Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Inconvenience of Hype

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.


  1. If you need a tag team member for that custard wrestling, I've got some experience and make a pretty good second.

    I think you're right that the reviewers set us up. Nobody could live up... I just don't review them unless I see a name of a particular author I am very curious about. I spend a few years in advertising and GET the point, but I think your angle deserves more consideration.

    I am curious about the book now though... maybe in the baby bites I tend to consume dense books it will be okay... the box of chocolate is better over a month than all in a night.

  2. My experience of most professionals is - they ain't!
    The freshies, the newbies, the still hungry, yes they usually either are or on their way to being professional. Not the rest.
    This includes marketing and publicists.

    It's like a cop or a judge that constantly deals with one strata of society - they become cynical and blind.
    I always demand, but never get, that people should be forced to take a sabbatical in a totally different, and opposite, area - just to freshen and revitalise.

    What you are quoting is the "This is the way it's always done, it works" - stated but lacking a reality check.

    It's the world we live in, and the mutual appreciation society, the "You're now in our club so we will support you no matter what" brigade are too comfortable to change.

    I had high hopes for the internet world. So far - though - I am being disapointed. I shouldn't have been surprised.

  3. Tart: I recommend Barker. She's impressively voluminous.

    Mike: Agreed on the mutual appreciation society. Shameful.

    Re the internet: do you mean in general or regards the blogging world?

  4. Mark:


    I'm fine with blogging, a totally mixed bag - as it should be.
    It's changing the face of politics in Malaysia, where the press are (forceably or otherwise) in the government's pocket. Bloggers show, say and discuss what the press don't/won't.

    The bloging effect on publishing - the jury is still out.

    e-publisher's, on the other hand, are going into the same cul-de-sacs and self-congratulatory holes as traditional publishing.

    The plus is also the minus - so much available, everyone is scrambling for the profitability model - and so far, mainly failing to find it.

    So, despite the high hopes of the "publishing credits so give it cheap or free" brigade, authors still haven't found a way to even partially live off what they produce.
    Fine for hobbyists. For the rest, nothing has changed.

    Maybe comics (no, not X-men etc) are the semi-replacement, but the author's lot has radically reducd with the death of the short story/weekly episode magazines for non-cowboy,vampire, sci-fi stories.

    Dickens, H.G., Doyle, etc, would be dead in the water these days.

  5. Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy expressed similar thoughts in a recent Guardian article. Her conclusion was writers will write regardless of being paid or not. We're slavedogs to our own imaginations. I suppose that's true.

    If anyone tosses us a renumerative bone once in a while, we shouldn't feel grateful: merely as though we're getting the scraps of success we deserve.

    E-mags have ludicrous acceptance rates. By accepting so little, the "enshrine" the selected authors as the best, when they reject hundreds of pieces as good as the selected ones. A dangerous game for the writer.

    Why don't they print more sodding work? Demand has increased, so make more room for the quality and range! Can you smell the quality and range? Idiots.

  6. Especially when an eZine can add a search function so EVERYone can be happy.


  7. Who was it that said "The trouble with politics is that those that want in are the very worst people for the job"?

    How many e-zine owners truly love the written word?
    How many truly want to make good writing more accessible again?

    Just read the majority of "Meet the editors", fucking hell, the sound of trumpets almost makes me go deaf.

    The one model I had hopes for sank like a stone, so don't ask me for the solution. I'll keep thnking on it though.