From The Irish Times:
When in their Irish Times reviews earlier this year Joseph O’Connor praised Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies to the heights and John Boyne did the same for Belinda McKeon’s Tender, it seemed to confirm the return of the feel-good factor to an Irish literary world that was not immune to the economic downturn.
Last Saturday, however, the warm glow turned from Ready-Brek to radioactive as readers and writers took to social media to respond to an excoriating review of Paul Murray’s new novel, The Mark and the Void, by Eileen Battersby, the Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times.
The negative review perhaps came as a particular surprise, given that the same critic had been such an enthusiastic champion of his much-loved previous novel, Skippy Dies. As Róisín Ingle reminded her Twitter followers: “So Man Booker wanted a comic novel? This was it & twice as funny as The Finkler Question.”: Eileen Battersby on Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies.”
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Others condemned the review as vicious and nasty, offered up conspiracy theories about it being a Trinity College thing (eh?) or speculated that the unflattering portrait of a female literary critic in the novel, Mary Cutlass, may have played a part.
However, the spoken word poet Brendan McCormack was representative of those who took a different view of the outcry: “Irish novelist gets bad review on home soil. Nepotists up in arms. Quelle surprise”.
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Part of the problem, in my view, is that there is a tendency among some reviewers in Ireland to pull their punches – heck, some even refuse to get into the ring in the first place or duck back under the ropes as soon as they read a few pages and realise their subject has a glass chin. I don’t think any reviewer punches below the belt, certainly not intentionally. But occasionally they come out swinging from the first bell, or sentence, and just keep on punching to score their points, even when their opponent is already helpless on the floor, which entertains some but upsets many others.
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So, in an attempt to clear the air and open up the subject for debate, I asked a wide cross-section of authors and critics who review for The Irish Times these questions: How honest can you be reviewing books by Irish authors in a country like Ireland, where the literary scene is so small? And as a writer, how do you respond to a bad review? Is it possible not to take it personally?
Perhaps the most telling – and ironic – response was this, by an author who by necessity must remain anyonmous: “Actually, as I try and write this, I realise I probably can’t say what I really think – both because [redacted] and for the sake of my future as a writer! So, interested as I am, I’ll pass – what I could actually write would be so mealy-mouthed you wouldn’t want it anyway. And my agent advised me against it.”
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I’ve worked as a critic in both Ireland and the US and Ireland is much harder. It’s an intimate place and the number of people directly involved in fields like theatre or fiction is small. Over time, you’re bound to meet most of them. That puts a huge premium on honesty. People come to expect that the critic is somehow part of the scene and therefore obliged to be supportive. Praise is increasingly considered as the default setting and anything less must be motivated by some personal grudge or conspiracy.
Link to the rest at The Irish Times and thanks to Edmond for the tip.