How to review a novel | Daily News
London Review of Books Editor on the Language of Criticism

How to review a novel

How do novel reviews begin? Just like novels very often:

Motherless boys may be pitied by mothers but are not infrequently envied by other boys.

For the friends of the Piontek family, August 31st, 1939 was a red-letter day.

All her life Jean Hawkins was obedient.

It looks as though the writers of these reviews have set out not to summarize the plot but to tell the story, with the drawback, from the novelist’s point of view, that readers may content themselves with the reviewer’s version. Other reviews begin with a different sort of story—the reviewer’s:

Halfway through Beryl Bainbridge’s new novel I found I was laughing until the tears ran down my cheeks.

Some start by characterizing the novel:

An aura of death, despair, madness and futility hangs over the late James Jones’s posthumous novel.

Others by characterizing the reviewer: “Count me among the Philistines,” says Jerome Charyn, inauspiciously, at the start of a review in the New York Times. Some begin with a paragraph on the novel now; some begin by addressing the reader:

You might not think there would be much wit or lyricism to the story of a subnormal wall-eyed Balkan peasant who spends 13 years masturbating in a pigsty . . .

Some kick off at the end: “Final Payments is a well-made, realistic novel of refined sensibility and moral scruple”; and others at the beginning: “The five writers under review have been browsing . . .”

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Different openings suggest different attitudes, both to the novel and to the practice of reviewing novels. There are ideologies of the novel and ideologies of the novel review, fictional conventions and reviewing conventions. They don’t necessarily overlap. A regular reviewer, confident of his own constituency, may describe a novel in terms of his own responses to it: he wouldn’t for that reason applaud a novelist for writing in a similarly personal vein.

What reviews have in common is that they must all in some degree be re-creations: reshapings of what the novelist has already shaped. The writer’s fortunes depend on the reviews he gets but the reviewer depends on the book to see that his account of it—his “story,” to use the language of the newspaper composing room—is interesting. Dull novels don’t elicit interesting reviews: not unless a reviewer decides to be amusing at the novel’s expense or tactfully confines himself to some incidental aspect of it. A generous reviewer may also invent for the novel the qualities it might have had but hasn’t got.

Although every novelist has had bad reviews to complain of, it sometimes seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state.

The most brusque reviews occur in the most marginal newspapers: “The new novel by Camden author Beryl Bainbridge,“ said the Camden Journal, “took just a few hours to read yet cost £3.95 . . . The story is fairly interesting, mildly amusing and a little sad.” A hundred years ago the most brutal things were said about novelists and their works (cf. Henry James on Our Mutual Friend: “It is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion”).

Today many literary editors, alert to the fact that the novel is under pressure, ask their reviewers to be kind and most of them are. Kind to the old novelist because he is old; kind to the young novelist because he is young; to the English writer because he is English (“all quiet, wry precision about manners and oddities”) and not American or German; to others because they are black (or white) or women (or men) or refugees from the Soviet Union. Every liberal and illiberal orthodoxy has its champions.

Failings are seen to be bound up with virtues (“there are rough edges to his serious simplicity”); even turned into them (“though inelegant and sometimes blurred, their heaviness and urgency create their own order of precision”); but seldom passionately denounced, and although every novelist has had bad reviews to complain of, it sometimes seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state.

The reasons have a lot to do with the economics of publishing. In the 1920s Cyril Connolly described the reviewing of novels as “the white man’s grave of journalism”: “for each scant clearing made wearily among the springing vegetation,” he sighed, “the jungle overnight encroaches twice as far.” The jungle has now dwindled to something more like a botanic garden (“it is a knockdown miracle that publishers continue to put out first novels,” noted a reviewer in the Times), and far from having to hack his way through the springing vegetation, the critic is required to give the kiss of life to each week’s precarious flowering.

“SAVE THE NOVEL,” implored the novelist Angus Wolfe Murray addressing reviewers. Only in the case of such writers as Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon, whose fortunes or morale he cannot affect, does the reviewer have the freedom to write as he pleases.

Given that the novel is to be saved, what claims do reviewers make for it? John Gardner in his book On Moral Fiction (1978) complains of the flimsiness of “our serious fiction”:

The emphasis, among younger artists, on surface and novelty of effect is merely symptomatic. The sickness goes deeper, to an almost total loss of faith in—or perhaps understanding of—how true art works. True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets towards the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.

But it is clear from the exhilarated comments they make that many reviewers regularly find in the novel they have been reading the kind of guidance and instruction Gardner has in mind:

In the vaunted creative process, he has transcended himself and given us an access to liberty.

Her book is full of lessons about the art of creative literature, and about life, and how each reflects and enhances and deepens the meaning of the other.

- Lit Hub


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