The Art of Reviewing

I have yet to read Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land, but I have every intention of doing so after reading Emma-Kate Symons's review of it in the latest issue of "The Australian Literary Review", published today. Oddly enough my reading intention is not based on a favourable review by Symons; on the contrary, she gives the novel a mild bucketing. It's been a while since I've been so annoyed by a review that purports to give an unbiased view of a book. It's such a strange one that I am left wondering if there was a level of snarkiness involved, or whether the "Review's" editor just picked completely the wrong reviewer.

The whole piece is given away by just one paragraph: "So what is it about fifty-something or 60-plus middle-class men and their prostates that seems to obsess some of the best contemporary American novelists in their mature phase?"

Leads you to think there's a bit of new genre appearing here doesn't it. I suppose it is quite possible to read "some" in that sentence as referring to "two", but you'd be stretching the bounds of credibility to do so. No, it implies "a certain quantity or number of" as my dictionary puts it. "A few", "several" - more than one, and more than two. And yet Symons only refers to one other novelist, Philip Roth and his Nathan character Zuckerman, as supporting evidence.

And then there's the underlying indication that middle-aged men and their prostates is not a subject about which to be obsessed. Turn the question on its head and replace gender and cancer. If I was to write such a line about a book by, say, Penelope Lively or Margaret Atwood, I'd be vilified for it - and rightly so. From the rest of the review, and from reading other reviews of this novel, I have come to the conclusion that Ford's character is rightly concerned about his prostate cancer - even Symons refers to him being "understandably morose" about the subject - and that it defines his thoughts and actions to a large extent through the course of this book. So to ask a question such as the one quoted, and then not to answer it seems to imply that the reviewer has missed the whole point of the novel. And surely, with a writer of Ford's stature, we have to assume that there is one.

It's going on my Christmas list.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 6, 2006 2:10 PM.

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