BRIDGET WHELAN writer

Muse, News and Views

More literary insults…and this time it’s personal

Harsh reviewA harsh review got an equally harsh retort this week, not from the author (authors are always told to keep quiet about bad reviews), but a clearly angry man who had helped to propel the novel into the international limelight .

The book is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the 2014 Booker, and the  reviewer – poet Michael Hofmann – quoted Oscar Wilde, saying the book about a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the Thailand-Burma railway during World War II would require a “heart of stone to read without laughing”.

He goes on: “You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew.” He  ends his lengthy review with the observation that the novel, based on the experiences of the author’s father, had undergone numerous drafts “…Flanagan using those that didn’t make it to ‘light the barbie’. I can’t help thinking this wasn’t the right one to spare.”

Flanagan’s champion is Professor AC Grayling, chair of the Booker judging panel who had already made his feelings clear when the winner was announced: “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize but this year a masterpiece has won it”

In response to the review, he wrote that “…either Hofmann cannot read, or he has such a narrow and fantastical notion of what a novel should be that he is unable to see quality when it hits him in the face. I plump for the former.” The review must have been written on a “bad haemorrhoid day” which I guess is the male equivalent of a woman being told that it must be her time of the month.

You can read the review and the comment HERE

 I also popped over to Amazon UK to see if reviewers had equally truculent attitudes. The answer is yes.

Amazon 399 reviews in total
244 five star and 28 one star.

Here’s a taste:
Five Star
“…reminded of The Road, but also Hamlet, Brief Encounter, Slaughterhouse Five, Heart of Darkness, Don Quixote… Flanagan has something profound to say about life, love, death and war. I can’t see how he could have written a better novel”

“His use of language was in parts so brilliant and evocative that I had to read certain paragraphs over and over again I was so impressed.”

“Every story builds a better understanding of the characters and as a consequence, they were so engaging that I found myself slowing down as a read, trying prolong my time with them. And I am not ashamed to say I cried several times.”

One Star
“…four hundred cruel pages, the archetypes, the endless, numbing repetition of cliché’d conversations, page after page of stupid upper-class twits and evil nips and tragic salt-of-the-earth blokes far from their earth-salt homes and honest hard-working under-appreciated not-men wives; starved of insight or originality, sustained only by tiny morsels of stale authorial agenda.”

“This sub-literary, overblown collection of clichés should never have found a publisher, let alone won any sort of prize.”

Are you influenced by reviews? Should bad ones go unanswered?

I would want AC Grayling on my side in a fight but shouldn’t he have attacked Hofmann’s argument and not the man himself? Haemorrhoids haven’t got much of a place in literary criticism…

photo credit: beneneuman via photopin cc

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7 comments on “More literary insults…and this time it’s personal

  1. Norah
    February 2, 2015

    Interesting! I haven’t read the book, but enjoyed Anne Goodwin’s review http://goo.gl/UWdGMX, so was also interested to read this.

    • bridget whelan
      February 2, 2015

      Thank you for the link Norah and allowing me to discover Anne Godwin’s fascinating blog. I don’t recognise the book Hofmann reviewed in her thoughtful reflection on Flanagan’s novel. She has titled her review How to Live After Survival which seems to sum up the subject the author was trying to address.

      • Norah
        February 3, 2015

        I thought you might enjoy it. 🙂

  2. Jane S
    February 2, 2015

    Thanks for posting this interesting debate. I haven’t read the book either, and won’t try it after reading this review. The quotations selected remind me strongly of the previous year’s winner, Eleanor Catton’s marathon effort.
    http://teambooklover.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Booker%20Prize
    We’re told to show not tell, and both books are guilty of a lot of telling. I suppose the answer is in the genre: “novel” = new. Supposed to break the rules. Doesn’t mean it has to be good.

    • bridget whelan
      February 2, 2015

      I’m inclined to think there’s more heat than light in Hofmann’s review. And it is, after all, only one person’s very subjective perception…it hasn’t put me off, but I was surprised by the reaction from AC Grayling. Reminded of a line from a Johnny Cash song…he wrote it “in a fever” A I book that can arouse such passion is an interesting one – the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that this isn’t an easy book. I’m not sure I’ll like it, but I think I should give it a go…

  3. Annecdotist
    February 2, 2015

    I suppose we all look for different things in novels. I loved The Narrow Road to the Deep North (thanks, Norah, for linking to my review) but, when it’s won such an important prize, I actually think it’s okay for those who didn’t like it to be extra critical, because they’re responding not just to the novel itself but to the hype around it. Interesting mention of Eleanor Catton – I gave up on The Luminaries after about 100 pages of going nowhere.

    • bridget whelan
      February 2, 2015

      Thanks for coming by Anne. I enjoyed your review and I feel I learned a lot from it (and not just that you liked the book).

      I’d like to quote a few lines as it offers a different insight:

      ‘…. the novel sets off in a way that makes demands of the reader, with a fragmented timeline and dialogue that eschews the conventions of quotation marks. Yet persistence pays off and I quickly warmed to the style and characters sufficiently to see me through the gruelling central chapters…

      By following the characters on both sides of the conflict into their post-war lives, the novel pushes the reader to question how ordinary life, and love and beauty, can continue after and alongside such extreme acts of human cruelty…’

      Read it in full here http://goo.gl/UWdGMX

      I’m not surprised that a book that tries to explore such a difficult area of human expereince chooses to break literary conventions and takes risks with narrative structure. You’ve convinced me: I will read it.

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