A review of the Review

Weekends have their rituals, and along with church, laundry and the daytime company of my son and husband, my ritual is the Saturday Guardian.

The Guardian is a daily paper, available in print and online, but the Saturday version is the fat one. The one with Supplements.

In this house the bits that are tossed aside for recycling or stuffing wet shoes are the Travel, Cooking and Sport sections, except during Wimbledon and the Olympics, of course.

The one that I read, but have been pondering lately, is the Review.

Heavyweight (literally) Reviews are odd things. The Guardian isn’t the only one: The Times Literary Supplement is even famous enough to be known by its initials.

The Guardian one has some nice little features. “My working day” by writers is naturally of interest, though they mostly say “My day varies a lot – I drink coffee and get distracted – is this a real job?” and it’s a bit depressing not to recognise their names. There is also an occasional letters page, which is amidst stiff competition the most nit-picky part of the whole paper, but is accompanied by excellent cartoon strips by Tom Gauld, several of which I’ve got pinned up in the house.

There are sometimes short stories, interviews and articles (covering Art as well as Books) and recommendations by 20 famous people for Christmas or summer reading.

But mainly it’s reviews. This is where you go to find out what books have been published

Most of them will be very serious stuff. Novels by Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen and the like. Books that cost between £15 and £20, because they’re in hardback.

What normal person buys hardback fiction?

Hardback fiction is for a) children under 5; b) libraries; c) the later books of a series that has become surprisingly successful and cliff-hangery, so that the publishers can make more money. Yes, we have a complete set of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Chronicles, five in paperback and one in hardback, because I was hooked, and didn’t want to wait for the paperback version. Don’t let’s get started on George RR Martin and JK Rowling.

But this means that I may read a review of a novel, and I’m not going to buy it, or probably even look at it in a bookshop, for months and months before (if it and I are lucky) it’s released in a normal person-friendly version. By which time I will have forgotten the review.

(Before you start shouting “Ebook, Wallace! Kindle!” – I can’t see any reference to ebooks in the Reviews, even of books aimed at young adults.)

But still I can feel knowledgeable, because I’ve read a review of Jonathan Franzen, even if I haven’t read the book…

I still remember my fury when the fifth volume of “Song of Ice and Fire” wasn’t deemed worthy of a review. It was already an extremely widely-read series, and its publication an event. Nowadays the Review is less snobbish, and reviews Dan Brown.

Admittedly there is the “Also in paperback” section, and the regular round-up of crime and SF/fantasy, two paras per book. I suspect that these are the bits that actually get people to buy books.

Then there’s the non-fiction. This is where it gets somewhat surreal.

Say some noted biographer or historian has spent years researching or writing a tome. It might be “I am the Walrus: An Analysis of Animal Life in the Lyrics of Lennon and McCartney”. Or “The Life, Unacceptable Opinions and Letters of Oswald Mosley”. One would think that they’d like people to buy and read this work. That is the point.

But what they get in the posh papers is a review that is very little about their book, and much more about the actual subject. By the time I’ve read the full review, I’ve found out as much as I need about Oswald Mosley (hooray for me). I come to the penultimate paragraph: “Stiggins has put the facts together, but lacks a sense of why they matter. He does provide a useful check against the more hagiographical biography by Jones in 1953, but he lacks convincing evidence for his wilder speculations. His style soars at times; but is generally pedantic. A thorough proof-reading would have reminded him to check his dates.”

Or whatever.

Now I know all I want to know about Mosley, and I can feel superior to Stiggins, who has done all the work!

Last week’s Review contained Kathryn Hughes’ very laudatory review of a book called “A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade the Forged the Modern Mind” by Rachel Hewitt. The decade in question is the 1790s, and I now know some interesting anecdotes about Mary Wollstonecraft and Robert Southey. Kathryn Hughes always writes an entertaining review.

I’m not going to spend £25 on the book itself. Poor Rachel Hewitt.

Morally, I’m a bit torn. Reading the Review gives me the arrogant delusion that I, even I, am an intellectual heavyweight, able to appreciate Stiggins and his like. This is probably bad for me.

But on the other hand sometimes I’m just reminded of how many great books and writers there are out there that I haven’t read or even heard of, but that better-informed people know. This can be humbling.

(I think I’ve read about two books purely on the basis of the Guardian Review: “God is No Thing”, reviewed a few weeks ago here, and Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Visitation”, which was also good.)

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS My favourite Tom Gauld cartoon shows a (presumably fictional) king receiving reports of the battle. “Not good, my liege… At this rate we will be utterly defeated before the day is out.” The king is equal to the emergency: “Release the historical inaccuracies!”

  • Stephen Hall

    1st November 2017 at 9:53 am Reply

    I’ve been subscribing to the London Review of Books this year (also affectionately known by its initials), and its reviews are exactly as you describe. They’re great. There is no way I am ever going to read ‘Foreign Relations of the US, 1952-54, Iran’ (970 pages) or ‘The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present’ (an admittedly more manageable 360 pages), but I am likely to finds the time to read these excellently written reviews, which will provide me with the top 10 Wow moments from the book (or at least the interesting snippets, and all I’d probably have remembered if I had read it), plus the interesting views and knowledge of the reviewer (presumably also an expert in the subject). In effect it’s two for the price of one.

    Unfortunately the LRB is only 25% made up of such reviews, the rest of the space being taken up by fiction reviews (25%, I never bother with these), pro-Palestine opinion pieces (25%) and Trump-angst hand-wringing (25%).

    • Penelope Wallace

      2nd November 2017 at 9:13 am Reply

      If we were on Facebook, I would “Like” this comment.

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