‘What if you’re asked to review somebody who’s not only a reviewer himself but actually part of the reason that you wanted to become one?’ Do you go about your business any differently? Of course you don’t. But can you expect even a small amount of goodwill from another member of the critic’s union? Evidently not. Max Liu winces as he remembers the wrathful reaction of one of his literary heroes, James Wood, but manages ultimately to see the bright side.
The perils of meeting your heroes are exaggerated. I know this because I’ve played keepy-uppy with Ryan Giggs, shaken the hand of Alan Bennett and bought James Kelman a flapjack. But what about encounters in print? For ten years, at various levels, I’ve reviewed books so eventually I was bound to write about a living author whose work I love. I reviewed new books by Jonathan Raban, Kazuo Ishiguro and Joan Didion, all of whom feature on my list of reasons for living, and nobody died. But writing about somebody I admire, when there’s a chance they will be reading, is daunting and best not thought about.
Each book poses unique challenges but I agree with the London Review of Books editor who, when criticising Alice Munro earlier this year, warned against reading with reverence. He found little to praise in Munro’s oeuvre but you need to be especially careful when assessing a new book by a writer whose previous work means a lot to you (Benjamin Markovits negotiated this with skill in his review of J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, as did Rachel Cusk when she wrote about Didion’s Blue Nights). But what if you’re asked to review somebody who’s not only a reviewer himself but actually part of the reason that you wanted to become one?
You do what you always do: read the book, re-read the book, re-re-read passages you wish to discuss, re-read the backlist, make notes, including observations which you’re unlikely to use, dream about your review, fall over on escalators because you’re distractedly reciting your review under your breath, examine your preferences, challenge your prejudices, screw words in to place until the piece coheres. This is all part of your responsibility to your editor, to the author, to yourself and to the reader who wants to know if you think their time and money worth investing in the book. You do your best.
I did each of these things during the fortnight that I spent reviewing James Wood’s The Fun Stuff for the Independent. I was delighted with the gig but I was nervous because I always am and I hold Wood in high regard. As an undergraduate, I wiled away late nights and early mornings reading reams of his pieces online. His first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, altered the way I thought about fiction and taught me that, even for giants like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, critics can raise the bar. Looking up at my shelves now, I even see a sickly-brown first edition of his novel, The Book Against God.
And I wince. Because last week I read an excellent interview with Wood from the Spectator (I recommend the unabridged version too), where he picks out my review of The Fun Stuff which he feels was written by somebody “who didn’t really seem to know what they were talking about.” There wasn’t in my piece, Wood says, “much investment.” When it comes to Wood’s wrath the company’s good but I’m not comparing myself to Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem or Zadie Smith, least of all because I’m only discussing a conversational swipe at a 500-word review. However, just as my review’s shortness was part of the problem for Wood, his casualness troubles me. I’m trying to earn a living in a meaningful way and being deemed a symptom of a cultural problem by somebody I admire is hurtful and undeserved.
“Very few critics truly evolve,” wrote one reviewer of The Fun Stuff, “they just find new subjects.” Really successful ones might lose touch with the pressures faced by other members of their profession but I don’t believe that’s true of Wood. He sounded reasonable in the American writer Ruth Franklin’s account of a formative run in and he rightly praises two young reviewers in the Spectator interview. He also alludes to the problems of shrinking arts coverage and diminishing fees: “How you make a living I don’t know.” He acknowledges the imperatives facing journalists when he explains his tendency to repeat himself: “the deadline gun is pointed to the temple …” By the time he regrets a review which made a debut novelist cry – “nobody wants to be that person” – self-awareness is the real casualty.
Self-doubt can be a catalyst for writing. Wasn’t its transformation part of what Ian Curtis, whose lyrics Faber Social will publish next year, achieved in his music? “I come here vulnerable,” I heard the poet Tom Leonard tell a heckler at a reading. Another recent interview, where Edna O’Brien discussed her Selected Stories, contained several fascinating insights, including the revelation that, when a magazine rejected a story, the author responded by doing ‘lots of reading’. The sense that disappointment never ends is offset by the chance to keep learning from it. For now, I keep laughing at Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge then wondering if I really get the jokes. Pynchon’s a hero who I won’t meet which is probably for the best.