Friday, 11 July 2014

Beware of giving 2 star reviews, it might get a bit Jeanette Winterson...

The other evening I wrote this review on a book site - the book I am describing is non-fiction, a book about books:

'I realise I am in the minority in feeling underwhelmed by this book, it just did not engage me at all. In the end, I just skimmed it. Was disappointed, after the great reviews I'd seen.'

I rated the book as 2 stars, which corresponds to 'It was okay'. (I have in the past given 2 star reviews to acclaimed novels such as David Vann's 'Legend of a Suicide'. And 1 star to Ian McEwan's 'Solar'. I wasn't specifically damning this one book.)

I thought nothing more of it, I was simply disappointed in a book and probably annoyed I had used energy to go to the library to pick it up, as it did not, in my opinion, live  up to the very good reviews, both in the press, and from readers' sites.

I was, of course, very surprised when the writer - we have never met, I don't know him - got in touch with me the next day to tell me rather abruptly he was disappointed the book didn't engage me, and was 'baffled and frustrated'  that I had 'slated it on the internet', having only skimmed it, and 'skipped chunks'.

I was unsure whether to respond at all, but I tried very hard to pour oil on troubled waters, and sent a very polite response saying it was a gross exaggeration to say I had 'slated it on the internet'. I pointed out I had made it clear I was in the minority in not loving the book, and that I thought it  inappropriate for him to contact me about this, in the first place, it was really a bit silly, but I would take the review down since it had caused him such vexation. But then that would feel like censorship.

He apologised if he had offended me and said he would of course not expect me to censor my comment, but defended his getting in touch with me with: '... we live in an era where, if  you  diminish another writer's work on a public forum ... without doing them the courtesy of reading their book properly, the writer can respond to you directly'.

This made me angry - before, I had been more bemused. It was all feeling a bit Jeanette Winterson. 

I felt forced into telling him that he was missing the point, that I skimmed the book because it didn't engage me, *not* because I didn't read it properly. That's what happens when you don't like a book,  you skim it. Or abandon it. And that is what book review sites are for. A place to be honest. I could have been more negative about the book but chose not to be. I would never deliberately hurt another writer's feelings,  and even with books I don't love I usually try to find something good to say. Surely that is the point? I am also always generous in my appreciation of writing I do love.

I skimmed the book again in case I had  missed something, and was interested to come across the writer in conversation with an old friend. The old friend says to the writer: 'I think you are one of the angriest man I have ever met'.

Maybe that explains it.

And his self-importance over such a short, innocuous review  made *me* angry.

But I took the review down. 

Like I don't have a million more important things to be concerned about.

But a few hours later, I felt  pretty irked that I was censoring myself, why should I?

So I posted a slightly longer review, expanding my initial thoughts, trying very hard not to be misconstrued:

 'I recently got this book from the library after seeing it positively reviewed on Twitter during #bookadayuk last month. Other readers have loved it, and I realise I am in the minority in feeling underwhelmed, but it just did not engage me. I was perhaps exhausted the nights I tried to read it, but in the end, I just skimmed it, I could find no big hook, though it is very much the kind of book you can dip into. Still, I was honestly disappointed, after the great reviews I'd seen.'

It has, though, made me think that when we respond to novels and films now, we are not just responding to the work but the inevitable hype that accompanies everything. Was I more vexed at the glowing reviews (misleading, in my opinion), or the actual book?

When books shortlisted for major prizes are a let-down, are we 'annoyed' at the book, or the reviews?

It's hard to say. Both, probably. 

And of course, writing is subjective, there will always be disagreement.

I wasn't sure whether or not to write this post - I don't do *Twitter/online wars  - who bloody needs it?! - but I was pretty upset yesterday at being challenged, as if I were some kind of thoughtless critic who was being negative without justification. And why was this writer so perturbed, anyway, by my tiny, little informal review, when he's getting mostly wonderful reviews?

It makes no sense.

This man may well be charming in real life, I have no idea, but his getting in touch with me left quite a bad taste in my mouth. A bit controlling for my liking. Of course, no one likes poor reviews, and it is super-frustrating if readers don't get your book.

Of course,  when your book comes out it is the centre of your world - I remember that feeling well! - but is not the centre of everyone else's world. That is a lesson you learn. But this man should know better, he works in publishing, he is well-connected, but perhaps *that* is what this is all about, a sense of entitlement? I think he couldn't accept that another writer would be so cavalier as to skim his book, even although it is not illegal to skim a book that doesn't grab you.

I really did try to like it.

*He tweeted me in the first instance to ask me to please follow him so he could send me a 'polite' DM (direct message), which frankly astonished me. I guess this is 'the era we live in', you ask a stranger to follow you so you can then  message them to berate them about the review they wrote. I never go above following 500 on Twitter, it is my golden rule, so I asked him to email me instead if he wished. Which he did immediately. He has since deleted his (perfectly polite) public tweets to me, so I hope this means he realises the whole getting in touch was a bit silly.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Summer reads and varifocals

Today, I have varifocals, it is strange and not strange. Apparently, high myopes adjust more easily because we are so used anyway to turning our heads to see. I remember getting my first glasses - NHS pale blue plastic - in 1975, aged ten. The optician's was also a jeweller's, I got my ears pierced there, aged fourteen (I think that  scene is fictionalised in The State of Me). I have no idea where my high myopia comes from. My Scottish side are bastards, they have eyes like hawks, and my Asian side, to the best of my knowledge, have minus five, tops.

I am minus eleven.

High myopia is fine and dandy, it can easily be corrected, but I have had all the fun of the fair: retinal tears in both eyes, which I had lasered in San Francisco in early-mid nineties,  one of the scariest events in my life (I fictionalised this in a Chapman short story in late nineties, 'Out Vile Jelly!'); then bilateral uveitis in 2009 - even scarier than laser surgery - with high IOP too - which I am sure my ME was implicated in, though I think also more common in high myopes. I still have regular checks at eye hospital.


Back in May, I read The Qualities of Wood, the debut novel of  Mary Vensel White, which I have just reviewed here, a fine summer read.

Last week, I stopped reading Anita Desai's In Custody, in order to read Chef by Jaspreet Singh, which I'd seen in the library. Am two thirds of the way through. Chef is quirky - reminds me in tone of  Mohammed Hanif's, A Case of Exploding Mangoes - but the points of view change and merge in a way that I find that a little hard to follow. I love that Siachen means 'place where wild roses grow' in Balti.

I am enjoying In Custody - and will go back -  but not as much as her earlier novel Clear Light of Day. Though I love the quote:  'He realised that he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable'.

I also got the Impac 2014 award-winning The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez from the library  because Kamila Shamsie recommended on Twitter and said it could be about Pakistan (I'm reading mainly reading South Asian fiction just now). I doubt I will manage to read Juan before he is due back, but my (reading) intentions are always good.

Also been reading great things about Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla, out with The Friday Project today. I did not even know  what meatspace meant 'til a few months ago. Not just varifocals that point to being fifty, my lack of urban slang too.

And I am rather pleased to have tickets for seeing Karl Ove Knausgaard at the book festival.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Books, glorious books, and a moth that looks embroidered

In the last week, the postman has brought three classy books.

I won a copy of Maggie Gee's  Virginia Woolf in Manhattan on Twitter  (Saqi Books asked which woman writer we would most like to meet, I said Ismat Chughtai). Lovely to have this gorgeous hardback to add to my bookshelves. And I very much look forward to reading (though my TBR pile is simply scary).

My publisher, The Friday Project, sent me up Charles Lambert's wonderfully titled With a Zero at its Heart. It's getting great reviews. Though as I am in the fragile process of fictionalising childhood and fathers - at such a snail's place it feels like slow motion, but I will get there, fingers crossed -  that I may hold off on reading it. This meticulously constructed book of fragmented, themed memories is very different to my novella-in-progress - but you don't necessarily want another writer's (brilliant) words to be in your head when you are writing. Though I won't be able to resist and will dip in. It's a beautiful book to touch too.

And I ordered the second edition of Dr Melvin Ramsay's 1986 book on ME: Postviral Fatigue Syndrome: The saga of Royal Free Disease from the ME Association. My original copy from the mid-80s is worn out so I wanted to update. This is such an important, informative and honest text - I just wish more doctors and health editors and journalists would read it and educate themselves. And the references to Professor Behan and Coxsackie virus in west of Scotland in 80s, obviously resonate for me.

And last but not least, I love this moth, it looks embroidered.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Six years on, still getting lovely feedback on novel

Almost six  years on, lovely to get feedback from readers of The State of Me: this from Merry Speece in Ohio:

I just finished reading The State of Me and wanted to tell you how much I liked it. I particularly admire your intelligence and sense of humor and your commitment to advocacy. I enjoyed the story (you are a born novelist), and you did a good job explaining the illness ME. I have been ill for more than 45 years. My mother was also ill; I have no memory of her as well.

Full comment is here.

I see that Merry writes poetry and prose.

And on subject of poetry, I came across Rosemary Tonks in an article last week, fascinating woman, I must look up her work.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Glasgow School of Art, always there like a jewel...

It was like watching an old friend dying right in front of you and being unable to do anything except witness the event, helplessly. This is how many of us felt seeing the pictures and footage - all over social media - on Friday of our stunning Glasgow School of Art on fire.

Even if you didn't attend the art school, it was always there like a jewel, and you knew someone who did. I recall in the eighties going to the degree show of a flatmate of one of my brother's, who looked like David Bowie and had a handsome lover, Mick. (Rumour had it, Mick died of a heroin overdose in the nineties. I have no idea if this is true).  I was in tears watching the news on Friday, not just for the art school, but for Glasgow, I lived there, after all, for many years and it was the closest city to us when I was growing up in west of Scotland. And Charles Rennie Mackintosh is in your DNA, he just is. It seems his glorious  library has been lost but, miraculously, damage to the rest of the building is less than initially feared. And not all of the students' work has been lost. I can't imagine the devastation of losing your degree show project. At least if you lose your novel it is backed up, but how can you back up years of precious art? The most important thing is that everyone got out safely, but as Hugh Pearman said on Twitter: 'Today's destruction proves one thing: if so many people feel bereaved by the loss of a building, then it can be said to have had a soul'.

If you want to help, in any way, here are the details.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Reading a novel when you have dementia

I've been thinking about what it's like to read a novel when you have moderate to severe dementia. My stepdad can no longer follow the plot in a film or drama or Antiques Road Show, constantly asking my mother who is who and what is what and when is Thursday, but he still loves to read. Whenever I visit, he always has a book on the go, on the table downstairs and at night by his bedside. I love to see him reading, absorbed in what he is doing, getting pleasure. I watch and wonder how much he is remembering, I'm fascinated by what he retains from page to page. If you ask him what  the book is about he can't really tell you but he might turn it over and read out the blurb on the back.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Good things: film, dance, books

Last week, I got the DVD of  the documentary film Voices in the Shadows, which came out in 2011 -  of course, I've known about the film for ages, but have never felt in the frame of mind to watch it, until now. The portrayal of severe ME - the most severe imaginable - is harrowing and although I was not this severe, it still taps into my very bad times, and chills me to be reminded of them. This film is beautiful in its simplicity: the multi-systemic, devastating illness ME  has been hijacked by psychiatry, the criteria diluted, the research polluted. Patients are being made worse by brutal regimes of graded exercise. It is well worth watching. The narratives will shock you, even when you think you are jaded and can no longer be shocked by the neglect - and abuse - of the medical profession towards patients with ME. Dr Nigel Speight and  Professors Leonard Jason and Malcolm Hooper  articulate the plight of severe ME sufferers with such grace and compassion, it's hard not to have tears. My anger at the gang of medics who are guilty is reignited. And my heart breaks - again - for those who suffer from severe, unremitting illness. Dr Speight talks of a 'sort of new Stalinism coming into British medicine'.

As I got ill in autumn 1982, before the Wessely school nonsense/conflation/denial -  I had Dr Behan and Dr Ramsay on my side - I was myself never forced by powerful medics to pretend that I was not actually physically ill. Although, it was not a walk in the park getting diagnosed, it took 18 months. And like most PWME, there were people in my life I simply blocked out because of their  lack of understanding. You have to, in order to survive. And I will never forgive those people. I often say that without strong family support this illness could undo you. I also think that it is actually impossible to truly ever understand ME unless you have it. Even now, moderate with severe dips, I can look fine and seem fine for a window, but behind the scenes I feel as I've been hit all over with a mallet and my brain is on fire. I can't form a sentence, I drop words. I  bump into things.


And this is gorgeous,  I love the energy in the performance -  actor Sarah Gordy  dancing in 'Violence of Discovery, Calm of  Acceptance'.


Nothing makes me happier than secondhand book stalls. Such jewels and bargains to be found last week at a Christian Aid book fair in George Street, literary fiction and non-fiction for £1 - boxes and boxes of  books, including Penguins and Pelicans. It was sunny and there were trestle tables outside, it was like Paris. It reminded me of how much I love paper books. And I wondered what secondhand book fairs/shops will be like in fifty years. Will they even exist?