Sticks & Stones: Reviews & Reviewing

 * Writers and critics Philip Hensher, Geoff Dyer, Julie Myerson and Allison Pearson joined John Walsh in an entertaining, sparky and sometimes heated dissection of the world of reviewing.

After Debby Moggach and John Walsh introduced the evening by reading examples of bad reviews and quotes from several authors about the world of reviewing, Julie Myerson, journalist, reviewer and novelist, began by talking about a review of her first novel Sleepwalking, the worst she had ever received, after which she admitted finding it hard to write for a few days. Myerson said she read reviews only once but felt authors should take notice of reviewers, whether good or bad. 

Writer and reviewer Philip Hensher, who admitted regarding himself as ‘fantastically arrogant’ in response to reviews, felt that there was a rise of certain traits in reviewing that were deplorable, such as focusing on writers’ personal lives rather than their written work, citing recent reviews of Martin Amis as a prime example. Hensher went on to give three examples of reviews of his own work in which he felt the reviewer had committed a deplorable act.

Allison Pearson, journalist, reviewer, novelist and a founder member of Late Review, compared writing a novel with pregnancy: pushing it out into the world, and then parading it  * around in a pram, open to observation. She admitted reading bad reviews through a veil of hands, quoting a reviewier who called her work ‘unfunny, unfortunate and unfeminist’ and concluded that the best sections must have been written by her husband. Pearson said she tried to deal with bad reviews by regarding reading as a matter of taste.

Reviewer, fiction and non-fiction writer Geoff Dyer was a reviewer before he became a writer and confessed to having regarded his position as a reviewer with pride and import, while also revealing that he felt many reviewers used their role as an aggressive way in which to draw attention to themselves. Dyer discussed one of his heroes and favourite writers John Berger, whom he said took a robust attitude towards bad reviews and once thanked Stephen Spender for his negative comments. 

 * Walsh questioned whether any writers were unassailable and critic-proof, a truth which Hensher hoped did not exist, and finished by asking each author what comment would upset them most in a review of their work. Hensher felt that being regarded as ‘unfunny’ was both unnerving and unanswerable, while Pearson said she would particularly dislike reviewers suggesting she didn’t care about the language in her work. Myerson‘s main fear was that a publisher simply wouldn’t publish her work. Dyer moved back to criticism of humour, admitting he was convinced that his books were ‘screamingly funny’!

English PEN would like to thank Adam Street Club and all of the evening’s speakers for their lively participation.

Report by Alice O’Hanlon. Photographs by Andrea Pisac.

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