Monday, April 23, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Some months ago I wrote, for a newspaper, a less-than-positive review of a novel that dealt with a Big Historical Event in New Zealand’s history.

I judged it to be a very inept novel. I found the characters thin, the story melodramatic tosh, the style colourless hack-work and the “history” a cut-and-paste affair, with everything drawn from familiar and readily-accessible history books, any one of which was more worth consulting for the “history” involved than the novel itself was.

I concluded that the novel was acceptable as a book for younger teenagers (which was how it was indeed marketed by some booksellers), but could not be considered seriously as a work for grown-ups.

Some days after my review appeared, the newspaper forwarded to me an angry response to my review from one reader.

In his letter, the reader accused me of being an “intellectual snob” and being mean to the novelist, who is apparently a very nice person. But most vehemently of all, he accused me of being heartless. Didn’t I know that real people were involved in the Big Historical Event with which the novel dealt? Didn’t I know that they had suffered, just as the novel said they had? Why, the letter-writer had himself been to the site of the B.H.E., and had reflected on it, and had thought what a scandal it was that such a thing had happened in New Zealand, and thought that we should all remember it and learn from it.

So how dare I criticise a book that dealt with it?

I did frame a reply to this letter, and the newspaper was going to print both the letter and my reply – but in the end, they decided to run neither.

In a way, I’m glad.

The correspondent’s level of argument was pretty silly and replying to him was just too easy. Besides which, I have no objection at all to readers who answer back to reviewers. In fact, I think it’s healthy. It prevents reviewers from imagining that their judgments are unchallengeable.

For the record, however, here is what would have been my main arguments if I had rambled on longer than I actually did.

First, straight insults (such as “intellectual snob”) are not worth answering, and can be left out of consideration.

Second, how pleasant a person an author is has nothing to do with how much talent or lack of it that author has. (Check out my posting “The Song, Not the Singer” in the index at right). Many hopeless writers are very pleasant people.

But most important, in reviewing a book, one is reviewing the book, and not its ostensible subject. How the reader felt – or how I feel – about the B.H.E. itself has nothing to do with how well-written the book itself is, how convincing its characters are, how original the author’s insights are and all the other things that go into making a fair judgement on a book. Yes, I did know that real people had suffered and so forth – but I was not reviewing the historical event. I was reviewing the inept novel about the historical event.

I have encountered this attitude in some readers before. It really is the one that says if a novel deals with an important issue, then it must be an important novel. It tends to go hand-in-hand with the attitude that history is best learnt when packaged harmlessly into bestselling novels.

The answer is very simple.

Novels have merit only inasmuch as they are well-written.

It’s the writing, stupid. 

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