficulty, and that answer also applies to the tiny poetry scene over here in the UK.
The late Dennis O’Driscoll said in one of his last essays, “Books are no longer sent out for review, they are sent out for praise.”
But hasn’t that always been the case? From the publisher’s point of view? And from the author’s point of view especially. We just can’t help wanting to hear great things about ourselves. And that first verdict in print is a terrifying prospect. But time has an interesting effect on reviews; those that I’ve found annoying or niggling prove to be not so bad or even quite good when I look at them further down the line. My subjectivity is very high on that first reading and vanity can seriously get in the way.
I had only one really savage review that I can remember. That was for my first poetry book. I was so upset, I couldn’t even figure out whether I deserved it or not and I never read it again. It did teach me a valuable lesson, though. After that I never to let any book out into the world until I had questioned every poem, every line, every punctuation mark. Once that baby’s gone out, it belongs to the world. It will never be as good as I want it to be but I need to know that I gave it my best shot. Then it’s time to take it on the chin. I read somewhere that writers react in one of two ways to a bad review. They either bleed publicly or privately. I recommend the latter.
Martina Evans is an author, poet and critic.
I don’t review books by Irish authors any more, and haven’t for a long time. It’s not worth the grief. Everything is personal in a small country. In our business, the quip is that (or used to be, before we went digital) that today’s paper is tomorrow’s chip wrapping. Well, the one thing in the paper, that never ends up as chip wrapping, are book reviews. Authors always remember their reviews. I’ve had strangers quote verbatim reviews I’ve written about their books years before, when I finally run into them, as you always eventually do in Ireland. I found that odd and it was usually highly uncomfortable, because there was a lot of passive aggressive stuff being directed at me about something I’d written years before.
So in a country where many people take reviews personally, the critical analysis part of the review tends to get ignored, and that’s where the real loss is.
As a writer of books of poetry and non-fiction, I’ve been the subject of many reviews myself, and yes, of course, I read them all. I will always remember one line in a review of my last book of poetry that was quite fantastically vitriolic. It was along the lines that as a poet, there wasn’t one literate word in the entire book and also, while he was at it, as an Irish Times journalist, I couldn’t write one literate word about anything. Given that I write for a living, I found this bizarre, but I chose to be amused rather than offended. It’s easy to see when reviewers (who are often writers themselves) are confusing the writer with old reviewing scores they wish to settle with the newspaper I work for. That review wasn’t about my work; it was about a writer taking it out on me for the poor review he’d got in The Irish Times in the past (I checked). What a waste of energy and brainpower and time, and what a sorry, vicious, unseemly circle Irish reviewing can be.
Rosita Boland is a writer and Irish Times journalist.
Honesty is crucial, because if you’re not honest in your reviews then people are eventually going to realise that your judgement is either flawed or biased, and they simply won’t trust you. Yes, Ireland is a small place, but there needs to be room for robust criticism. I write fiction myself, so I’m inclined to sympathise with authors - it’s difficult to write any kind of book, let alone a very good book - and for the most part I favour accentuating the positive, especially when it come to writers in the early stages of their career (it’s very rare that you encounter a book that’s bad all the way through). That said, if a book isn’t a good book, you’re doing no one any favours - and particularly, in the long run, the author - by saying otherwise.
It is possible not take a bad review personally, although it depends to a large extent on the kind of review it is. If it’s a review that misrepresents the book, or one in which it’s obvious the reviewer didn’t understand what the book was trying to do, then that’s much more difficult to take. I think you eventually learn to accept it as one element of the slings and arrows of the game, though - early on, with my first couple of books, I certainly would have felt wounded by a bad review. Nowadays I’d be far more likely to shrug it off, and especially if the negative criticism was well-founded.
Declan Burke is an author and reviews crime fiction in a monthly column for The Irish Times.
I was living in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal back in the pre-email 1980s when a note arrived in the post from the novelist and short-story master Benedict Kiely, advising me to pay no heed to a negative review of my first story collection that had appeared in Hibernia. Needless to say, I thumbed into Killybegs straight away in order to buy the aforementioned fortnightly review. The offending critique made for painful reading, but was more than counterbalanced by that generous kindness of a celebrated master of the short story to a younger writer starting out. And it also brought home to me early on that bad reviews simply come with the territory.
It was also Ben Kiely who later told me how he had taken to only reviewing books he truly admired – as if life itself were too short to critically engage with narratives that do not compel or persuade. There’s little doubt either that swimming in a literary pool as small as ours can prove problematic, and I try to make a point of stating that an author is not a bosom buddy on the odd occasion I might ask a books editor about the possibility of reviewing a title that has caught my eye or interest. There should also arguably be a duty of care, I think, in trying to state whatever positives there hopefully are in any book you feel does not clear the bar – not least that of a first-time writer!
Anthony Glavin is an author and critic.
As a critic, journalist or decent human being, there’s just one rule to follow: never write anything you wouldn’t say to the person’s face. If you work for any decent amount of time in arts journalism in Ireland, you will end up in a room, lift or panel with someone whose work you have critiqued at some point. You may not remember them, but they will no doubt remember you, and you’ll get to put this into practice.
The longer you work in journalism, the easier this rule is to follow. However, at the beginning of a career, it’s easy to lash out the lacerating criticism and bask in the newfound glory of being the baddest ass in town. Caitlin Moran captured this brilliantly with her character Dolly Wilde in How to Build a Girl. But the truth is, ask any critic and they’ll tell you that there are a few early reviews that they wish they’d never written. For every zinger of a joke about someone’s failings, you have to pay the balance with constructive insight. Otherwise, it’s just a cheap way of getting attention.
As a musician, I’ve been on the receiving end of criticism from colleagues in print. If they are good at their job (and they were), it will be informative, constructive and alert you to aspects of the work that you hadn’t picked up on. In the worst case scenario, it will alert you to aspects of the work that you had picked up on, but hoped everyone else would miss.
If you don’t agree with the criticism, and feel that there is nothing to learn from it, then remember, it is only one opinion. If you don’t respect it, then move on immediately. If you do respect their opinion, be they friend, foe or New Yorker columnist, than you have a trickier problem to solve.
Laurence Mackin is arts editor of The Irish Times.
I don’t review fiction myself. Partly this is because I don’t want to have to say bad things about books written by people I know (or who might review my own books in the future). And partly it’s because I am not sure enough of my own judgement of other people’s fiction.
The one time I almost made an exception to this rule, when I was asked by the Sunday Telegraph to review Richard House’s Booker-nominated thriller The Kills, I disliked the novel so much that I had to beg off after 100 pages (it was 1,000 pages long). Yet that book received, overall, glowing reviews and did very well. So what do I know?
I do review non-fiction, because I believe you can apply quasi-objective standards of truth and fairness to factual writing, and as a former foreign correspondent I usually have some personal knowledge of the general area covered by the book in question.
I always read reviews of my own books, and I don’t believe authors who say that they don’t. It’s the closest thing to honest feedback you are ever going to get. The bad reviews, or even the lukewarm ones, do hurt – they are badmouthing your baby! – but there’s nothing you can do about them, even if you think they are unfair in their particulars. The fact is, you asked for the critics’ opinions when the book was offered for review.
Because I know what it feels like to be criticised myself, I try to be as restrained as I can when I’m judging someone else’s work. I’ve only written one really negative review: it was in my view a terrible book, badly-written and very unfair to its subject. Strangely enough, that was the review that got the most attention.
Ed O’Loughlin’s third novel, Cape Flyaway, will be published next summer.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
It’s possible for a reviewer in Ireland to write an honest review of a book by another Irish author. And it sometimes happens, once or twice a year. But it’s not without risk. However, on the whole I find English reviewers in some of the most intellectual newspapers a lot less honest and reliable – London seems to be a much smaller place than Dublin if you’re in the literary set. (Never believe the Guardian!)
I always take bad reviews personally. I hate the reviewer forever and plot acts of revenge. Usually I plan to accidentally throw a glass of red wine over them at a book launch. Or else trip them up as they browse in Books Upstairs – on the stairs.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is an author, critic and lecturer at UCD.
In the small, close-knit Irish literary scene, reviewing work by Irish writers entirely dispassionately is very difficult. Hard to disparage a book when you might run into the author next evening at a mutual friend’s book-launch. Even if you’re right, you will look curmudgeonly and mean-spirited so many reviewers pull their punches and accentuate the positives. In this context, a stinker of a review becomes a cause celebre just because it’s so unusual.
Does this make for hard critical assessment? No, it doesn’t and I sometimes think the choice of reviewer is half the problem. The maddest notion is to give the review to a competitor in the field as when, say, the reviewer has recently written on the self-same subject. Nor is it a good idea to give a post-modern fantasy to a reviewer known for conservative tastes. Books shouldn’t be reviewed by close friends either but it happens. One solution is to cultivate a group of UK or US reviewers who are more likely to tell it like it is.
Cuts both ways, of course, and puff-pieces are not uncommon either. John Boyne recently urged caution on over-praising young writers because it serves nobody’s interest. The Irish are supposed to be desperate begrudgers, which they are, but they’re also world-class self-aggrandisers. Ideally you’re looking for a combination of honesty and generosity. Scathing reviews are never easy reads but I still love Mary McCarthy’s view that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, including “and” and “the”.
Bert Wright is a literary events curator and Administrator of The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards.
A writer’s job is to produce a cracking good story, a work of exquisite literary beauty, or something at least robust enough to survive being pushed off the cliff that is publication.
A critic’s job is to swoop from the air, pounce on the writer‘s masterpiece, rip out it‘s living heart and read its entrails.
Good job. Well done. Most of us hate criticism. If a friend approaches proclaiming: your hair looks crap. Your arse is getting awful big. And that colour does NOT suit you, would you break into The Hallelujah Chorus? I don’t think so.
My darling daughter had a criticism baptism of fire aged 17 when headhunted by TopShop. The London managers came over and screamed at the Irish managers. The Irish managers screamed at the assistant managers. The assistant managers screamed at everyone. I was outraged at the time but it did develop her robust attitude to being yelled at: if it’s true then deal with it and do better next time. If it’s not true, suck it up.
Writers tend to be notoriously sensitive when it comes to the “C” word. But in this gorgeous little island of ours, with a strong tendency to insular complacency, surely robust criticism should be encouraged?
And, eh, not just for writers.
Rosita Sweetman is an author and critic.
Your duty as a reviewer is to the reader, so you have to put the author – whoever he or she may be – out of your head. It can be tricky in Ireland as it’s such a small circle and it’s quite possible you’ll bump into the author at some literary festival or event. It’s happened a few times to me. You put the head down, shuffle on, smile your way through it. Irish people are generally polite; we don’t like confrontation, God forbid there’s a scene. Avoid bars if angry authors are inside.
I think if you’re fair, and consistent, in reviews it shows. The main thing is to engage with the book, give it the attention it deserves after an author has put so much work into it. Even then if it’s a negative review, time has been spent on trying to understand the author’s purpose and why the book worked – or didn’t. I recently read James Wood’s memoir, The Nearest Thing to Life, where he says the best criticism isn’t analysis but a re-describing of a text through the eyes and voice of the critic. When a review is exceptionally harsh, in that skin-peeling kind of way, you have to wonder what’s gripped the critic so much in a book as to provoke that reaction. It’s easy also to be flippant with bad material, to raise a laugh. Readers love a good dressing-down as much as they love a recommendation, possibly more so. And, I suppose, a badly-written review of a badly-written book – what’s the point of that?
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist, who reviews new fiction for The Irish Times
I hardly ever review work by Irish writers, especially novels. On the rare occasion when I do, I try to be as honest as I would be with the work of a writer of any other nationality. But reviewing is not a science, more a nuance. When I look back over more than 40 years of book reviewing, I see quite a few instances of my barking up entirely the wrong book, or, indeed, barking down. One does one’s best to be fair, but one’s own prejudices and enthusiams inevitably influence one’s written opinion.
I never read reviews of my own work. Of course, you can always depend on your best friend to call up and tell all about the most woundingly unfavourable ones.
John Banville is an author and critic and former literary editor of The Irish Times
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
It’s very difficult to review fellow writers in a scene as small as the Irish one. As a writer, you know how much time and effort goes into writing a book and you don’t relish the idea of attacking someone’s hard work. My own policy is not to review books I don’t like. So, if a book is really not doing it for me, I pass. Some editors have reacted strongly to this (they’ve been disappointed, or don’t get why I don’t like something) but I don’t want to rip a writer apart just because their book is not to my personal taste. I do admit to blurbing books that haven’t enthralled me but I concentrated on the things that were good for the blurb quote.
Bad reviews inevitably sting. I’m lucky in that I haven’t had too many (touch wood) but often when a reviewer makes a negative point, I weigh it up for wisdom. Sometimes the bad stuff makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. You take what’s useful and leave the rest. Most writers know their own weak spots, anyway. But if a reviewer just hates your work, that’s more to do with them than you.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an author and critic. Her new novel, Miss Emily, is out next month.
Reviews can't truly be impartial, and no reader would actually want them to be, but the scene here, as anywhere else, has to try and police its parochialism and cliquishness (actual or perceived) as best it can. It will, not least through lack of resources, probably fail over and over, but it has to try. As a reader I would instantly lose interest in a reviewer or reviewing outlet that was, I felt, patently pulling its punches/ doing a favour to a mate/ celebrating mediocrity for its own sake. I don't mind a reviewer having aesthetic biases: I want perspective, not “objectivity”, and an eloquent, forceful and engaged articulation of exactly why the book they are reviewing has satisfied and/or irritated their sensibility. (The one book can often do both, and they are often the most interesting.) Whether or not I ultimately agree with a reviewer's judgment, I want to feel the conviction of their persuasion.
I understand why some reviewers think it better not to review bad books or books they don’t like, but I think, if you are going to review, there is a duty to engage with the bad as well as the good. If a review/blog etc had a stated editorial policy of only reviewing stuff they like, I’d go elsewhere for an opinion. A writer is perfectly entitled to take a negative review badly, run around the house effing and blinding, plotting revenge late at night over drinks with a sympathetic mate etc. The important thing is to never, ever, ever do any of that stuff publicly. Which is easier said than done, but it’s one of the paradoxical things about being lucky enough to get a book published/reviewed in the first place: you are required to turn silent at exactly the moment everyone else is allowed their opinion.
Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins and an occasional reviewer.
I was an editor in a labour history journal for a number of years and editing the reviews was one of the most thankless things I have ever done. It has given me an idea of how difficult it is to try and find someone knowledgeable enough to review a given book, who can and will review the book, but who hasn’t already done so for someone else or written a blurb or foreword or launched the bloody thing. If anyone thinks Irish literary fiction is a small world, it’s vast compared with Irish labour history.
I have also been at the receiving end of frosty glares from authors to whom I have given less-than-brilliant reviews (and their friends), although most people are reasonably good at putting on a game face and being pleasant through gritted teeth. I think, possibly, I once received an email thanking me for a good review, which was nice but the review was well deserved. The problem for reviewers is that there are a lot of books and many of them are really not very good at all. Many years ago, during an interview for a lecturing position, I was asked to talk about the best history book I had read recently. I was struck dumb. I had been reviewing a lot around that time and everything I read had been awful. My mind was so full of duds that I literally could not think of a single good book; I did not get the job.
In fact, the likelihood that a reviewer and reviewee will end up on opposite sides of a table at an interview panel is one key difference between history, say, and literary fiction. If being embarrassed to be in the same room at a soiree as someone you gave a bad review to can make people pull their punches, you can imagine how this works when a reviewer is hoping to get a job or a reference from someone more established than they are. With fewer and fewer people getting tenure in universities, this is a problem.
It’s true there can be a tendency among reviewers to pull their punches and, for the most part, that they don’t punch below the belt. It is one thing for a reviewer to come out swinging but the fight ought to be evenly matched. Few people take much pleasure in seeing a reigning professional heavyweight pummelling a bantamweight on their first fight.
None of us want to be cruel. Or mostly none of us, I think. Some people are, I suppose, more sensitive than others to the feelings of our reviewees, but it is possible to be honest, and review with integrity and be engaging without leaving readers gasping at the cruelty. Nor does anyone want to be the person who wrote a stinker of a review of a person who dies shortly afterwards. Of course, no one ought write nice reviews on the off-chance that the author will die shortly afterwards, but at the very least, one should perhaps avoid writing anything so wholly awful that it would become the common source of chat at the funeral.
Honesty is important and giving a good review to a poor book is bad form, but there are ways to write a review without humiliating the author. My own rule of thumb is that authors shouldn’t be afraid to go out for sympathetic glances, but if they never want to speak to me again as a consequence, that’s fair enough.
Niamh Puirséil is a historian and occasional critic.
Late last year, having decided I could use the cash, I started reviewing all the books I could, for various newspapers. At first I reviewed a few novels by Irish writers - in other words, my peers - and tried to be as scrupulous and honest as possible. But I soon decided that it just wasn't worth it and quit reviewing contemporary Irish novelists. Besides, I'm far more interested in talking about books I like than ones I don't, or at least in reading and reviewing books that look interesting - non-fiction, for the most part - as a means of being paid while continuously educating myself.
I've got some pretty bad reviews, but for the most part I don't think I've taken it personally. It does feel exasperating, though, when you believe a bad review has an adverse effect on the book's sales. Obviously this is particularly the case if you feel the reviewer misread the book, just didn't get it or whatever. So you might feel anger or disdain for the reviewer, but hopefully not for too long.
Reviewing books is tricky, because you have to try and break out of the limitations of your own tastes and sensibilities to evaluate a book on its own terms, and you can only hope that other reviewers recognise this imperative too. And reviewers have got to have integrity. So you try and take all these things into consideration and not take it too personally.
Rob Doyle is an author and reviewer.
Rather than focusing on critics, we writers should focus more on our own failure to succeed. I’ve reviewed books, plays and film for RTÉ and the Irish Times and so much of it is so mediocre it should never have seen the light. Writers could do the public real service by being harsher critics on themselves and owning up to failure.
It’s a key lesson to be learnt from tech entrepreneurs who valiantly dust themselves off after 18 months on a failed start-up and begin again without recrimination. Failure is a hurdle on the road towards better literature, not an excuse to spew venom at those who dare question it.
I’ve written three travel books which I am inordinately proud of, and a novel, Oddballs (Brandon, 2011), which was truly awful. My publisher must have been disappointed on receiving the manuscript, but kindness and loyalty provoked him to offer to publish it, and I did not have the strength of character to decline. When the book made its way to reviewers, I inevitably knew some of them and I insisted that they owed it to themselves and the public to be honest about the book’s failing. I can’t deny that their criticism hurt (did they really have to be that harsh?!) but I respect them all the more for it now.
The most memorable line of criticism about me was written by a former Irish Times Arts Critic who seemed disturbed by my ugliness in a television documentary: “While Magan is not naturally sculpted for the screen, he is eager to pontificate and to preen.” It stays with me, only because it is so true!
Manchán Magan is a writer and documentary maker.
The vital thing about a review is it must be an engaging piece of writing in its own right. The main problem with reviews is unfortunately, like a lot of literary fiction, they've become very middle-brow. The terms of critical engagement have shifted so far, it's as if modernism never happened. Reviews can sometimes comprise only extended plot summaries and emphasis on what it is about and who is in it and what happens, rather than how is it made.
This approach fails to acknowledge that form is content and the absence of any interrogation/consideration/remarking on form, language, syntax, rhythm, or use of temporality within the work is very depressing. These terms have gone missing, especially in mainstream newspaper reviews. I worry about the lack of interrogation, curiosity and how the language of the market and prize culture has usurped all. Books are also only considered as single publishing gestures rather than how or where they might sit on a continuum and relate or engage with what has come before. This reduces the entire equation to a good vs bad review outcome, which makes the stakes highly personal and detrimental or euphoric. The personal then becomes highly political. On the one hand for the critic or writer who pens criticism you'll see savage reviews of your latest work popping up on Amazon, if you're foolish enough to look. The wronged writer who perceives you've damned them emails every first cousin east of Blackpool to revenge their honour, Twitter lights up with blows to your head and the underpaid writer then backs off from ever reviewing another work in this lifetime. For the perceived-to-be-damned writer agony sets in, dreams are crushed by the absence of sleep that follows and you want to understandably physically bite the back of that person's leg the next time you spy them in a pub.
Then there's the practical reality that space for reviews in newspapers has been overthrown by property, car and lifestyle guff instead, sections have been compacted, word counts shaved. If your book is even reviewed that's a major coup because as book pages decrease the volume of books published has increased.
I do think there's something of a national fixation on "authentication" in Ireland and in the appraisal of Irish literature in Ireland. This is the novel that is "us", this is how "we really are", this is "not who we are", this novel is a "fake" - all of which reduces fiction to social anthropology and who is the best at describing doorways, and it overlooks the matter that fiction is about subverting, disrupting, distorting and making shit up! Why would we want to find ourselves in fiction? It's also terribly precious. And then there's the inverse mad declaration that a work is "a truly European novel" - as distinct from what? One that has failed to overthrow the borders of Dun Laoghaire and cast out to conquer and conflate Bulgaria.
In Canada it's the opposite - people aren't concerned with finding a novel that insists on who we really are since it's so vast and we're all blow-ins except First Nations. Here, people prefer to just give out wholesale about Canlit and succumb to national inadequacy rather than authenticate and fight over whether a novel is truly Canadian because we're not too fussed or absolute about what "Canadian" is. Mostly we're only fussed in relation to the border and us not being American. Then in the merry dichotomy that is human nature we are known to declare American literature far superior. It's only when some prize juror, regularly Irish or British, shows up to judge a prize here and makes snarky comments about how wearisome they found the work they read that the whole nation (well, 17 pissed-off writers on Facebook) rises up and rallies around the sudden realisation, hey, person here on a layover, you know nothing and Canlit is great. Because the simple fact is 155 books published in a given year is not the entirety of any nation's literature.
So, yes, it has, regardless of geography, become something of a complicated opera that owes much to the forces of capitalism and understandable desperation that is trying to create a life's work in the arts. But that's also important: it is a life's work. You do your life's work. You hope readers engage. You may get gouged, grazed or you may get mighty gongs. Nothing is ever as difficult and dementing as writing in my view. That's the struggle. If it's a disaster, you have the comforting matter that books are swiftly forgotten. Most writers just want to write another book.
I tend to resort to a defacto pessimism in all of it that fluctuates between active despair and hearing the echo of my teen saying "nobody cares, mammy, nobody cares" on any number of topics. I think being middle-aged, a poor sleeper and practically dead helps a great deal.
Anakana Schofield is an author and reviewer.
“Crritic!” That’s the last word in abuse as far as Estragon in Waiting for Godot is concerned, and there can be few authors who, on receiving a mangling at the hands of a reviewer, haven’t seconded him, with a few expletives attached. Which pinpoints one difficulty about bad reviews and reactions to them: they tend to be more about personalities than about objective formal or aesthetic matters. The work under the cosh reveals its author's lack of wit, intelligence, taste and nous, says the nasty reviewer. The huffy writer reacts by noting his assailant’s failure to produce anything other than reviews and assumes that festering begrudgery fuels the hostility. Whether or not the smallness of the Irish literary scene makes it especially susceptible to personality clashes is one of the questions our literary history seems to beg. Besides, Ireland generally is a society, a culture, a polity where personality often seems a be-all and end-all. As to being on the receiving end of a poor review, of course I take it personally. So does every other writer, I’m sure, though some like to say otherwise. But when my temperature returns to normal, I do often wonder what exactly the reviewer got out of appearing so bullishly in public, charging the author’s inadvertent red rag, smashing the china shop to smithereens, snorting and stomping. That kind of thing, after all, is pretty simple. Shedding light instead of generating heat is much more difficult. But it’s so much more worthwhile, as well as being what all interested parties are entitled to, including the reader.
George O'Brien is an author, academic and reviewer.
Honesty matters but the most important thing is seeing that the reviewer really read my book and has something constructive or insightful or productive to say about it. I've read books for review that weren't really my "thing" but you have to detach yourself and see into what the author is trying to do. It's difficult especially with the mounting pressures and expectations surrounding publishing these days. Poets operate on a different wavelength; reviews need to be much more nuanced. And that can be rare enough.
I tremble each time I see a poetry book of mine under review. It's like seeing your life being held up in front of you and hearing what some one has made of it all. Did they catch the music? Did they see the irony? And then you know it's on to the next thing. Its a mug's game as Eliot said. But you develop a thickish skin the longer you hang on in there.
Gerald Dawe is Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. His latest poetry collection, Mickey Finn's Air, was published recently by The Gallery Press.