Biting Off And Chewing
June 16, 2014 — 3:46

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Uncategorized  Comments: 9


The inspiration for this post comes from a review on Guy Savage’s blog, His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly, which I recently discovered thanks to fellow novelist and poet, Joan Kerr. Joan also hosts a sparkling blog, with her sister, under the pen name Gert Loveday.

Guy Savage criticises best-selling author Joel Dicker  for over-reaching himself, biting off more than he can chew, in Dicker’s recently published The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. I read the critique with a start of recognition, for it touched on something that I’ve been feeling increasingly myself, both in writing paid reviews for newspapers, and those I’ve undertaken for no payment, as an indie author and reviewer.

It’s a common fault with inexperienced, (often self-published) authors, that they reach – it seems unhesitatingly – for the sky, that the scope of their narratives is panoramic, while their prose is barely up to describing a blade of grass. Can this disparity, between ambition and skill, be dismissed as a form of hubris? Could it be a way of learning how to write? In the grasp and falling back, an author might well be discovering what is truly within his or her capacity. One can dare to fail. I’ve been guilty of that daring and that fault myself.

But these days, (perhaps like Guy Savage), I’m less willing to make allowances for best-selling authors, already secure in their stardom. Last year I reviewed, for the Fairfax newspapers, Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty, a title destined for the best-selling lists if ever there was one. I found it bloated, over-long, and redolent, more than anything else, of the author’s ego.

  • Interesting, Dorothy, that the savage review came from a guy named savage! What a great name for a critic! Perhaps a new pseudonym is in order, maybe Wanda Wasp? On a more serious note I’ll be damned if I know what makes a best seller and why anyone reads the books that sell in such numbers but are so bloated and unsatisfactory as fiction, as you say. There’s a very informative article in the latest Harper’s on the importance of the ‘canon’ and its history and why it’s been so challenged in recent years. By Arthur Krystal: what is Literature on the website.

    June 17, 2014 — 21:56
  • I love Wanda Wasp! Can picture her right down to her sharp, painted toenails! As I said in response to a comment on an earlier post, there’s a very nasty side to amateur reviewing. Guy Savage doesn’t belong to it at all; his reviews are thoughtful and focus on the book. But it makes you wonder about the well of hate that exists just under the surface of blogging and social media in general.
    I’ll look up that Harper’s article. In last Friday’s AFR there’s a terrific review of ‘The Novel: A Biography’ by Michael Schmidt. Perhaps covers some of the same ground.

    June 18, 2014 — 1:13
  • Dorothy:
    I don’t normally bother writing negative reviews as I am always behind with my reviewing and have a queue lined up, but in the case of the book mentioned, I felt that all the positive reviews out there screamed for a counterbalance. I realize that taste is subjective and that a novel one reader loves may repel another. However, this book needed severe editing. If you can take on almost 700 pages, I’d love for you to try to read this so that you could give me your opinion.

    June 18, 2014 — 1:14
    • Dorothy Johnston

      Thanks for your comment, Guy. I felt the same about Sarah Dunant’s ‘Blood and Beauty’. The hype stuck in my throat. I’ve wondered about it since – perhaps I was unfair, but I don’t really think so. In all my years of newspaper reviewing (which has tapered off of late), I rarely wrote a negative review. I’ll take a raincheck on Joel Dicker, though it would be good to compare notes…

      June 18, 2014 — 1:57
      • With negative reviews, sometimes I get the feeling that the reviewer goes beyond criticizing the book and ends up trying to show his/her own wit/discernment/talent. There’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about negative reviews: you have to consider taste, mood, genre etc. Plus then someone poured heart & soul (and years of life) into this creation. But in this case, even taking all those things into consideration, the book needed a good edit.

        June 18, 2014 — 14:43
  • Hi Dorothy, and thanks for the nice remarks about Gert Loveday. I’m always struck, when I see people reading on the train, by the enormous size of many of the books – which often seem to be sexy/ romance/blood and guts/sci fi….. people do seem to have an appetite for them, whereas I’m usually daunted by a book of great size (The Luminaries, among others…) And I wonder if the fairly formulaic nature of a lot of popular fiction makes people feel it isn’t so hard to do. Add to that your comments in an earlier post about reviewing , in the blogosphere at least. amounting to “I loved this”, “I didn’t like this”,241 which I would think has everything to do with the grab-factor of the story and not much to do with imaginative or technical skill.

    June 18, 2014 — 4:14
  • Thanks for continuing this conversation, Guy.
    As an author, you learn to roll with the punches of negative reviews, or else go mad quite quickly. It was a (feared) negative review of one of my books that got me started reviewing for the Sydney Morning Herald. Terrified that the review, which I’d been warned about, would appear on the morning I was destined to speak on a panel at a writers’ festival, I brazenly marched up to the then editor of the SMH and demanded that he give me a chance to show off my critical skills. And he said yes!
    With regard to the edit – do you think Dicker’s publisher might have been afraid to suggest it?

    June 19, 2014 — 2:16
    • I’m not an editor and have zero to do with publishing, but my guess (and it’s just that–no more) is that the novel was a huge success overseas so there was never a question of any big edit when it hit N. America. The changes needed were vast, so it wasn’t a matter of a touch up here and there.

      June 19, 2014 — 4:42
  • Good to hear from you, Joan, and all compliments about Gert are well deserved! I think you’re right about the ‘grab factor’ of the story, whereas I tend to feel cheated when I discover that there’s not much depth under the glitz and glitter. I also believe it takes a particular kind of imagination to write on an epic scale and make it work. Of course, when it does work, the results can be breath-taking.

    June 19, 2014 — 2:24
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