Adèle Geras launches an occasional series …
Unlike writers, reviewers lead a charmed life – etiquette normally prevents a response to their response. Given the chance, though, how would writers reply to their most irritating critic?
Here are three statements I always take with a full container of easi-pour salt:
1. `You just wouldn’t believe how much I eat. I’m fantastically greedy, really!’ (from a Nancy Reagan look-alike in a size 8 dress)
2. `I haven’t done a stroke of work, honestly…’ (from studious friends at exam time)
3. `I never read my reviews.’ (usually, it’s true, from actors)
Most writers I know run themselves ragged seeking out the slenderest mention of their work in the most obscure of publications. A kindly adjective from the critic of the Necromancers Chronicle or the Icelandic Surgeon-Hook Manufacturers Gazette will get me speeding across town, changing buses if I have to, to get to that funny little shop which is the only place that stocks, etc. etc. I clip bits about writer friends from anything I can and dispatch them by first-class post. I expect them to do the same for me. I’ve been known to phone long-distance if a really spectacular paragraph has been achieved in a Quality Paper or journals like Growing Point or BfK. All of which goes to show that reviews do get read, and do have an effect. All children’s book writers know that space is tiny, books are legion and reviewers (with a few honourable exceptions) tend to criticize things in clumps. Still, clump-reviews are reviews, and it only takes one friendly adjective (my favourites are `original’, `poignant’, `sparky’ and `compelling’, but there’s an enormous choice available) to make my day. Conversely, an unfriendly review can depress, dishearten and, if your ego is in poor shape, even reduce to tears. Also, these words, which friends assure you are mere ephemera, destined to be wrapped around tomorrow’s fish, remain in the mind forever. I have never quite forgiven B A Young, the splendid theatre critic of the Financial Times, for calling me a `stocky brunette’ in 1964, even though he was actually praising me at the time, and also telling the truth. Did he have to use that dreadful adjective? I digress, as most writers will if you give them half a chance.
However much we may moan, most writers do recognise that having published a book means:
a) people are free to have any opinion of it they wish, and
b) there is no obligation on anyone to love and praise everything.
I will therefore loudly defend any critic’s (or reader’s) right to fling any one of my books away in disgust saying, `This is not for me’. And even though I may feel a little hurt privately, I don’t even mind them saying, `This is not for me in public, though I have to admit that most people have been more than kind about my books, most of the time.
What really upsets/worries/irritates me is when a reader has Got Something Wrong:something factual, something textual. A prime example was a review in the TLS of my picture book Ritchie’s Rabbit, but that was so blatant I wrote to the Editor and my letter was published. I feel, therefore, that I’ve had my say there. What follows is the review I’m taking issue with now. I quote it in full. It was written by Audrey Laski in the Times Educational Supplement on 13th May 1988, and because Ms Laski is generally perspicacious and because I’ve enjoyed her reviews in the past, I felt even more indignant. I nearly wrote her a personal letter and then decided that could only be interpreted as (good Yiddish word, this) ‘kvetching’!
But now my brief is precisely to kvetch, so here goes:
`The Girls in the Velvet Frame by Adele Geras, a story for rather younger readers set in Jerusalem at the turn of the century has a curious innocence: its charming, impoverished Jewish sisters have left European pogroms behind and have no thought of dispossessing Arabs. (Lions, £1.95)’
There are two factual errors here:
1. The Girls is set in Jerusalem in 1912. It is based on a photograph I have of my mother and her sisters. My mother’s family had been first in Palestine, then Israel since the early nineteenth century. I am of the sixth generation to be born in the city. My girls are not immigrants: why should they have any memory at all of Europe, much less of pogroms? Europe is a totally foreign place to them. Indeed, their Aunt Mimi is given added exoticism by having been there in her youth.
2. In 1912, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. The British hadn’t even arrived yet to set up the Mandate. So why should the heartbreaking situation of recent years in the Middle East have anything to do with the case?
Finally, I wish to say this: Girls is a domestic story about domestic concerns. It doesn’t deal with world-shaking issues. The idea of five sisters living together seemed (seems still) wonderfully exciting to me as an only child, and that was what I wanted to write about. Others may have written a searing documentary novel, but I didn’t. I wrote (and OK, it’s chutzpah even to mention it in the same breath!) a sort of Jewish Little Women. I feel quite unrepentant about it. Long live innocence!
The Girls in the Velvet Frame was first published in 1978 by Hamish Hamilton. It is now available in Lions paperback (0 00 672879 0), priced £1.95.
Adèle Geras’s latest book is The Tower Room. It was published in April by Hamish Hamilton (0 241 12956 7, £8.50) and is intended to be the first part of a trilogy.