I spagged off about this in an earlier post but I have an example that takes the cake. Last night I finished reading Nicola Barker’s monolithic novel Behindlings: an über-manic triumph for the imagination wired on a diet of speedball and Dr. Pepper. Barker is one of the most venerated novelists of her generation, winning the Impac Award at the turn of the millennium, and has been raking in the prizes and wonga ever since.
It’s no surprise, then, that this novel opens with three pages of praise from critics and adoring writers. Each disembodied quoter waxes on Barker’s outstanding prose talent: her stuttering maddening genius, her spellbinding disembowelment of language. This time, I agree. Barker is the sort of writer I adore – the risk-taking experimentalist hurling her talent at the reader in thick black buckets, whose words leave a gluey ecstatic splatter upon the reader, drenching them in daring.
Then again, Behindlings is a throbbing headache of a novel. Her language kept me smiling and giggling for the first 200 pages – when her talent knew no fault, when her loopy plots wrapped me in fuzzy love – but then… I hit a wall of total alienation. Barker had literally been spoon-feeding me so much brilliance, I burst. Each page became a sugary confection I was unable to swallow, lest my gut distend far and yonder.
The criticism in the opening pages, however had little to do with the book. No, the focus was on the writer. This is a common trick in the book-plug biz, of course. Keep the reader sweet by reminding them of the writer’s previous successes without drawing attention to the shortcomings of the novel they are about to read.
Behindlings was published to universally so-so reviews. Alex Clark’s review in the Guardian was doubting and dubious. Numerous internet hacks expressed disgust at having to wade through the porridge of her prose, probably not even making it to that elusive 534th page.
So what I propose is this. Deep breaths. Honesty. Yes – publish the good and bad reviews inside book sleeves. Let the reader get both sides. If I ever become a successful novelist, I will fight with the publishers to slap a few negative reviews among the positives. I will wrestle with them in vats of custard if need be.
Reading one not-wholly-positive quote amid dozens of positive ones isn’t going to sway me in the slightest. I prefer books that aren’t universally loved by everyone – usually they frustrate me.
So, listen to me, decision-makers. Bias is bunk. Honesty is bloody marvellous.