My weekly treat of the Saturday FT is becoming less and less something to look forward to. It’s not just that the fashion shoots are as gauche as those of newspapers everywhere, or that the odious ‘How to Spend It’ bizarrely channels a middle class aspiring to be hot Russian money in London. Nor that Mrs Moneypenny has irrevocably (i.e. on television) revealed herself as a bit of an empty vessel. Nor, even, that my beloved Secret Agent is running out of things to say about the property-acquiring super rich. (I guiltily admit I loved him more when he was melancholy, and still daydream of fixing him up with a friend.) No, my ability to pleasurably drag out the reading for more than an hour is vexed by the increasingly uninsightful and plain old poor value for money that has begun to mark the fiction reviews.
The increasing Americanisation of the FT now has writers review books by their brothers and sisters in arms. The British tradition of publishing book reviews by people who are real-life critics and not part-time cheer leaders and quarterbacks may be nasty, discomfiting and sometimes unfair to writers – and for this I blame editors – but it gives a reader a much clearer view of the essential question; ‘Is it any good?’. I imagine it’s also costing unsung book reviewers their living as money is thrown at superstar writers at the top of the pile.
Case in point: this week’s review by Annie Proulx of a novel, ‘Irma Voth’, by Miriam Toews. Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something. Proulx dedicates 800 of her 1000 words to describing the plot of the novel from beginning to end; 800 tedious words of ‘this happens and then that happens’, and then a final 50 to more helpfully add that Irma Voth is a parable of redemption with a decent pay-off. It’s just not a very good piece, and yet it is given star treatment.
Proulx’ review occupies the most prominent real estate in the sadly pared back FT book review section, and has an apparently custom-ordered illustration to go with it. The picture alone takes up the same amount of space on the page as 6 of the mini-reviews that comprise the meat of the section. What a waste of space! The books editor may have imagined a gloriously co-branded vista, with the joint intellectual capital of Proulx and the FT expanding geometrically as far as the eye can see. What’s ended up on the page is a colossally wasteful exercise in winner-takes-all back-scratching that is unworthy of either party.
Which is not to say writers don’t have anything interesting to say about books. (And Lionel Shriver’s reviews for the FT are much better than those of Proulx.) Where would the LRB be without writers talking to and about other writers? However, a weekend book review section is for readers, and editors booking puff pieces from rock stars to add to squeezed book sections the illusion of mass would do well to remember this.
First published on Crooked Timber on 14 June, 2100