Earlier this year I was asked to write a short profile of Maurice Gee for Pacific Way, the Air New Zealand in-flight magazine. This involved a long-distance call from the Pacific Way office in Auckland to Gee’s home in Wellington in order to obtain a few pearls straight from the novelist’s mouth. I had never spoken to him before and I was a little apprehensive.
Like any other pair of inhabitants, of this small country, Gee and I have friends in common. They assured me that Gee is an uncommonly modest, mild-mannered and kindly man. I think I knew this anyway. What worried me was that in 1991 I had written a scathing review of The Burning Boy (Gee’s second-to-last novel) for the Sunday Star. Would Gee remember this fact? Would he hate me for it? As soon as he realised it was the accursed Iain Sharp phoning him, would he reach for a special high-pitched whistle to shatter my eardrums?
Most writers I know, including the generally sweet-natured ones as well as the naturally belligerent pugilists, never forgive a negative review. They hold a grudge against the reviewer for all eternity. Indeed, they would strain against their chains in the salt mines of Hades for a chance to gob at, grapple and gouge an offending critic.
My overall attitude to Gee’s work is far from scathing. On the contrary, I’m a fan. I think, for instance, his latest book, Going West is a gem. I just didn’t like The Burning Boy very much. Alas, I’m afraid I made rather a fool of myself by blabbing all this information to Gee within the first minute or so of my telephone call, so heavily did my Sunday Star review weigh on my mind.
Gee put up with my protestations patiently. Yes, he did vaguely recall what I had written about The Burning Boy, but it was just one review among many and he learned long ago not to be so swayed by either hissing or applause. At the time I phoned him, reviews of Going West were beginning to appear in the British press. Fabulous reviews. ‘Gee deserves to be regarded as one of the finest writers at work, not only in New Zealand, but in the English-speaking world,’ said the London Sunday Times. Had I received this encomium, I would have purchased dozens of copies of the Sunday Times and posted them to all my acquaintances, paying special attention to the folk who had scorned me in the past. Not Gee. He muttered something to me about the English notices of Going West having been ‘quite pleasant’. Then he said, ‘In the end, a review is just one person’s opinion’.
To some readers, no doubt, Gee’s remark may seem obvious. I think it’s worth repeating, though, especially in New Zealand Books, a magazine devoted to reviewing. We reviewers are a pompous over-inflated breed. We have a deplorable tendency to think of ourselves as Moses striding down from Mount Sinai with eternally ringing utterances carved in marble by god-driven lighting. In reality, of course, we’re just a bunch of nondescript bumpkins sitting by the water-pump, chewing on our slender straws.
A quick flick through the splendid anthology of cultural bric-a-brac, The Frank Muir Book, uncovers some memorably insulting descriptions of the critic’s role. Tennyson deemed reviewers mere ‘fleas in the locks of literature’. Robert Burns denounced them, in a rather peculiar phrase, as ‘pickle-herrings in the puppet show of nonsense’. Rabelais dubbed them ‘little envious prigs, snarling, bastard, puny’. Somebody called Channing Pollock likened them to legless men who teach running. (Pollock could now do with a leg up the ladder of fame himself). And in Flaubert’s august opinion, ‘Criticism occupies the lowest place in the literary hierarchy: as regards form, almost always, and as regards moral value, incontestably. It comes after rhyming-games and acrostics, which at least require a certain inventiveness’.
Thus reminded of my lowly place in the scheme of things, I would like to add to Gee’s comment, for the benefit of my fellow immoral fleas, that a review is just one person’s opinion at one particular time. I mean, we reviewers are quite capable of changing our snarling, bastard, puny minds. Whenever I have bothered to re-read reviews I wrote four or five years ago, I have disagreed with them – sometimes only in the small details I bungled, but sometimes I’m appalled by my entire verdict. Reviews are transient; they ought to be seen as elements in on-going discussions rather than the last god-like word.
Recently, one of my workmates at Pacific Way told me she was reading The Burning Boy and really enjoyed it. ‘How dare you?’ I thought for just a second. ‘Don’t you realise that I have proclaimed this book a dud?’ Then I relented, because she interested me by saying what a marvellously accurate job Gee had done in capturing teenage dialogue. She’s probably right. It’s not something I considered when I drafted my thumbs-down review.
At the moment, two extraordinary imported exhibitions are running simultaneously at the Auckland Art Gallery – 66 famed paintings from Rembrandt to Renoir (or more accurately but less alliteratively, from El Greco to Monet) and 200 or so photographs from the Magnum group. The concurrence of these displays has prompted me to look again at that old hoar-covered chestnut, so often lobbed at painting and photography, ‘the arrested moment’. It occurs to me that on a less exalted plane – on a little envious pickle-herring level – reviews are also moments under arrest. Far from being divine, everlasting pronouncements, they’re just snippets of conversation frozen in time. One-way conversation too often, unfortunately.