I think I’m going to be a bit controversial today. What the hell, it’s almost the weekend. I’ve been thinking about reviews and opinion, and how subjective taste is. And I saw this post on Iain’s blog: Matters of Opinion, which contrasts positive and negative reviews of self-published work. It’s quite funny. I thought I might do something similar on books that are highly praised in some circles.
Stavrogin – aka Oli Johns, aka who knows? – had a thread running on Amazon forums for a bit where you had to guess the classic from its worst reviews. I lost hours of my life on that thread. But one that stuck in my mind was this one:
“I think this work is a good book for pseudo-intellectuals to cling to. I can’t see any merit in reading this book at all.”
Not much to go on there? Ok, what about this:
“I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so absurdly over-rated and over-hyped as [this book]. I found it shoddily-written, repetitive, dull and about 200 pages too long. Much has been made of [the author's] attempt at capturing the 80s zeitgeist, but I felt this aspect of the book was crudely-done and clumsy.”
“The message is conveyed within 10 pages (well, less actually but let’s not be controversial). It is then 385 long dull pages of hammering the same thing home. Forget the brouhaha about ‘what it all means’ because all that is simply secondary to the fact that this is a dull, poor novel. “
I got it from that last description, primarily because I agreed wholeheartedly with it. But ok, this has to be the clincher:
“The constant references to Labels, restaurants, bars and clubs, the obsession with physical fitness, the racism, the sterotypical ‘Wall Street workers’, the gratuitous, graphic violence and sex all become deeply tedious VERY quickly…
Other reviewers talk about how it’s poking fun at the Yuppies – Duh… if you don’t get that in the first 3 pages you’re probably on a life support machine.
This book could be subtitled “Irony for Dummies”, it’s so heavy-handed.”
Yes, it is of course American Pyscho. For me this is a very very strange book, because on the face of it it should be precisely the kind of thing I would love. Satirical, edgy, dark social commentary. And yet, I hated it. I didn’t finish it, I gave up. After something like thirty pages of references to nothing but labels I wanted to gouge my own eyes out. I genuinely don’t get the buzz that surrounds it and I’ve lost count of the number of people who have recommended it to me. ‘Irony for Dummies’ is a good label. The comment about it making its point in the first few pages and then hammering the same thing home again and again and again was precisely how I felt about it. It was so incredibly dull. And I know the author was trying to convey a sense of emptiness and, well, dullness, but then that to me should have been his challenge. How to convey dullness interestingly. Am I being pretentious when I say there is no challenge in describing a piece of shit as “just a piece of shit”? I mean, I can see the aesthetic statement in that, but I don’t think you can sustain it for a 300 page narrative, or can you?
Moving on, there was this one on the thread also:
“…This book is dull, repetitive and dated. The labourious plot has been lifted with limited competence from the Scooby Doo cartoon, complete with thrilling wig lifting scene and a subsequent lengthy explanation of a pointless deception.”
Yeah, I didn’t guess it from that either. I spent a week wracking my brains over Scooby Doo. This might help a bit more:
“I read this novel years ago and have just watched the BBC adaptation in the (vain) hope that I may have missed the point of the book. Prepared to give a dull story a second chance, how wrong I proved to be. The book has no points to make other than fatuous, obvious ones. And almost zero plot. If this is literary fiction, then God help us all. It puts style above content and has nothing to add to the life of anyone who sits past average on the great bell (end) curve of human intelligence.”
Hahah, I love vitriolic reviews. As an aside, one of my favourites was a review of the eponymous album by the band Yes which was reviewed in a newspaper upon its release with the single word “NO”. Anyway, I digress. The book above is Money by Martin Amis. Anyone who knows me knows I dislike Amis. That’s a big opinion to have I know, and partially it’s my problem. I read everything he ever wrote up to Time’s Arrow when I was a teenager because my A-Level English teacher had told me he was great and in my naivete I just assumed this was what literary fiction was and that I wasn’t clever enough to be getting it properly. Because of that Amis has become caught up in this web of shame/bitterness/spite I cast about myself when I decided to reject what other people told me was good and work things out for myself. I have to be fair and say I actually quite enjoyed Time’s Arrow, and I thought Einstein’s Monsters was ok, but everything else left me cold. “Style above content” – yes, yes, yes. That’s what I feel about Amis. Great style, remarkable style, but so what? What does it tell me about anything? I see the purpose of literary fiction to be the analysis of ideas and the transmission of these alternative points of view into my head to make me think more. Slipping into my IT persona, that is what makes literary books “fit for purpose”. Analogy time. If I bought a mobile phone that looked fantastic, that had loads of little design gizmos on it, touch-screen, useful little apps, it even made toast for me, that would all be great but I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t send a text or make a call on it. “Style above content”, style without substance – bells and whistles are useless if there’s nothing of any purposes beneath them.
Ok, one more. And this is the one that people berate me for. I’ll make it easy because this post is getting too long:
“The passages on whaling are the most interesting, and give an idea of what it must have been like to go after whales in hostile seas in a small open boat with hand-thrown harpoons. What happen to the whales after harpooning is described in fascinating and gruesome detail. Disappointingly Moby himself does not appear until the very end of this whale-sized book. But insted of building up tension the disjointed rambling nature of the book just generates frustration and impatience.”
God, I had three attempts at this one. I finished it by sheer willpower alone. The fifty or sixty pages that described the different species of whale left me wanting to go swimming with sharks. Digression upon digression upon digression. Where was the theme of manic obsession? I think it might have been in there somewhere, it just got buried under a mountain of other things far less interesting.
Ok, I’d better wind it up. My point (if I ever have a point) is this: don’t believe the hype. Just because ‘they’ (the mysterious they, the ones who appoint themselves to be guardians of our culture and our intellectual capability) tell you something is great, don’t just take their word for it. You’re free to disagree. And don’t think disagreeing makes you seem stupid. If you can articulate the reasons why you think something isn’t so brilliant, then go for it. I look back at the seventeen year old me and think, “what the hell was WRONG with you?” But, of course, I was only in the same trap we all blunder into in. I didn’t want to appear an ignoramus. If nigh on twenty years of studying literature has taught me anything it’s that the people who try and shout you down don’t know any more than you do. They have theories and arguments, that’s all, and opinions. Maybe I’ve been reading too much sixties literature, but we do as a society seem to appoint people with the tag of “expert” far too readily and then abstain from challenging their ‘learned opinions’. Big words do not an intellect make. Tell them what you think, let them deal with it.