Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On Being Reviewed

I thought about not looking at the reviews for my new biography of John Scott Haldane, Suffer & Survive. maybe next time.

It really is an up and down thing. Up with the Literary Review, down with the Sunday Times, up again with the Times.

Lynne Truss in the Sunday Times was an odd one, attacking me for my use of particles, focusing on a single clause. Oh well. As e. e. cummings wrote:

who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

Then came the Times of the day before. Phew and hooray. Not only was the review by Peter Smith well written, it was kind and generous. Way beyond and above all that, he actually bothered to recognize what I was trying to do. I felt fulfilled. Being 'seen' in that way makes work worthwhile. As P. D. Smith, Peter Smith recently brought out his own book Doomsday Men, and took his doctorate in science and literature. What a sound step by the Times, and its splendid Saturday literary pages run by the admirable Erica Wagner, to give a book to a reviewer who is an expert in its field.

Still, reviewing is an odd business and I've not always been kind myself. V. S. Pritchett had a rule only to review what he could say something nice about. Not a bad rule, really.

(The picture is of J.S.Haldane (in the far right corner) in his lab set up at the top of Pikes Peak in 1911, courtesy of the Oxford Physiology Lab)


Blogger pundy said...

Er, I dunno. I'm uncomfortable with this post. I read you because you are that rare human being - someone whose probity and honesty I've believed is unimpeachable. Responding to your detractors in this way somehow diminishes you. Furthermore, not all criticism is wrong - even if you don't like it. Dismiss all your critics if you must - but do it with good grace, gently, not with vitriol.

They're only bloody reviewers after all.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks for that, Pundy. You're right.

First time I posted it, it oddly didn't go. I should have learned my lesson.

There was a certain 'getting things off my chest' involved, but then there's no need to load that onto other people. I'm afraid I've rendered your comment somewhat meaningless since I've gone back to this posting and stripped it way back ... but it served its purpose thank you. It was a worthwhile and appropriate correction. I felt rather sullied myself.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

By the way, you're also right, not all criticism is wrong. I approached the life of J.S.Haldane as a novelist - sourcing everything but still focusing on the narrative and doing away with such things as 'probably' and 'he must have'. I consciously imagine things as well. Did hummingbirds fly around the base of Pikes Peak when Haldane was there? I don't know. They did when I was there at the same time of year, and I extrapolate from that, as I do about the vegetation etc. In that same chapter, I discovered the whole story about early aviators in the town and on the mountain at exactly the same time, but make the connections between the two parties myself. I'm taking two things and imaging links between them that seem fairly certain to me, but don't trouble the narrative with stressing the speculative side. Let's not get in the way of a good story that seems well enough sourced. Some will enjoy that approach, while for others it is clearly anathema. Partly what threw me this time was the cruelty in some reviewers words (and worry, since one spiteful Sunday Times review for my first novel actually stopped paperback publication, even though it had fine reviews elsewhere and was Whitbread shortlisted, so there's a survival thing at stake) ... in other areas, elements that some reviewers particularly disliked were the same areas that others gave especial praise to, so they kind of cancel each other out.
I guess some practitioners place certain rules around how biography should be written, and you break them at your peril. I've enjoyed two biographies very much recently ... Maggie Ferguson's on George Mackay Brown and Walter Isaacson's on Einstein. Great stories and fine lives. Myself, I'm finding comfort and freedom in stepping away from the genre for a while, and writing fiction again. It's that precious time when a book is only yours and no-one else gets to intrude at all.
Thanks again, pundy, for directing me back to that time.

1:52 PM  
Blogger pundy said...

Martin, you've gone right back up in my estimation and I can read your posts with pleasure again. But I knew you would, because you're one of the good guys.

More importantly, I'm off to buy your Haldane book, filled with pleasurable anticipation.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

An excellent development! many thanks, and I do hope you enjoy it (feel free to let me know if you don't and I'll work on not minding!)

11:13 AM  

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