Saturday, February 11, 2012

Adam Mars-Jones: 'The only bad review is one whose writing is soggy'

Adam Mars-Jones, winner of the first Hatchet Job award for a book review in the Observer, reflects on his craft,
Adam Mars-Jones receives his award from the Omnivore’s Fleur Macdonald and Anna Baddeley
Adam Mars-Jones receives his award from the Omnivore’s Fleur Macdonald and Anna Baddeley, right. Photograph: Daniel Barnett

I'm delighted that the Hatchet Job of the Year Award exists, as well as glad to have won it in a state of innocence, with a piece written before it came into being. From now on, any energetically negative review is likely to be seen as playing to the jury of the award, just as people write wince-making bedroom encounters (or perhaps claim they did after the fact) with an eye to the Bad Sex award. I'd be more comfortable with the phrase "scalpel job", since a review, however unflattering, should be closer to dissection than hackwork, but I have no illusions about it catching on.
A book review is a conversation that excludes the author of the book. It addresses the potential reader. A reviewer isn't paid to be right, just to make a case for or against, and to give pleasure either way. I didn't enjoy Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which I thought structurally defective and basically novelettish. Its winning the Booker in 2000 didn't prove me wrong, any more than it would have proved me right if I had liked it.
Both my parents were lawyers, and you could hold that accident responsible for something forensic about my approach. I don't set out to put a book in the dock, but perhaps I do put it in the witness box and rake through its testimony. In the review of Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall which brought the Golden Hatchet my way I grilled the book fairly intensively, but I tried to play by the rules. It always seems a good idea to quote freely from a book, to back up points with solid evidence. The only "bad" review in my book is one whose writing is soggy, its formulas of praise or blame off the same stale shelf. A reviewer and a critic play different roles, though the same person can take them on at different times. A critic has some sort of authority, a claim to long experience or deep immersion, a marination in a certain class of literary product. A reviewer has no necessary knowledge, even of other books by the same author – there's no shame in flying blind. If a book isn't rewarding to read in isolation, then there's no point in invoking any larger perspective. Forget the hinterland! It's a mistake to imply that readers are being inducted into a mystery. They're being guided to pleasure or warned against disappointment.
His full piece at The Guardian.

1 comment:

Helen Lowe said...

It's an interesting point--that the creation of the Hatchet Award may encourage a trend towards negative reviews for the sake of it, ie with an eye to the award. So would the judges have to give some consideration to 'fairness', ie the backing up of either criticism or praise, something Mars-Jones says he tries to do ...