David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) is not just an iconic image of the 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size Read more of this post

Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

Points for ‘helpfulness’: Boy-scout reviewing?

OK, we’re back on reviewing. Everyone has (rightly) been wary of Amazon’s ‘reviews’ — an agent highlighted one review a few weeks ago where the ‘reviewer’ gave a dismissive one-star review to a book that s/he admitted to not having read. (S/he didn’t like the idea of it, apparently.) But on the whole, many people still skim down a line of reviews, looking at the overall positive/negative feedback, even while accepting that many of the reviews are negative ‘because I couldn’t identify with any of the characters’ or similar reasons that will have no effect on any other reader.

However, it is also worth remembering that the ‘top’ Amazon reviewers are also receiving free books and merchandise, and their position as ‘top’ reviewers is contingent not merely on the number of reviews that they write, as I had previously thought, but on the positive nature of their reviews. Amazon says quite straightforwardly that ‘overall helpfulness’ should be the focus of the reviews. And, not surprisingly from a retailer who makes its substantial pile from selling books, ‘helpfulness’ does not equate to a review that says ‘Save your pennies, this book is a steaming pile of shite.’

So instead, the reviewers, who not unreasonably since they are unpaid, want their free books, beaver away as some sort of literary version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Edwin the Boy-Scout, performing last week but one’s Daily Act of Kindness. The problem is, they are being kind to Amazon, not to the users of the site. Those people are being suckered into spending money on things that the reviewer doesn’t actually like: not kind at all.

I have a suggestion, although it’s an odd one. Why don’t readers rely on reviewers who get paid, and whose reviews appear in independent forums? I know, we could call them ‘book review sections’, and they could be printed in, mmm, perhaps newspapers and magazines? Just an idea.

Nah, probably won’t work.


Critical thinking: reviews redux

I know, I know, I go on about reviews and reviewing, but apart from personal feelings, they matter. I was recently criticized in a chat-forum (link omitted for reasons of taste) for being ‘mean’ to some of the New York City Ballet dancers who appeared in London on a tour (I said they weren’t very good). The feelings of the post-ers was that the some of the dancers I had mentioned were young, and replacing more senior dancers who were injured and unable to appear. This of course is a chronic problem for dance companies.

But in a way, as a reviewer, it is none of my business. Instead, the question for me as a reviewer, is who am I writing for? The dancers? I don’t think so: not my job. My job, is to give my opinion and (hopefully) an informed perspective based on wide viewing over (ahem) four decades, to explain why I think something is good, bad or indifferent; but it is also to say to potential audiences, ‘go/don’t go’. The top price tickets at the Coliseum for that tour were £90: give or take, $150. My responsibility is not to be kind to dancers, but to say, ‘Yes, spend your money here’; ‘No, don’t bother, not worth it.’

I covered the Royal Ballet’s most recent Triple Bill last night (reviewed here). I had recently seen their new Alice in Wonderland, and didn’t much care for it (review in TLS forthcoming). But the Triple was a thrill, and I left the theatre remembering why it is I am so passionate about this art-form. My review is not so much a review, as an attempt to recreate that thrill: I was giving a little of the history of Ashton’s Rhapsody, to be sure, but also saying, ‘God, yes, rush right over and grab a fistful of tickets! This is the performance and the dancer you want to tell your grandchildren you saw!’

And I think most people recognize that these are the elements of reviewing. There is a fascinating piece today in the WSJ (here) on the truly farcical situation the Cleveland Orchestra has got itself into. Short version: the Cleveland Orchestra hated the reviews that the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s critic was writing about them. Instead of kicking the newspaper around (my preferred method), it kicked the newspaper’s hierarchy around. And the newspaper responded by getting rid of the critic. The story is long and messy and depressing. But the upshot, apparently, is that the orchestra has now hired itself a pet: a ‘critic-in-residence’ to produce a blog filled with bright and shiny features about their wonderfulness.

He writes on his (orchestra-approved) blog: ‘Comment on the concert you are about to experience. Review if you wish, if you must.’ Where to start with those sentences? Listeners/audiences should comment before they hear the concert? Comment on what? The performance that hasn’t happened? Then they should review it, ‘if you must‘? — that is, if you can’t control your disgusting impules to prefer one style over another, commend some artistic decisions while feeling others have not succeeded? According to the WSJ, this c-i-r’s own judgement is nuanced and delicate: one piece ends: ‘As my 18-year-old jock hip-hopper college freshman would say, “What a beast!”‘

Readers and audiences are not fooled by this kind of non-criticism, and even more, they are not interested in it; the blog is garnering about three comments a month. Being criticized is no fun. I know. I’ve been there, and no doubt will be there again. But I’m a big girl, and as long as a review is about my work, not about my haircut, my morals or my nasty habit of eating cashews with my mouth open, it’s fine. Not fun, but fine. I’ve even learnt from reviews, and taken things on board in my next books.

I’m sure those NYCB dancers I was ‘mean’ about are fine too. And probably the Cleveland Orchestra musicians are too (if not their trembly bosses).

And do go and see Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody. You won’t regret it.

Forensic examination passes the test

I’ve been seeing a lot of books right now on the development of forensic science — some good, some rather repellently enjoying the gore (*gives girlish shudder*). One that stands well above the rest is Douglas Starr’s The Killer of Little Shepherds: The Case of the French Ripper and the Birth of Forensic Science.

Starr is co-director of the Science Journalism Program at Boston University, and I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts (jam-filled, please) that it was his publisher who insisted on that subtitle. The ‘Birth of Forensic Science’ is clearly so much closer to his heart than the ‘French Ripper’, and Lacassagne, his French Alfred Swaine Taylor (without the hubris, pomposity or simple sheer pig-headedness. But I digress), is his hero, and now one of mine, too, if only for his shining belief in the ultimate goodness of rationality and humanity.

I reviewed it in the Spectator, here, but do go and get a copy, too!

Reviews and reviewers: the best revenge

Reviews, it should be unnecessary to state, are not generally libellous, even when they are sour, bad-tempered and malign. Sounds uncontentious, no? But in France, a case has been working its way through the courts, attempting to prove just the opposite.

In 2007 a professor at NYU’s School of Law, Joseph Weiler, who edits a website, Global Law Books, posted a review by Professor Thomas Weigend, of the University of Cologne, of a book by Karin Calvo-Goller, a lecturer in Israel, catchily entitled The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court.

Ms Calvo-Goller took exception to the review, which suggested her analytical grasp of the subject was weak. She asked the website to remove the review, which it refused to do, although it offered her space to respond. She declined.

I’ve taken exception to reviews of my books, too, but it has never occurred to me to do what Ms Calvo-Goller did, which was to go venue-shopping for libel. Despite a Dutch publisher, a New York-based website, an Israeli academic and a German reviewer, she sued Professor Weiler for criminal (yup, you got that right) libel in the French courts (the reviewer was not named in the suit).

Professor Weiler has now won. The case has been dismissed, and he has been awared punitive damages. He has posted a fascinating article on his defence here.

But really, as a writer, my question is, who sues for libel over a nasty review? There are plenty of well-respected and time-tested methods for dealing with other people’s poor opinions of your work when they appear in print.

a) Kick newspaper across room; if shoes are damp and they leave dirty footprints on paper, so much the better; if not, decorate reviewer’s byline photgraph with buck teeth and extra-large ears, plus a little five o’clock shadow (for a woman) or cleavage (a man);

b) Over a period of days, remind everyone within earshot that you had intentionally set out to do whatever it is the reviewer says you have done by accident (omitted to deal with major facet of x, y or z; relocated city to wrong continent, etc.);

c) Over a period of weeks, start to spread rumour of said reviewer’s interesting sexual proclivities. Begin, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but…’ (When recipient of innuendo replies, ‘Did you see her review of your book?’ look amazed, and say ‘Oh no, really?’);

d) After a few months, modify: when reviewer’s name is mentioned, simply smile sadly, shake your head and say, ‘Poor thing’. When asked why, look mysteriously regretful;

e) For years, know that you really really really dislike this person, even if you can no longer quite remember why;

f) Finally, meet her at party; have lovely conversation; swap email addresses, pictures of children, annoying habits of the editor you now share, before you realize who it is you are talking to;

g) Move on…

And after your second or third book, recognize that (a) to (e) can all be encompassed in the five minutes you spend kicking the newspaper across the room. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and that’s all a review is. Just skip to (f). Even if you don’t want to. Smile. Be polite. Revenge is behaving well.

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