Have you ever seen a film or play/read a book/heard an album and thought ‘meh… wasn’t blown away by that’ (or God forbid, ‘that was the biggest load of crap ever’). Your only audience is your family or friends. When you’re an arts journalist or reviewer, you have to share your opinions, good or bad, because it’s your job. Someone or a team has laboured over that project, but you must put that out of your head and try to evaluate it purely on the content. But what happens when someone disagrees with your take on it?
This week, novelist and playwright, Eugene McCabe slated a book review by Irish Times literary correspondent, Eileen Battersby. The book was Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy. McCabe, in an angry letter to the editor, said that she shouldn’t have the “temerity to sit in negative judgement on one of the great masters of Irish writing”.
“Does Ms Battersby look at the photograph of Dermot Healy and say: This is an old man’s effort not fashionable like Neil Jordan’s so I’ll disembowel him because that’s how I feel today?” he wrote. He went on to take apart a piece of writing by Battersby herself, saying it was “the worst piece of creative writing I have ever read in a long life of reading. Truly. Stunningly bad. I have used it in a workshop as an example of how to avoid writing ‘Sh**e and onions’”.
Yep, didn’t you know that’s what all journalists do Eugene? Depending on our mood, we decide whether or not to eviscerate someone’s work. Also, we’re secretly ageist and deserve to be personally attacked for offering a viewpoint. I just love people who think their own opinion is the definitive one and will entertain no alternative. I anxiously await a high brow, literary awards ceremony during which an author Eugene McCabe doesn’t deem to be worthy recieves an award. The author is Taylor Swift, McCabe is Kanye West. He storms on stage, grabs the mic and declares “I’m really happy for you, I’m gonna let you finish, but Dermot Healy is one of the great masters of Irish writing OF ALL TIME!” Annnnnnnnnnnd, scene.
I thought his letter was overblown, unfair and a bit cruel—everything the actual review wasn’t. Battersby’s review was 1,351 words long and it was no hatchet job. She is obviously familiar with the author’s previous work and there are quite a few compliments for Long Time, No See. Personally, I’ve agonised over reviews because I don’t want to rubbish someone’s hard work. There are redeeming qualities in everything, but when you’re digging haphazardly to find that hidden treasure maybe you’re ignoring the giant, glaring X staring at you=it doesn’t quite work. You have to point out the faults because ignoring them is doing the potential audience a disservice.
Her biggest criticism of the novel was the pace of it. She wrote that it “is difficult; it is slow moving and complacent, and at times dangerously relaxed, lacking the urgency of his life’s achievement to date, A Goat’s Song (1994)”. She thought it was “excessively long-far longer than the story justifies…There is no doubting that Healy is a writer’s writer, and writers will appreciate the difficulty in establishing the continuity that runs through the extravagant narrative. But for a reader it is hard going”. And to end, she said: “Healy, an experienced writer, has attempted to write a young man’s book. It doesn’t quite work.” If this is what McCabe considers scathing, he hasn’t read enough negative reviews.
I’m glad to see other people disagreed with Eugene McCabe’s outburst. Booker Prize winner, John Banville, and Daragh Reddin, the arts editor of the Metro Herald, supported the reviewer. AND the author said that while a bad review was “sad”, he graciously added that “when you finish the book, you leave it up to the reader”. The reviewer is only an informed reader, but rumour has it that you can still buy the book and make up your own mind. You’ll probably be safe from the thought police…unless you don’t like it. In that case, expect a cease and desist letter.
I want to end on two quotes. As my father is fond of saying, “Opinions are like arseholes; everybody has one”. Watch out, Plato! And as Emily Dickenson wrote: “Publication is the auction of the mind of man”. If it’s too high a price to pay…start a blog 😛