Private Eye wittingly refers to him as Adam Mars Bar. Whether this is just a feeble pun on his name or some reference to the alleged Mars Bar scandal, I don’t know and I don’t really care. In any case, this week Adam Mars-Jones won the Hatchet Job prize for most scathing review, a review of Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall. I have not read By Nightfall and probably won’t. The only book of Cunningham’s that I have read – A Home at the End of the World – I was not terribly impressed with, though I have not read The Hours, his Virginia Woolf novel which got a lot of praise and was made into a successful film. Mars-Jones’ beef with Cunningham is that the novel is, to use his words, armour-plated with literary references . He claims that this makes Cunningham’s book look lost. He also does not like Cunningham’s Thoughts About Art. I am not sure that this is a valid criticism but, as I have not read the book, I cannot say now annoying it is or how much it detracts from the book. Frankly, I preferred Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes‘s A Sense of Ending which, of course, won the Man Booker Prize. I am likewise not a great fan of Barnes. I thought he peaked with Flaubert’s Parrot and, while his novels are certainly, on the whole, good, they are not great. I have not read A Sense of Ending and am not sure if I will, though it does have the advantage of being short. However, Dyer’s comments on the book – It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness! sort of sum up Barnes’ work.
Here are the actual reviews that were short-listed:
- Geoff Dyer on Julian Barnes’ A Sense of Ending
- Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
- Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes (Reader, be warned. Skip the first 200 pages and start this book at chapter six; The “ancient” parts of this book are littered with howlers)
- Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey (What she has actually produced is 480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain offputting slither through a series of — wilfully? Maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings.)
- Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill (Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.)
- Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness. It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing.)
- Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim (Honey Money, however, is an acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before.)
- David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy (With Carol Ann Duffy, there’s too much verbal prancing, too little that’s original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking that if this is poetry, it’s a trivial art.)
As I have read none of the books under review, I am not competent to judge whether the reviews are fair or accurate. Of course, the reviews are subjective. Somebody thought A Sense of Ending was good enough to win the Man Booker Prize, though now is not the time to get into the politics of that. However, I do welcome the manifesto of the Hatchet Job of the year, not least as there are far too many reviews giving fulsome praise to sub-standard works. There are lots of reasons for this but probably the most common is logrolling – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. People who review books are probably a very small set of people and they all know one another so do not want to offend and also want good reviews for their works. To a certain extent, bloggers get away from this and can be more brutal. Some are and some aren’t. I try to avoid books I don’t think that I will like but there are a few reviews on my site which, while not hatchet jobs are highly critical. Writers I consider overrated, such as D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and John Updike are included because of their (in my view undeserved) reputations. I have written critical reviews of authors I admire. And I slammed the Philip Roth for the Nobel Prize bandwagon. But I have been reluctant to do more because I would rather spend my time reading books I like than those I don’t like and, unlike the Hatchet Job reviewers, I can choose.
Which brings us back to Adam Mars-Jones. Way back when, Granta produced a list of best young British novelists. They produced another such list ten years later. (They also produced a third list but it is not relevant to my point here.) If you study the first two lists carefully, you will notice that they have one thing in common – Adam Mars-Jones. Yes, Mars-Jones was twice nominated as one of the best young British novelists. As well as being on both lists, Mars-Jones also had one other feature unique to him. In neither case was he a novelist! His first novel was published in 1993, just after the second list has been published. Why was he on both lists without having published a single novel? Potential maybe? I have no idea. His second novel was published in 2008, fifteen years after the second Granta list. It was called Pilcrow. By coincidence, I tried to read it this week. I say that I tried to read it but, unusually though not unknown for me, I had to abandon it.
Let’s start with title. Do you know what a pilcrow is? No, nor did I. This is a pilcrow – ¶. It’s that paragraph mark thing that you see in the Bible and sometimes in older legal documents which, as he points out, is difficult to find on a computer keyboard (as it is not there). I would have called it a paragraph mark. The Shady Characters blog has three aricles on it, if you want to know more – one, two and three. The book is the first of a trilogy, with the second being called cedilla. I do know what a cedilla is (it is the squiggly thing on the c here – ç) as it is used in French and Portuguese, which I read, as well as in other languages. So Mars-Jones criticises Michael Cunningham for being too arty and using too many literary references, yet names his books after obscure punctuation marks which the average reader certainly will not have heard of. Mmmmm. But my main complaint about the book, at least the first hundred pages, is that it is boring. John Cromer has rheumatic fever. He stays in bed. He plays games with his mother. Nothing much happens. As James Woods points out in his review it is about the banalities of life, it has dull patches and it boldly refuses the everyday consolations of plot and dramatic structure. Well, I generally like plot and dramatic structure and found Pilcrow just too boring to be worth continuing. Yes, I know we are going to get into the gay man coming of age stuff which more or less worked in The Stranger’s Child but I really have not the patience to pursue it in this book. So I will read Mars-Jones’ scathing reviews but probably leave his novels alone.