Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no self-respecting novelist or aspiring or actual literary star spoke of writing book reviews except as work dashed off to pay the grocer, replenish a wine cellar, or finance the abortions of a careless mistress. Editors doled out book reviewing assignments to support writers they believed in, who got drunk in the same watering holes or clubs, or had long ago been cricket or baseball-playing mates.
Some book reviews might have been incisive and elegant enough to be described as lapidary, but what mattered infinitely more than fairness to the book and writer under inspection was showing off well. Showing off about what? The speed at which a charming prose confection was constructed – the ideal result being the literary equivalent of iron claws in a velvet glove; an attack on a book that every chatterer who cared about remaining a member of the chattering classes was obliged to buy, boosting the circulations of book-reviewing publications. Complaints by authors about mistaken characterisations of their books, misquoting, abysmal incomprehension of them or other consequences of arrogant or desperate skim-reading, were treated as unsporting and ungrateful.
Now, that was book reviewing in the glory days of literary print culture, when its power was at its zenith. It has not lost all its sway yet. There is still a literary establishment and, as the example we will soon supply demonstrates, it was sufficiently self-confident a decade ago to imagine that its judgments would pass unchallenged.
That establishment is feeling rather insecure these days, as anyone following the spate of recent attacks on ‘citizen-reviewers’ and blogging book critics will have noticed.
Some of its arguments are eye-popping in their hollowness. We quote, for illustration, the tack of one of the most likeable old print pundits – Robert McCrum, the former literary editor of The Observer, who has endeared himself to many a commenter by replying politely to ferocious attacks on his credibility, even when addressed as ‘McCrumble’. Imagine post-Gutenberg’s astonishment at reading on the books-blogging site of a newspaper, last week, this McCrumbly description of a professional book review:
Before publication, it will be subjected to a prolonged and intense process of subediting. Crucially, it will be signed, and usually paid for. Compared with the raw material of your average blog, it has been refined and distilled to within an inch of its life.
None of this guarantees that such a review will not be savage, destructive, ad hominem or partisan, but it will be considered, …
Considered? … Really? That would mean putting the actual reading of subjects of reviews, and pondering, weighing and reflecting, above dashing off – cloddish clog-dancing by comparison with the impeccably executed, once-over-lightly pirouette still sanctioned in many a respectable home for print.
… Which brings us to the subject of Joanne Rowling, who has just published The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults, to deafening fanfare. The print literary establishment, discovering that she has, in spite of her success, written a better than respectable novel campaigning fiercely for have-nots, might have been a lot less astounded if its members had gone to the trouble of reading the books that made her famous. Because so many of them only deigned to notice her at all when she became odoriferously rich, they fell into the error of confusing her work with dim and, or, absurd mega-bestsellers, like the one built around a witless ‘code’ poor old Da Vinci would have choked on – which could only have been invented to make Dan Brown the agreeably tweedy and self-deprecating fat cat author he has become.
By contrast, any actual — adult — reader of the Harry Potter series might, like post-Gutenberg, have been most amused not by either the wizards or monsters but the social commentary at the edges of J. K. Rowling’s picture. Could any Londoner who has ever visited, say, the Department of Industry in Victoria Street, fail to explode in laughter, meeting its perfect fictional twin in Rowling’s Ministry of Magic – not just because of her descriptions of its atmosphere, its corridors and the attitudes and work ethic of the dispirited bureaucrats shuffling down them, but because of the delicious wheeze of including such an institution in this particular story?
At the start of the Harry Potter mania, one book-reviewing journalist and essayist, Pico Iyer, was given enough space in The New York Times to hang himself comprehensively – having managed, somehow, to read Rowling’s cod obvious political sympathies back-to-front. The most obvious point of his contribution in the dashed-off tradition was boasting about his educational pedigree. In his eagerness to use a consideration of Harry Potter’s success as a peg and excuse, he forgot to check that the parallels he drew were justified by any part of the boy magician’s adventures, or their framing.
As a boy, I went for many years to the Dragon School in Oxford. The rooms in which we lived were called ”Leviathan” and ”Pterodactyl” and ”Ichthyosaurus”
I mention all this because, as Harry Potter’s adventures conquer the nation … readers on this side of the Atlantic may not appreciate how much there is of realism, as well as magic, in the exotic tales of young sorcerers being trained at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The classical boarding-school process favored by the English middle classes is esoteric […]and Friday nights would find us bouncing up and down in our pajamas, reciting the principal parts of Greek irregular verbs. Every Sunday night, in our flowing black robes (we were known as ”tugs”), we would gather in a classroom dating from 1441 to sing hymns in Latin …
When I was at school, it was always assumed that all the years of quasi-military training (”Hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me,” the Hogwarts caretaker says) were meant to teach us how to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.
Well done, you! the weary reader of that extended exercise in feather-fluffing is liable to have exclaimed, as it ran on … and on. To the credit of the NY Times – never mind that it failed to vet Iyer’s reflections on Rowling the way Robert McCrum claims professional book reviews do — it promptly published, the following week, this deflating reaction:
October 31, 1999
To the Editor:
In his essay ”The Playing Fields of Hogwarts” (Oct. 10), Pico Iyer reveals a blinkered — i.e., thoroughly Mugglesian — misreading of J. K. Rowling’s intentions. Her Harry Potter books don’t ”recast” the elitist English boarding school experience ”in a positive light”; they are gloriously subversive.
Whereas English public schools have traditionally subjected their pupils to lives of Spartan deprivation, the food at Hogwarts is delicious and abundant. Students sleep in four-poster beds hung with velvet curtains. More telling than these details is that Hogwarts resembles a conservatory or any other meritocratic school for gifted children, not an establishment designed to train the children of the elite ”to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.”
Belonging to old magical families confers no special advantage on Hogwarts pupils; only talent counts. Both Harry and Hermione, one of his two best friends, receive letters inviting them to attend the school — and are plucked out of Muggles families because their innate talent for wizardry has mysteriously been discerned by Hogwarts administrators.
The prodigiously gifted J. K. Rowling is doing a great deal more than tweaking Iyer’s Etonian experience ”in a magical direction.” Contrary to his assertion, her theme is absolutely universal. She tells about both the vulnerability and the protective insulation that come with artistic talent, about the escape route that an imagination offers from the horrors of real life. To say that the charm of the Harry Potter books lies in ”their fidelity to the way things really are” is to grievously shortchange Rowling’s brilliance.
The writer of that old-fashioned, mediated citizen-review known as a ‘reader’s letter to the editor’ – the only chance a member of the public once had to draw the same reading audience’s attention to mistakes or idiocy inflicted on it – has scrupulously avoided becoming a professional assessor of books.
We could not agree more with Robert McCrum, pronouncing,
[T]he citizen journalist’s review is not the same as the professional critic’s.
Indeed not. As the woman who brought Potter to life said, in a BBC interview on her reasons for writing The Casual Vacancy:
Ultimately, the people who have read the book, who are not paid to have an opinion, are generally the best benchmark of whether you have done what you set out to do.