Do you remember when you had your exam results published at school or university? If you’d done well, all good; in fact, if you’d done particularly well, it was an opportunity to enjoy the acclaim and envy of your peers. If you hadn’t done well, however, it could be grotesquely embarrassing and disappointing, as you dealt with a mixture of sympathy and condescension before you slinked off into a corner somewhere.
Any author on the verge of publishing a new book will know this feeling all too well, as it’s what happens quite frequently. After the years-long process of writing, editing, publicising and generally getting excited about your latest work, it’s left to the critics to offer their judgement, and there is, inevitably, nowhere left to hide. The best-known –or best-connected – writers can rely on the fine art of log-rolling; that is, having their friends review their books favourably. However, this can backfire, as less elevated hacks often take the chance to pile into their better known colleagues with a glee and vitriol that can be giddying in their nastiness; my own favourite example is Tibor Fischer’s demolition of Martin Amis’s Yellow Dog, which deserves to be quoted in full:
‘It isn’t bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad. I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo, but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page). It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.’
So one hopes to avoid being Fischer’d. But it’s never a given. There are some critics who have made their names as the hard men of criticism, prowling round the magazines and newspapers, poisoned pens poised to strike on some below-par novel, some overlong memoir or factually flawed history. These people might be inadequate in other regards (something about troubled home lives, and disappointments in key aspects of romance), but on paper, they are all-powerful and regarded with fear and suspicion by the industry. To obtain a rare good review from one of these behemoths of book-slaying is an achievement so remarkable that grown men have been known to weep in relief.
Then there is the wider and larger tier of criticism, which talks less about a book’s merits and more about the reviewer’s own boundless pool of knowledge. One review of my first book literally said nothing about its merits or flaws until the last sentence, and then allowed that ‘The final chapters are honourably moving’. Better this than a pan, of course, but it can be frustrating. However, the exhilaration and relief of getting a good review – anything from an approving nod to a flat-out rave – is a feeling like nothing else for the writer. It can make one’s day, one’s week and make one believe that all the effort and toil was worth it.
Of course, it’s true that even the most caustic of reviews still draws attention to the book’s existence, and no writer would like not to be covered. So the copies for the attention of critics are sent out, and fingers are tightly crossed. And, if the review is bad, one can at least remember the words of the composer Max Reger, who wrote to a hated critic to say ‘I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.’ Words to live by.
Byron’s Women by Alex Larman, is published by Head of Zeus and available in hardback at all good stockists. And, no, we’ve not reviewed it.