Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Who Reviews the Reviewers

There's an interesting literary spat going on in the Letters Page of the Irish Times this week. Last Saturday the IT's chief fiction reviewer Eileen Battersby had a good go at Dermot Healy's new novel (Long Time) - suggesting dthat there were large amounts of guff to plough through to get at the meat. I haven't read it but found it refreshing to read a rigorous review of a new Irish novel - one that wasn't just a shameless puff by a writer friend.

In jumps Eugene McCabe with a letter on Tuesday suggesting not only that Battersby was ageist (hilariously citing her praising of Neil Jordan's latest as evidence of favouring younger writers), but that her writing was so poor that she wasn't worthy of raising a pen against the sainted Healy. In today's paper the heavy guns are wheeled in and John Banville (late of the IT parish) fires off a fusillade in Battersby's defence - rebuking McCabe for his "ad hominen and scatological attack".

The whole affair highlights the difficulties of getting any book honestly reviewed in this small island. Loyalty between writers is no doubt an admirable quality in a financially precarious profession. However, I am sick and tired of seeing them puff each other up in laudatory and uncritical reviews that ultimately deceive the reading public. And how many times do you buy a book adorned with celebratory names on the back cover and end up disappointed? I can think of recent novels by John Boyne and Josephine Hart that came festooned with critical garlands from fellow writers - and both were virtually unreadable.

I have always found Eileen Battersby to be a rigorous and fair-minded critic (although, by the way, I think she gets Neil Jordan's latest badly wrong) and I welcome her honesty . She certainly doesn’t deserve Eugene McCabes cheap and churlish assault.