In 2007 I scrawled in my book journal:
Why read anything but George Gissing? One can’t read genre fiction all the time. If one isn’t reading a mystery or a science fiction novel, one might as well read Gissing. Not a likable writer: too gloomy, too depressive. But his books are both pageturners and classics. In New Grub Street, he writes about money-grubbing writers in unrelenting poverty. It is a masterpiece about churning out pages for pay.
Musing about my badly-paid freelancing years, I recently returned to Gissing’s New Grub Street. Unlike the characters in New Grub Street, I happily wrote pop articles and reviews, and felt under no pressure, because it was not our main income. I enjoyed the work and appreciated the flexible schedule. So many women of my generation needed flexible hours.
That is not the case in New Grub Street, where writers live in attics or depressing rooms, and must support themselves by churning out pages, and more pages. In the first chapter, Jasper Milvain, a savvy writer/networker, tells his sisters that his novelist friend Alfred Reardon will likely commit suicide.
“Things are going badly with him. He is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.”
Reardon is one of the most wretched writers in literature. His first two novels were successful and respected; now he is desperately writing a bad novel to support his his family. His wife Amy refuses to leave their small flat for rooms in a poor neighborhood. She has suggested he write a “popular” novel, but it is beyond him. When Margaret Home is published, he is depressed and is paid less than he’d anticipated. It is a bad book.
In a chapter called “Rejection,” Gissing writes,
One of Reardon’s minor worries at this time was the fear that by chance he might come upon a review of ‘Margaret Home.’ Since the publication of his first book he had avoided as far as possible all knowledge of what the critics had to say about him; his nervous temperament could not bear the agitation of reading these remarks, which, however inept, define an author and his work to so many people incapable of judging for themselves. No man or woman could tell him anything in the way of praise or blame which he did not already know quite well; commendation was pleasant, but it so often aimed amiss, and censure was for the most part so unintelligent. In the case of this latest novel he dreaded the sight of a review as he would have done a gash from a rusty knife. The judgments could not but be damnatory, and their expression in journalistic phrase would disturb his mind with evil rancour. No one would have insight enough to appreciate the nature and cause of his book’s demerits; every comment would be wide of the mark; sneer, ridicule, trite objection, would but madden him with a sense of injustice.
This made me think about the importance of reviews. I read reviews to find out about new books, not necessarily for the critical judgment. Good reviews sell books, but do bad reviews kill them? I have blithely read between the lines and discovered some excellent books, despite bad reviews. I loved Beverly Lyon Clark’s scholarly book, The Afterlife of Little Women, which a reviewer didn’t care for much.
Here is My Top Five Summer TBR list (and how I found out about the books).
1. Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. I read a good review of this at The Guardian. This intelligent book is the antidote to the conservative romantic interpretations of Austen’s work I have been dipping into the book and very much admired the chapter, “The Age of Brass–Sense and Sensibility.”
What we can say is that Sense and Sensibility, even in 1811, would have been read as a novel about property, and inheritance–about greed and need, and the terrible, selfish things that families do to each other for the sake of money.
2. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Sanders. This well-reviewed SF novel just won the Nebula Award. The back cover says, “An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological start-up are going to war as the world tears itself apart.” Sometimes it takes an award…
3. The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes. All right, I will read anything about classics (it’s my background–go, team!), and this retelling of the Oedipus tragedy, with its emphasis on the women in the myth, sounds fascinating. In spite of lukewarm reviews in the UK, I cannot wait to read this novel. What do reviewers know? Yes, Colm Toibin just retold the Oresteia, and everyone will read that, but I want to read a woman’s voice. I do hope The Children of Jocasta will be published here.
4. P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, a Bertie Wooster and Jeeves book I’ve never heard of! Found it by browsing online.
5 Kathleen Hill’s Who Occupies This House. Her stunning small-press novel, Still Waters in Niger, popped up as a recommendation on my Amazon screen in 2000. It is one of my favorite books. Who Occupies This House, also published by the prestigious Triquarterly Press, has been moldering on my shelves for a while. Am looking forward to it, but have read no reviews.
AND DO LET ME KNOW IF REVIEWS, GOOD OR BAD, INFLUENCE YOUR READING. Yes, I’ve asked you before, but this time I mean it!
I pay attention to reviews and especially tend to let a bad review sway me against reading something. Too often I’ve been enticed by glowing reviews only to decide that the book is simply not worth my time. That said, some time ago you mentioned Alice Thomas Ellis and I commented that my library only has The Summer House. You in turn recommended it. I just finished reading it last night and loved it! Without you, this book probably would have slipped by me. So thank you very much.
It is so hard to know which reviewer has the same taste as the reader! I, too, have been disappointed by books reviewers rave about.. Often I read both pro reviews and Goodreads!
Glad you liked the Ellis. I do love her books.
Like you, Kat, I don’t trust them, but I read between the lines…….last one to tempt me was for Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (reissued recently)..haven’t read it yet….
Gissing’s reviewers read a three-volume book in an hour and then knock off their review in less! Let us hope today’s critics are more conscientious. (I do enjoy book reviews, but don’t always share the reviewer’s taste.)
Like you, I read reviews (although not many because I don’t read much contemporary fiction, other than mysteries) to find out about new books and to get an idea of what they’re about. A bad review doesn’t sway me because I’ve read many books that reviewers raved about but which left me unimpressed.
Hilariously I am almost as swayed by blurbs on the book jacket as I am by reviews! What I like best is to sit down at a bookstore and read a chapter before I buy.
Reviews *do* have an effect on what I buy and read, but possibly less so than some as I don’t read so many new books. I agree that reading a chapter is best if you can – I’ve started to actually look inside more rather than just get seduced by the blurb (which, truth be told, often puts me off a bit more than appealing to me). I confess that if I’m struggling with a book, I do go and search out negative reviews just to make sure it isn’t only me…. 😉
The blurbs can let you down! It’s always best to browse at a bookstore, if you live in an area with one. I love to read the good and the bad reviews at Goodreads. Sometimes that gives me a real picture of readers, if not the book.
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