Character testing, Damien Wilkins

Novelist Damien Wilkins on the ups and downs of reviewing other writers.

The first book review I wrote was for the New Zealand Listener in 1986. It was of Russell Haley’s novel The Settlement. I’d just spent two years in the English Department at Victoria University as a teaching assistant and then junior lecturer, and instead of working on my MA, I’d begun to write short stories. I’d never met Haley; I’d never met anyone. Maybe I’d said hello to Bill Manhire in the staff kitchen. I now think of that review as a sort of job application. Of course there was no position I was applying for – except Young Man with Literary Ambitions. The review was a test – not, I’m afraid, of the book but of me. And I remember the relief I felt when I liked the novel. Because this was a novel I knew I should like. Haley’s short fiction had been embraced by the progressives and disdained by the forces – as I saw them – of conservatism. (I conceived of fiction – and still do, though not as fiercely – as a battlefield.) C K Stead had mordantly and memorably despatched Haley in a sonnet as “probably//the best Yorkshire surrealist writing in New Zealand”.

I don’t know if I’ve ever sweated as much over a review as I did on those 750 words.

That confession makes it all seem rather drearily programmatic, as if the test resided in some anxious grad student’s flimsy notion of up-to-dateness. And I’m sure there was plenty of flimsy. But it gets worse. It strikes me now that what I was really doing in the review – and struggling with – was creating character, doing voice. There was a book to discuss certainly and questions had to be addressed: what was the novel about? Where did it fit in the literature? Was it, you know, any good? But the tougher stuff had to do – how can I say this? – with me. How did I want to sound? What was the tone of this fellow who’d carry my name in the by-line? What was his story?

Hence: the book under review is the test of circumstance by which the character of the reviewer advances. Unhelpful obviously in all sorts of ways, but I think I believe it. So Angela Carter’s book reviews and journalism collected in Shaking a Leg amount to a great autobiography. I do believe that.

I met Haley a few years later, and when he heard my name, he immediately brought up the review. He thanked me and said that the review had pointed out things to him that he was unaware of. This had the effect of making me feel like a pretentious dick, but Haley meant it sincerely. He said it was rare to be read so carefully. The odd thing was I didn’t particularly like this show of gratitude, a reaction which puzzles me still. Was it because I thought Haley, in his warmth, was showing a kind of weakness? I mean, ceding too much power to a reviewer. Weren’t we writers – and I’d published a book by then – meant to disdain and rise above and show invulnerability?

Many years later Haley reviewed one of my novels enthusiastically. I have no reason to think he wasn’t being honest – and every reason of course to believe he was being honest. But he went further. He sent a letter to my publisher, listing a number of typos he’d found in the book and one continuity error in the narrative. He wanted to make sure these were picked up for the reprint. (Excessive kindness right there.) Now a less generous reviewer might easily have used these mistakes to bash the book. And I’m guessing that my own review 15 years earlier persuaded Haley not to go down this path.

I don’t mean to suggest Russell Haley’s decency was simply quid pro quo, but there was a strong element of favours being exchanged. Was that the real reason I resisted him earlier? Because he’d made plain and large what I preferred to pretend was hidden and minor. Namely, that not only was there a real person on the receiving end of the review but that that person could act in the world, my world. Of course I knew all this; I just didn’t enjoy seeing it, even in its positive manifestation. Cue second anecdote.

In 1988 I returned to Wellington from a year in London. Harry Ricketts, who was then looking after the book pages on the Dominion, asked me to review a novel set at Victoria University in the 1960s. I’d never heard of the writer, thought it’d be fun and merrily proceeded to hate The Fools on the Hill. (“The lives of all his sentences are ruled inert by their constant appeal to things already known”; “The novel has a page-turning competency but it also encourages the slack attention of a holiday read.”) This turned out to be a mistake. Graeme Lay became North and South’s book reviewer for the next 100 years. And with a tenacity I’ve come to admire, he has never let an opportunity go past to hate me right back. Now maybe he would have always found my work “unreadable” and “pointless” – oh, I can’t be bothered finishing that sentence; writers know the whens and whys of these situations. This was revenge. (And may I just point out that in this scenario I always win, since I wrote my review in ignorance and Lay was and is always in the position of responding. Shame.)

To be honest, though, I wouldn’t write that sort of review now. Not because I’ve wised up to how the game works or I’m a nicer person – though both those things are probably true. The fact is I’ve fallen out of love with the whole enterprise of reviewing. I stopped reviewing some years ago and I’ve never regretted it. (I fell off the wagon last year because I wanted to get the new hardback Alice Munro. Bad hangover when I woke up to discover I’d tried to tell Munro how to write.) The money was rubbish, the grief was harmful, and it didn’t help me get my own work done. But that still leaves something out. I don’t know how to describe what’s missing.

The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, in the introduction to his novel Ferdydurke, offered his readers this advice: “if you wish to let me know that the book pleased you – when you see me simply touch your right ear. If you touch your left ear, I shall know that you didn’t like it, and if you touch your nose it will mean that you are not sure ….”

The fact that book reviewing can never communicate through a gesture as light and glancing as touching one’s ear, one’s nose …

So while I follow the argument that we need a robust local literary culture and that we should all review fearlessly, and that the shrinking allocation of space in our newspapers for books is alarming, my inner voice says, “Keep moving, fool!”

One more encounter. My admiring review of Owen Marshall’s The Divided World: Selected Stories in the Evening Post had the title “Welcome record of a rare writing talent”. A few years later in Landfall, I reviewed his collection Coming Home in the Dark, which I found mostly disappointing and, in its title story, pretty objectionable. I’ve met Owen a few times, and he’s always been a model of civility and friendliness. Neither of us has ever mentioned the reviews. Last week one of my current MA students told me he’d bought a copy of one of my novels on Trade Me. The owner’s name was inscribed on the title page: Owen Marshall.

In the early 1990s my overseas publishers would send me copies of reviews via fax. (Overseas publishers – I remember them.) It was pre-internet, and so the sound of that machine coming to life at 3am was usually a thrill, unless it was a wrong number – why were there so many wrong number fax calls back then? Anyway, when I was looking in the filing cabinet for material for this piece, I came across several pages of thermal fax paper which were blank except for a few faint lines of text giving the sender’s address. I could also just make out “Dear Damien”. Then nothing. I realised these were reviews of my books.

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