A Quick Read

Here is a true story:

A few weeks ago a reader sent me for signature a hardback first edition of my novel The Affirmation. This was published in May 1981 by Faber. It’s a scarce edition and this copy had been well looked after. I duly signed it and looked for a padded envelope in which to return it. However, just before sliding the book into it I noticed there was a Faber review slip tucked into the copy.

Underpaid reviewers often sell on their copies to dealers and it’s not unusual to find these slips in secondhand copies. I wondered idly who might have reviewed this particular copy. It couldn’t have been the present owner as I happened to know he is less than 30 years old. Seeing that review slip was a little like glimpsing a sort of time-tunnel to my own past. I well remember the early summer of 1981, when I had many hopes pinned on that novel.

I turned the review slip over. The back of it was covered in handwriting, hasty notes scribbled in fountain pen. Here were a reviewer’s thought processes in action!

Now, I have always felt there was something a bit fishy about the way The Affirmation was reviewed, thirty years ago this month. It didn’t just get a “mixed press”, in the words of the euphemism, but the reviews gave me a feeling I can only describe as vacuum. A few of the reviewers were generally positive, but most of them rebuked me for reworking what they saw as a familiar theme: a novel about writing a novel, a young writer struggling to express himself.

For example, there was someone called “M.R.”, who wrote for the Catholic Herald, and he or she said the novel was “prosaic”, but added (with fabulous apathy) that it was “never sloppy and full of unexpected excitement.” Then there was Andrew Sinclair in The Times, who said it was “not engaging.” Mike Aitken (The Scotsman) said it was “a novel about madness,” but added that “the reader loses interest.” Someone in the Irish Press said “the whole thing smacks of the factitious; and a rather colourless, deadpan narrative does not help.” Martin Seymour-Smith (Financial Times) scolded me for writing about the nature of fiction: “This is dangerous ground.”

Finally (I am not a masochist, so this is the last one for now), John Naughton in The Listener said:

The Affirmation tackles that quintessentially modern fraud, the man in search of his identity. In this case, he hunts for it by writing a fictional, and rather precious, autobiography. His creator then mixes this with a straightforward chronological narrative. The result confuses not only the hero – who seems as baffled at the end as he was at the beginning – but also the reader, who wonders why the whole rigmarole was entered into in the first place.”

Until this review slip turned up unexpectedly I had completely forgotten those reviews from so long ago. The Affirmation somehow survived its critical drubbing and has remained in print more or less ever since. It has been translated into several languages, it won a Dittmar in Australia as best novel of the year, and was short-listed for a couple more prizes in Britain and the USA. It is still around – in 2011 Gollancz will be reissuing it as one of their Masterworks series.

When a novelist gets bad reviews, there is a security blanket that helps ward off drastic reaction – such as suicide. The writer becomes convinced that the bloody reviewers could not have read the whole thing, that they must have skipped most of it and therefore missed the point.

I too was wrapped in that blanket, because I knew something about The Affirmation that many of its glummest critics appeared not to. The novel does not go on as it begins. True, the story opens with an unhappy young man heading off to a friend’s country cottage, there to try to “find himself” through writing, but not only was this a fairly conscious piece of mild satire on an admittedly over-familiar gambit, it was by no means the whole story. Some 180 pages of the novel follow the completion of the young man’s writing, and there are, if I may say so, several unexpected reversals to come. Indeed, The Affirmation has over the years given many readers a few shocks, some with startling effect. I still get letters from readers who have enjoyed, so they say, the feeling of a trapdoor suddenly opening beneath their expectations, or the rug being pulled out from under them.

The unhappy memoirs in the cottage are just the first moves in a complex story, and we soon proceed beyond them. Furthermore, this was my first attempt at writing a Dream Archipelago story at novel length, a locale that isn’t obvious from the first twenty pages or so.

Looking at those old reviews now I’m convinced (as I was in 1981) that within the short time allowed by a newspaper deadline, or the temptations of the next book on the pile, few of the reviewers persevered beyond the first few pages of The Affirmation. Let me say at once that they still might not have liked the novel any more if they’d gone on to the end. That’s fair enough, but I’m certain the reasons they would dislike it would not be the same.

All this was brought to mind by the handwriting on the back of the review slip. The first hasty words are: “After 20 pp. Principal limitation is one of imagination.”

He or she stopped reading at page 20! Was it just a pause, or was it the place where critical objectivity was abandoned? It’s hard to be sure, but the note looks like an uninterrupted scribble. It’s not a draft of a review – these are the sort of aides-mémoire reviewers note down before they start writing. I have done it myself, still do.

Here are some of the scribbles (there is a facsimile JPG at the end of this post): “Not of itself interesting … Yawn … So what … [It] suffers from colossal limitations.”

There doesn’t seem much chance of a favourable review coming out of these notes.

My curiosity was aroused. Who was this reviewer who gave up so early? No signature, of course, and no other clues about who it might be.

But there was one indirect clue. There’s more than one reference to a novel by David Pownall, with whom the scribbler dismissively compares me. It seems this novel was in the same batch. “Pownall – creates a whole world, unusual & [illegible] & surprising. Priest – self-absorbed, parochial imagination &, one imagines, self-indulgent.” It was this comparison with David Pownall that sent me in search of my ancient folder of clippings, lying deep and forgotten in my filing cabinet for three decades. I discovered from their faded print and browning paper that Mr Pownall did indeed have a new novel published at the same time (Beloved Latitudes, 1981), and moreover that it was reviewed in tandem with my novel in five newspapers. One of those reviewers therefore seems likely to be the scribbler of the aide-mémoire.

Not, though, Janice Elliott (Sunday Telegraph), as she liked my novel. Nor Nina Bawden (Daily Telegraph) who cautiously commended it. Anthony Thwaite (The Observer) gave it an even-handed notice and had clearly read past the first 20 pages, so it was not him.

Two reviewers remain. One is Peter Ackroyd (in the Sunday Times), the other is John Linklater (Glasgow Herald).

On the face of things Mr Ackroyd appears to have managed to get past page 20. His review refers, for instance, to the island landscape in which my protagonist finds himself. More exactly, he quotes a moral dilemma about “self-deceit and self-embellishment”, which appears in the text of the novel on p.117.

However, telling details can be discovered in a quick skim, as well as in an attentive read. Mr Ackroyd’s review tends to suggest he was skimming. He accurately reports, for instance, the opening pages of my novel, but a sense of imprecision clouds the rest. Then there is a comparison with David Pownall’s novel, a dismissal that is there in the scribbles. I am accused of self-absorption, as in the notes. And Ackroyd complains that the narrator keeps on asking the same question: “What is real and what is imaginary?” No he doesn’t; not even once. Bad guess there, Mr Ackroyd.

Finally, John Linklater. His review of The Affirmation is so short it looks more than anything else like a grudging footnote to his glowing reviews of other novels reviewed in the same column. Like Ackroyd, Mr Linklater is vague about most of the novel after the memoir-writing at the beginning. He fell through none of the trapdoors I had laid for him, or else by a superhuman feat of the imagination he anticipated them and was therefore underwhelmed by them. Again, there is a negative comparison with Mr Pownall’s book – Beloved Latitudes is “a magnificent feat of the imagination,” while my novel is “an exploration of an imagination which, one suspects, is of principal interest to its author.” And once again I am described as “self-absorbed.”

Either of these reviewers therefore could have been the scribbler, but there is nothing certain. And the truth is that after all this time it hardly matters. A few thoughts do however arise from this minor literary detective story.

In the first place, it’s obvious that reviews have little impact on the success or otherwise of books. They might depress or cheer the author on the day they appear, and they might give a line or two to a copywriter having to come up with a blurb, but they don’t make or break a book’s career. My self-absorbed, self-indulgent, parochially imagined, unengaging, factitious, colourless, deadpan, colossally limited novel has looked after itself OK for the last thirty years.

It also raises the idea of what might best be described as a code of honour which should be observed by reviewers. If they haven’t read the whole of the book they have been sent, they have three options.

They should declare exactly how far into it they read, then review on that basis. If they don’t want to do that, they should not declare the omission but pretend or imply that they did in fact read the whole book and give it a dishonest but favourable review. The third option is not to review it at all. The third is the only one with integrity, and is to be preferred.

And one other thing. Reviewers should be careful about leaving bits of paper in their copies when they sell them. You never know into whose hands the books might fall.

The scribble

BOMBER COUNTY – Daniel Swift (2010, Hamish Hamilton, £20, ISBN: 978-0241144176)

This is perhaps the best book I have yet read about the WW2 RAF Bomber Command campaign. There is almost none of the usual wartime stuff of bombs, bombers, dams, flak, Dresden, firestorms. Instead it is a book about abandoned airfields in windswept Lincolnshire, the search for lost men, lives broken by the war, wreckage found in the sea, missing relatives, scraps of information discovered in the effects of dead aircrew… and above all about literature and poetry. This is how the war was written about, and who wrote it. The book is the most moving I have read about WW2, and indicates I believe, a growing understanding of the truth about the brave young men who flew against the German cities. Not before time. Cover painting by Paul Nash.


SPITFIRE WOMEN OF WORLD WAR II – Giles Whittell (2007, HarperPress, £20, ISBN: 978-0007235353)

The book is a tie-in with a TV programme, describing the small band of women flyers of the Air Transport Auxiliary, who delivered newly built aircraft from the factories to operational airfields. Of necessity, the young women were nearly all from a slice of pampered and leisured pre-war society, who had had the money and means to learn to fly. The outbreak of war brought down most of the British class system, with not the least impact on these women. They flew any and every kind of aircraft, from single-engined fighters, to seaplanes and four-engined bombers – usually without any tuition, always single-handed (without a crew, even on the big planes). They often had to navigate by dead reckoning. Treated at first with derision by the operational pilots (all male, of course), they quickly showed that they were the equal of any of them.


BERLIN AT WAR – Roger Moorhouse (2010, Basic Books, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0465005338)

One of the relatively untold stories of WW2 is what happened to the ordinary German civilians who suffered under the RAF air raids on the cities, what degree of ruination was caused and what the German authorities did about it, during and after hostilities. It is only comparatively recently that German historians have started to research this.

Moorhouse is a British writer, and his subject is restricted to the story of Berlin (by no means the worst affected city).


Chill – Peter Taylor (Clairview Books) 978-1-905570-19-5

ChillA calm summary of and argument for the science of global warming, the author’s position being basically that although mankind is obviously responsible for some of the greenhouse gases and pollution affecting the world, most of the problem arises from natural causes. The book is eloquent and persuasive, and handy to have around if you get into an argument on the subject, but I keep an open mind. April 2011 in Britain was the hottest and driest April on record, and now in May the Kent crop of strawberries is ready, delicious and delicate – and a month early. They grow wine grapes on the hillsides around my English town. The sea level rises by about half a centimetre a year. (22 May 2011)

Almost right

To the launch and private view of the new exhibition at the British Library, ingeniously titled Out of This World. The atrium at the BL building was crowded with familiar faces. The catering staff were walking around with silver make-up on theirs. Proceedings were launched by a well-constructed speech from China Miéville, in which he emphasized the diverse nature of fantastic literature: the long period of time over which it has been written, the number of important women writers who have emerged, the contribution made by writers from non-white backgrounds and countries abroad. Deservedly cheered, Miéville’s speech was immediately followed by a promotional video that emphasized the important role played by American actors, television producers, UFOs and light sabres. No women writers – in fact, no writers of any kind. “Was it all in vain?” it asked at the end. Yes, mate, it was all in vain. China himself seemed unperturbed at the way his intelligent remarks had been sabotaged by this familiar and disconnected rubbish. However, down in the basement, where the main exhibition was mounted, we noticed the number of books on display, under glass but sensitively presented in an attempt to convey the history of the literature. Pity about the large model of the UFO apparently sucking a victim into its maw, the police callbox from Doctor Who, and a half-hearted attempt at a Martian fighting machine: you can’t help groaning inwardly at the sight of this unoriginal stuff, yet again, once more, dull and obvious and irrelevant, so much on the fringe of literature. Film and television science fiction has been the secondary, derivative activity: the work of writers, the publishing of books, is where the real work goes on, and has gone on for more than a century. One doesn’t wish to bite the hand that gives you a free glass of wine and sushi, but you can’t help feeling that the major literature repository in the country should understand the difference.

Another damned label

General fiction, mainstream fiction, literary fiction … some of the more interesting writers around me (Mike Harrison, China Miéville) have hit on the idea of categorizing literary fiction as just another genre, intended as a kind of answer to a critic called John Mullan.

Mullan is Professor of English at University College, London. He specializes in 18th century fiction and in recent months has started turning up almost everywhere books are mentioned so that he can air his opinions. This busy man, who reminds us at every opportunity he is a Professor, gains his authority by sheer persistence. He shows a dullard’s disdain towards genre fiction, as he sees it, without betraying any apparent familiarity with the best work or the best writers in the categories he dismisses. Miéville has argued in public with Mullan about this, and today goes a stage further with the argument: he calls literary fiction “litfic” and is quoted in a profile in the Guardian Books section as saying things like this: “My issue with litfic is not that it is a genre but that (a) it doesn’t think it is and (b) it thinks it’s ipso facto better than all the ones that are genres.”

As his dislike immediately zones in on a mediocre novel by Ian McEwan called Saturday, you can’t help briefly nodding in agreement. He describes Saturday as “a paradigmatic moment in the social crisis of litfic”. That’s not exactly what I thought of McEwan’s dismal effort, but Miéville’s feelings are clear enough.

Hang on, though — what’s all this anthropomorphism?

“… it doesn’t think it is“. Who or what is this thinking entity called it? How can “litfic” have any thought at all? How can it have a social crisis?

If it is anything, litfic is a number of novels and short stories by a number of writers.

A similar number of novels and short stories makes up the genre known as science fiction. The usual objection to the term “science fiction” is about the label and the assumptions many people make when they hear the label applied. The alternatives, “sf” and “sci-fi”, are just as bad, and in the case of the latter worse and more extreme.

The objection is not to the type of fiction it allegedly describes, because the use of the fantastic as a metaphor goes back to the very beginnings of fiction, and distinguished, influential and entertaining examples of fantastic literature abound, past and present. I believe it is one of the most interesting, difficult and rewarding areas in which a contemporary writer can work. The real objection to the term is that any label induces first of all an orthodoxy (“this is or is not science fiction”) followed by laziness. Lazy writers fall back too easily and too often on genre tropes, lazy readers accept anything at all with the label in place because they assume special conditions apply, and lazy critics like John Mullan depend on a general concept based on TV series their children watch and a few poor books they happen to have read, and don’t have the energy or will to investigate further.

For China Miéville to cite or create or claim a new genre, an alleged balance against another, an argument for one genre being an argument against the other, etc., only muddies the water. It adds a new wrong to an existing wrong, and fails to make a right. It’s all very well mounting a case against an under-achieving and over-praised writer like Ian McEwan, but how would that case stand up against (e.g.) Roberto Bolaño, Graham Greene, Jerzy Kosinski, John Fowles, Chuck Palahniuk, Ivan Bunin, Anna Kavan, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Dickens, Richard Powers …? It’s obvious nonsense even to try.

In the same way, does a generalization about Isaac Asimov apply also to the work of J. G. Ballard, Mike Harrison, myself, China Miéville, Alastair Reynolds, Lauren Beukes, Brian Aldiss, Ian McDonald …?

There are only individual books written by individual writers.

China Miéville is a young writer of great potential, with an attractive and adventurous use of language and a willingness to take intriguing risks with his work. In person, he has a pleasant manner and speaks well. He’s on the up and up. But I think he should be deeply wary of genre arguments. Genre is a trap for those who wish to be individual or bold, and in a telling way what I’ve read of China’s work is at its weakest when it strays into genre territory. He was quick to endorse the sub-genre “new weird”, and the great wall of orthodoxy is already looming around that. Other partitions are being erected around him: he should reflect on the fact that the profile I’ve quoted from appeared as a centrefold in a Guardian “Science Fiction Special”. Leave great walls to the other China, I say.