It’s an often quoted maxim of Kingsley Amis’s that he would allow a bad review to spoil his breakfast but never his lunch. Whilst this seems an eminently sane and sensible attitude to the business of being told in public precisely where you’re going wrong, it’s not always easy to face criticism with quite such gentlemanly equability.
Besides, something very interesting has happened in the world of book reviews since Amis was in his pomp - an egalitarian shift, a great democratisation. For so long the province of professionals, book reviewing has passed (at least in part) into the hands of the amateur and in 2008, reviews on-line, posted on blogs, message boards or on booksellers’ websites, can make just as much, if not even more, difference to a book’s success than those which appear, more traditionally, in print.
For the most part, this is to be applauded. At last, the people who actually part with their own cash to buy the books can have their voices heard, shout about their favourites or deflate those reputations they consider to be inflated. As a writer (and yes, I admit to checking out my reviews on at least one prominent bookseller’s site as well as elsewhere) it’s simultaneously fascinating and bewildering to be faced with the sheer volume and proliferation of points of view.
There are critics who love your work, those who hate it and (perhaps most hurtfully) those who remain largely unmoved, shrugging their shoulders to say it was merely tolerable or commonplace. For everyone who writes that they hate the ending of my story, there’s someone else who thinks it’s the best part of the book; for everyone who considers the appearance of a murderous double act in the last third of the narrative to be a piece of unwarranted silliness in questionable taste there’s a reader who asks if they might have their own spin-off series. Faced with such a mêlée of opinion, the writer runs the risk of being terrified into total inaction and never writing another word.
For the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to contribute reviews to The Times Literary Supplement and I’m sure that my criticism has been altered for the better by the experience of being published. I’m more fiercely aware now of what a responsibility it is to review a book, of how much work goes into everything that’s published regardless of whether or not I happen to find it to my taste. Certainly, I strive to be more sensitive and even-handed, painfully aware that, in giving full rein to the negative, I might be trampling on years of hard work.
And after all, I’d really hate to ruin anybody’s lunch.
-- Jonathan Barnes