where the writers are
On Reviewing

Lately, while not writing draft after draft of a new screenplay, I’ve taken to writing reviews of some forthcoming books. I’ve only written one review in my career, a commissioned piece on Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (which, because the literary magazine which had paid me to do so never got around to bringing out their first issue, I published here at Red Room: http://www.redroom.com/blog/jp-smith/once-upon-a-review). Because I tend to publish these in online publications such as The Millions and The Nervous Breakdown (which, alas, don’t pay me for them), within editorial requirements and limits I can more or less choose what I’d like to review. Which makes life much more enjoyable.

I find that these days I don’t read a great deal of contemporary fiction, or rather less and less of it; I’ve been returning to books I read twenty years before or to nonfiction, or to books I missed reading twenty years ago that sit on my shelves begging to be taken down. A re-reading, as the cliché goes, is always a new reading. Time has passed, we’re older, we’ve experienced more: loss and gain, success and disappointment as the scales fall from our eyes and a certain wistfulness replaces the harder cynicism of our younger years. But there are those books by writers whose previous works have caught my attention, such as the new novel by Tom McCarthy, simply entitled C.

My review of it—it'll be linked here—is due out this week at The Nervous Breakdown, and reading an advance copy of the book was an interesting experience. Though out of habit I read as a writer would, never just from the outside, I have to remain aware that the audience for these reviews may not be authors but fans of McCarthy, whose Remainder was a critical success some years ago, anxious to see what this very interesting writer would come up with this time.

I’m currently reading for review Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which, though I’m only more than halfway through, I'm finding hugely enjoyable. I read a few excerpts from it in The New Yorker and knew then that I had to read the entire book. Perhaps it’s because of my Russian blood, but I’m drawn to the literature and history and indeed culture of Russia in the same way I’m drawn to English literature (gray damp climates have that effect on me), but not in the same way I’m drawn to French literature. Which is why I’m also looking forward to reviewing René Belletto’s novel Dying (Mourir in the original), forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press. I asked to review this, as I’ve known Belletto for some twenty years. He was the dedicatee of my fourth novel, The Discovery of Light, and we have remained faithful correspondents for all of that time. I’ve also read pretty much everything he’s written. Which makes reviewing him doubly difficult. So I want to be fair and judicious, and because this is a translation, focus to a large degree on whether I feel this is a reasonable rendition of the original material.

René Belletto has a very definite style which sets him apart from the writers he’s often grouped with in France—hugely musical (he’s an accomplished musician and composer and something of an authority on J.S. Bach), allusively literary, and drawing widely and wryly on tropes from the great B-movie classics of American film noir—his literary gestures are not grand; rather, he works exceptionally well in the details, wherein the devil resides (one of his novels is entitled l’Enfer—“Hell”); and yet his protagonists are almost to a person full of life and heart, capable of great delicacy and tenderness as well as intense, often thwarted, passion. Violence comes when it must, as does stillness, and out of that the first notes of a Bach prelude on piano. 

Reviewing fiction, especially for a working novelist, is a tricky proposition, much like, I’d guess, judging food if one’s a chef. One could take the Gordon Ramsay avenue (“This is shit!”) or be a bit more delicate about saying something not all that different. All sorts of emotions come into play, and all kinds of darker thoughts enter unbidden. If one reviews a contemporary writer who is making far more money and garnering far larger reviews than the reviewer, there is the natural tendency to pick out the bad bits and shine a light on them: the clunky dialogue on page twenty-seven, the cheap clichéd characterization of this character or that, and then it starts to get easy, this downhill slide into the mud, until at the end the reviewer comes out feeling all the better for having beaten to slag a writer who would probably be perfectly happy with a few column inches ending in the faintly-damning but acceptable, “A hugely enjoyable work full of promise.” 

My very first novel's very first review, in London's Times Literary Supplement, was not a positive one. It was a stand-alone review—a good thing, not having to share—and I still remember all these years later waiting for a tube train at Russell Square Station and opening the paper and seeing it there. My palms dampened; my hands trembled slightly. But reading it was cathartic, much as one's first fall from a horse always feels more like a rite of passage than a failure. Because, of course, you always get back up and try again. 

As someone who hasn’t published a novel for several years—time taken out to work on screenplays—but who has a manuscript currently on submission via my agent, and another novel in the planning, I have no desire to drag an author I’ve never met to the trashheap of ill-feelings and envy, and not just because one day he or she may have the opportunity to review me. Trashing a fellow writer in public has a ricochet effect; somehow, eventually, it turns the spotlight on the trasher, not the trashee. So I do try to point up the strengths of a book, of what caught my attention and kept me reading, but I also try to understand that every writer’s excellence is different to some degree from every other’s, and that ambition—even if the book in some way fails—sometimes is in itself an admirable thing.