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Reviewers get a bad review

Reviewers get a bad review

An interesting take on the 1997 Man Booker prize-winner Arundhati Roy's long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. One commentator decided to review not the book but its reviewers, and was scathing in her findings: ‘Most reviews [of Roy's novel] are pretentious and self-involved think pieces. The reviews try to be too clever, or too circumspect. They are an exercise in self-indulgence.’ She went on to be a bit clever herself and invoke a restrained seabird for her critique: ‘The 20-year wait, and her refusal to be a book-making machine seem to weigh like an albatross handcuffed to their pen.’ Rousing stuff. The writer then highlighted various recurring themes: ‘There is the usual and misappropriated reference to the phrase personal is political’, ‘The eccentricities of Roy’s existence are ridiculed’, ‘The real protagonist of these pieces is Roy and her celebrity’, and so on. It all leads to a thunderous and bleak crescendo: ‘The act of reviewing is dead.’


Except that this is, of course, nonsense – as a look at the reviews that have greeted the Man Booker International Prize shortlist show. To put it bluntly, the main reason the shortlisted books were reviewed in the English-speaking world in the first place is their presence on the list. Reviewers, when confronted by novels and especially authors without Roy's lively backstory consider the books alone. It is part of the pay-off that authors with any real degree of name recognition are reviewed for themselves and their back-catalogue as much as their new book: twas ever thus. The majority of authors know this and are sensible enough not to complain – they remember only too well their fervent desire when starting out to be reviewed at all.


Sad news with the announcement of the death of Helen Dunmore at the indecently young age of 64. She was one of those rare creatures in the books world who was equally accomplished as a novelist, short story writer, poet and translator – she won prizes in every genre she turned her hand to. She was, for example, longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker for her novel The Betrayal set in the years following the siege of Leningrad, as well as receiving a nomination for the T.S. Eliot Poetry prize and being the first winner of the Orange Prize. Jonathan Coe, her fellow novelist – and Man Booker judge in 1996 – noted simply and poignantly: ‘We have lost one of our finest writers, and one of the kindest and most generous of women.’


Paul Beatty, the current Man Booker winner, was on fine form in a recent webchat, fielding questions from readers on a bewildering range of topics. It emerges that he was unaware that The Sellout had, prior to being picked up by Oneworld, had a less than glorious history: ‘I didn't know about the 18 rejections until I won the Man Booker.’ There's an agent earning their corn and shielding their client from a cruel world. Other revelations included the fact that the Toy Story films are his favourite Pixar movies, that his writing routine consists of ‘I just put my butt in the seat. No target, no schedule, no drinking’, and most important of all, that given the choice between beans and a fry up, it's ‘Definitely beans on a fry up! That British import hasn't yet made its way to the States but it needs to happen.’ If novelists live in an ivory tower at least Beatty's smells like a transport caff.


A reminder ahead of the Man Booker International winner announcement on 14 June that five of the translators of the shortlisted books will be discussing their craft – or is it art? – at an event in central London on Monday 12th. ‘Translation at its Finest: Man Booker International Prize panel’ takes place at Foyle's bookshop on Charing Cross Road at 7pm. To give added spice to the evening, the actor Toby Jones, last seen as the villainous Culverton Smith in Sherlock, will be reading excerpts from the novels.