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