Suspend Your Disbelief

Brillo Books

"I would rather be savaged by a reviewer with clearly defined ideas than praised by a bozo."

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Brillo Books

"In The Universe of Click it’s more important to have someone saying 'I loved it!' than 'The notion intrigued me, but I was unmoved by the pleonastic ramblings on page 94.' A review is somehow less decisive than the perception that someone has liked something and passed it on to friends and acquaintances on Limped-In, Face-Schmuck, Mumbler, and Fritter..."

In homage to the online convention of writing articles studded with veiled or apparently off-the-cuff references and hyperlinks to a book one has recently or will soon release, I’ve decided to be upfront about it, admitting that I’d love you all to curl up in your favorite armchairs with my new novel, although I know that few of you are likely to do so. The way I see it, self-promotion is a non-starter. No one reads a book on the author’s say-so. So in the next few pages you will see no overt references to my novel–I’ll be withholding the title, and, if I find there’s no way of avoiding making a reference to it, I’ll keep it oblique, I’ll just call it the apple of my mind, which may surprise and/or annoy a few people. But what am I supposed to do? I can’t be an impartial critic of my own work, I can’t recommend it to you. There’s no way around this conundrum, I just have to step back and hope someone else gets involved. Really, this is the operative point of what I want to say here: someone else has to be there, willing to read and engage–because, though it may seem a very obvious thing to say, criticism is the life-blood of books.

It’s March, and there’s a massive artillery barrage of book releases crashing around my house day and night; I can almost hear the radio waves of eBooks being streamed through the air, like sophisticated neutron bombs. Adding my personal details to this battleground seems redundant. The apple of my mind has recently made its way into the world, along with a couple of hundred other books, and most of you will never hear more than a word or two, maybe a hushed murmur, about it. You likely won’t even see it in bookshops, because bookshops are dying off as we all know, and they are now almost as quaint as church bazaars. Enormous, steel-plated behemoths thunder through the empty streets, sending out winged drones to deliver shedloads of books direct to our doorsteps, while their loudspeakers announce repetitiously, “We are your friends, we are your friends…”

Recently, a publisher’s press and marketing guy told me at a book fair that the world had changed. It was [he said] almost impossible to get a book reviewed nowadays. Why, I asked. Well, he went on, because of the state of the market. Frankly, I was confused at first, as really there doesn’t seem to be such a shortage of review sites. In fact, I wouldn’t even have the time to scan the opening few lines of all the thousands of reviews piped through my spluttering microprocessor–let alone remember the names of the authors or the titles of their works. After reflecting on his words, I understood what he meant. Anyone can get a review, even a misspelled café menu can get “hilarious” comments and a photo opportunity on a social networking site, but what you really want is a review that counts. A well-written review can set up the whole phenomenology of a work of fiction, whereas a bad review only conjures up perfunctory questions and problems. A bad review is like a fly in the room while you’re trying to sleep. It sits on your face because it has the misconceived notion that it may at some point be able to lay eggs on it. I would rather be savaged by a reviewer with clearly defined ideas than praised by a bozo. In fact, there are some reviewers out there on whose say-so I’d consent to a strip search, followed by a lengthy cold shower, gall-bladder soap, and no towel. Even if they tarred me afterwards and dipped me in a tub of feathers.    

There used to be a time when reviewers were known as critics, and these critics would make ambitious, scholarly statements about art. T.S. Eliot in his essay on the English metaphysical poets of the sixteen-hundreds, wrote the following:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

And there we have it. To the critics of this era, ordinary chaps read Spinoza whereas poets “amalgamated” his ideas with the smell of cooking. Breathtakingly wonderful. Substantive, also: something to engage with. In those elitist times you had to be highbrow to get anywhere, it wasn’t enough to have a 3D tattoo on your right buttock, pink eyebrows, or an obsessive love of 1950’s cartoon superheroes. The critics back then tended to wear bow ties and were old pals from Ivy League universities (in the USA) or Oxford and Cambridge (in England). They did have one thing in common that could not be denied, which was education. But by and large they were as male and unyielding as grandpa’s brogues.

Even in Hollywood it was noted about a decade ago that proper film critics were an aging demographic. West coast universities beefed up their post-grad film writing programs. Too many critics were hired guns, only too willing to write something nice about anyone who paid their fare and picked up the hotel bill. Admittedly this still seems to be the case. How many times have you not walked out of a movie theatre, shaking your head with irritation about the piece of nonsense you have just sat through, only to catch sight of the hoardings outside: “It’ll blow your mind!” or, “The must-see hit of 2014!” Such ready praise must surely be drafted by paid lackeys? Or is good taste as rare as a good movie?

Let’s be fair about it: everyone can have a point of view, but not everyone can be a critic. Anyone who has ever sat in the same room as a critic will know this. Critics make it their business to know everything, but these days, if they’re any good, they tend not to be as highfalutin as they used to be. Pauline Kael, the legendary movie critic, may not have been a genuine populist, but she had quirkiness: she even disliked Fellini, which to my mind is plain nutty. Yet there was great passion there. New Yorker Film critic David Denby recalls in his book Do the Movies Have a Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2014) how Kael told him while he was a graduate student to try something other than film studies.

But she wound up hurting my feelings and not my career… She was so powerful that you wanted her approval. Internally, you conformed to her opinions… It was sort of like, ‘What would Pauline think?’ And I think that’s a bad habit for anyone to get into, particularly a critic. So in a way, by being kicked out, I was forced to be my own man (see: Fishbowl NY).

Similarly, the brilliant Swedish writer and music critic Thomas Anderberg, who passed away in 2013, would travel the length and breadth of the world for concerts, without ever accepting invitations to post-performance parties to meet conductors or performers. Effectively he passed on meeting interesting people, eating caviar, and drinking free champagne over the long years of his career, because he passionately believed in the independence of the critic. That is precisely the sort of passion a real critic must inhabit. What all this points to, is a definition of the critic as an outsider with a point of view backed up by knowledge and conviction.

Preferably a critic should also have a job, because the channel matters. Critics are so rare that there will be a tendency for them to have jobs or outlets of some kind. Anderberg, who was very modest by nature, used to tell me that he was lucky to have a staff job at one of Sweden’s best broadsheet newspapers, Dagens Nyheter. But his employers also got some perks out of the arrangement. For instance, his editor at the Culture Section told me that whenever Thomas was around there was no need to search for dates or facts on Google.

Meanwhile out there in the real world there are hundreds or thousands of opinion-makers peddling their views. Not so many opinion-builders are real critics, which is just as well. A brigade of critics would pose a real danger to any writer, although most of us would be rapt to find ourselves in the thick of it for a moment, “heaving a cutlass…” (That’s enough T.S. Eliot now, I think!) The most dispiriting thing when you have written a book is finding that no one “out there” reads or takes a position on it. As I see it, this is the ultra-modern version of the ennui of the creative worker or “artist.” It’s no longer starvation or obscurity, no longer bread and water in the garret that need to be worried about–the real danger is a lack of any real distinction.

HenningSloshing my opinions around is also what I am doing here, though I’m not by a long shot a switched-on cultural commentator or a critic and certainly can’t claim to be an impartial judge in so far as the apple of my mind goes.

In the old, analogue world there used to be five or six reviews editors sneering at thousands of hungry “trainee novelists” while taking a handful of “fully-qualified” writers for lunch in order to have a chance of minutely examining their style, for instance their use of metaphor–was “butter-churning muscles” indicative of a wistful longing for country pursuits or did it hold a veiled sexual reference? In this ancient world, writers who did not get published and reviewed had to face facts eventually, and go get themselves day jobs. Life was hard but clear. Facts, in this context, were expressed in sinister letters received from bank managers, alongside the rejection piles from publishers. Of course these writers could then tell themselves that they had been passed over and unjustly treated; that was a luxury they could allow themselves as they spent their long, weary lives often pacing about in classrooms, dealing with head-lice and juvenile insolence, facing the unimaginative mental nuggets of the Principal, and so on. Of course, had they become professional writers they would have faced other dullards, but we’ll leave that aside for now.

With the coming of the Internet, we have entered a time where a lot of people can publish books, but few will sell. Andy Warhol’s love of mass production, exemplified, for instance, in his Brillo boxes, came pretty close in the end to anticipating the shape of things to come. He did not quite get to see how mass communication would create a seething world of personal creativity, in which the democracy of the crowd would elevate certain unforeseeable things (farting Apps / banana-peel video clips; Danish landscape painting / the Nigerian novel) to broad acclaim. He did not quite realize that art as high-tech craft would take over, rather than art as soulless industrial production. That, in my view, is where we are today.

Which brings us back to reviewing. In The Universe of Click it’s more important to have someone saying “I loved it!” than “The notion intrigued me, but I was unmoved by the pleonastic ramblings on page 94.” A review is somehow less decisive than the perception that someone has liked something and passed it on to friends and acquaintances on Limped-In, Face-Schmuck, Mumbler, and Fritter: “Hey, this was great… give it a shot!” This is all very well, but let’s make sure we preserve the aspects of our literary culture that we love.

And that’s where I’m trying to break new ground, because I am telling you absolutely nothing about the apple of my mind, although I will reveal that it’s published by a midsize American imprint with a well-publicized love of all things Internet and a smart, media-savvy bevy of bright-as-a-button editors, firing off missives along the lines of “Mind checking the proofs, man?” How they address their women authors I don’t know, but I imagine it must be something like, “Hey sister, how about zapping some personal pronouns?” And then, after progress on the editing front, the final professions of “I’m loving it, man/sister.”

And so this is the point at which I just bow out enigmatically and wish you well in a sort of cordial, non-commercial way, without even putting in a link to Amazon, because who the hell needs that overweight grub anyway, and what writer in his right mind would back Amazon? Without self-criticism, how can there be valid criticism in any shape or form?

I hope we all keep up our engagement with reading and reviewing, it’s what really counts, and it’s more important than ever. Above all I hope we manage to keep it real, because without real we’re all sugar-coated dough balls.


Henning Koch

Henning Koch was born in Sweden in 1962 but has spent most of his life in England, Spain, and Sardinia. He is a writer, screenwriter, and literary translator. He lives in Berlin with his partner and their three-year-old son.

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