Although I’ll probably mention both a lot, this is not actually an article about Dolly Alderton or her debut novel, Ghosts, which I don’t have an opinion on, largely because I haven’t read it. This, I suspect, puts me in the same category as many of the people apparently upset about a review of Ghosts by the literary critic Barry Pierce, which appeared in the Irish Times over the weekend. Still, I read the review and I do have an opinion on that.
It was, admittedly, a fairly cruel piece of writing. Alderton’s prose, Pierce notes, is “thick like mayonnaise”, while “her skewering of dating apps surely makes Ghosts the most culturally relevant novel of 2014”. The book, he concludes, “brought me nothing but pain and disappointment”. Some thought this was quite droll, others found it spiteful. Fine. Reviews, like novels, are bound to be divisive.
But then the conversation moved on. Author Chris McCrudden wrote on Twitter: “How about we give the valuable review space over to books worth reviewing?” Quite how we’d know which books are worth reviewing, he didn’t say. Literary criticism is not terribly well-paid at the best of times; reading books in order to not review them would, I fear, be a precarious path to follow. Terri White, editor-in-chief of Empire magazine, commented: “Not liking something isn’t the same as taking great delight in destroying for effect.” Kate Holmes agreed: “Review something you like and get jazzed up about that.” The suggestion seemed to be that Pierce’s review of Ghosts should never have been published. It was just too unkind.
It may well have been unkind but I’m afraid it wasn’t written for Alderton. The critic’s responsibility is to the consumer, not the creator. When, as in this instance, we are being asked to spend just shy of 15 quid on a book, it is, I think, reasonable to want to know if that is a good investment. The same goes, of course, for theatre or cinema tickets. Whether or not a critic is “right” is a different discussion entirely – though I suppose if you deem them to have got it “wrong” enough times, you’ll soon find someone else to read instead.
The idea that criticism is acceptable so long as it is presented in a constructive way, which seemed to be the nub of White’s point, is noble but secondary to the fundamental purpose of a review. Put baldly: is this thing that you are being sold worth your time and money?
How the critic reaches their conclusion is a matter of taste – and many of the best critics have turned this into an art form in itself – but one way or another, that question must be answered. It may sometimes be answered in a rather crude manner but if a critic feels that a vicious review best serves the reader, then so be it. A book review is not a workshop for the author.
If critics only review the things they like, they do their readers a great disservice. Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Guardian, announced this summer that, due to the financial pressures placed on restaurants by coronavirus, he would only write about those meals he had enjoyed. A nice gesture, certainly, but the rest of us – lest we forget, also under a bit of financial pressure – would probably quite like to know where not to spend our money. If Rayner has eaten at an overpriced restaurant, serving substandard food, he should tell us. That’s the job. Restaurant PR is another career altogether.
There are negative reviews of all sorts of things published every day, though. So why did this one provoke such a strong reaction? Partly because Ghosts is a debut novel. I have some sympathy with this. When I worked on the books desk at a newspaper, we would invariably pass over debut novels that were not terribly good. The reasons for this are obvious. No one wants to discourage a writer before they have had a chance to master their craft. James Wood, literary critic for the New Yorker, recalled in a 2018 interview how one of his early reviews for The Guardian left an author in tears. “Someone told me that the review had appeared on the day of her publication and she had spent the launch party in tears,” he said. “And I don’t think I’ve reviewed a first novel with any hostility since then.”
The debut argument doesn’t quite stack up in the case of Ghosts, however. Alderton has already written a well-received memoir and is a columnist for the Sunday Times. Her novel has been marketed widely and is likely to sell extremely well. Pierce had every right to tell his readers what he thought of it.
I wonder if something else was at play with regards to the reaction to Pierce’s review. Why was there no outcry when, say, Katie Law, in the Evening Standard, described Martin Amis’ latest novel, Inside Story, as “erratic, rollercoasting and frankly self-regarding”? Or when, in The Times, Johanna Thomas-Corr dismissed The Seduction by Joanna Briscoe as “shrill and unstable from the beginning, with some of the worst dialogue I’ve read”? Or when Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was dismissed by Claire Lowdon in The Sunday Times? “So what’s not to like?” she asked. “Well, the writing, which unfortunately is what books are made out of.”
It is difficult not to conclude that there are now two groups of authors: those we are happy to criticise, and those we are not. What grants an author access to the latter group is unclear – and no doubt inexact – but Alderton has a large social media following, a “Dear Dolly” advice column and a popular podcast. Amis, Briscoe and Mengiste have none of those things. Alderton also puts her name to plenty of book puffs and in turn has plenty of names puffing her books. She is, if you like, a much-loved member of the inner circle. Which gives her influence, for she can use her platform to promote books (or whatever else) by other people. So there will inevitably be people who haven’t read her book, who nevertheless feel protective of it and her.
None of this is a problem in itself, of course. But if critics start to fear that certain authors (or directors or musicians or artists) are best left alone for fear of a backlash – and some of the comments about Pierce have been every bit as nasty as his review – we risk policing a skill and a service where freedom of thought and expression is essential.