Out of the jiffybag

Frank Kermode

  • For Love and Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling 1969-1987 by Jonathan Raban
    Collins Harvill, 350 pp, £11.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 272279 8
  • Original Copy: Selected Reviews and Journalism 1969-1986 by John Carey
    Faber, 278 pp, £9.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14879 4

Here begins a review of two books which are largely collections of reviews, and some readers, reviewing it, are sure to ask whether this flea-on-flea process is desirable or even tolerable. My feeling is that such criticism is prejudiced. That which appears in the ephemerae isn’t necessarily ephemeral. Not all reviews are written lefthandedly by authors who save their best efforts for quite different sorts of writing. They may, as Jonathan Raban’s title suggests, be working for love as well as money, and it is easy to understand their wish to give their best work in this kind a more permanent form.

Raban has some engaging remarks on this subject. As he says, very few people can now make a living by writing reviews; he thinks, perhaps wrongly, that it was possible to do so as recently as 1969, but in any case it is true that fees have gone down in real terms and ‘it’s hard to corrupt anyone now on £70.’ Indeed the risk for young writers is that they may love the job too much. ‘Waking to the flop of the jiffybag on the mat, he knows it as the sound of the beginning of a good day’; the piece he does will be published quite quickly, while the book he neglects in order to meet the deadline of the literary editor won’t in any case see the light for a year or two. Moreover reviewing gives him the satisfaction of being a part of the judicial process by which books are sorted out at the discretion of a handful of his peers.

It is true that just as people read reviews rather than books, they prefer short reviews to long ones, so the snap judgments of the dailies and Sundays have undue influence. But this doesn’t mean there is no place for serious reviewing. Raban knows what good reviewing is not – its purpose is not to remind the reader that the reviewer is cleverer and more interesting than the book under consideration – and he also knows what it is. A good review gives a fair account of the book, yet is a well-composed piece in its own right. Raban’s model is V.S. Pritchett, certainly the master of the 1500-word review. As Raban noticed in the New Statesman office, ‘there was no mistaking a manuscript by Pritchett – it was overlaid with small embellishments in longhand, many of them crossed out and recorrected to the point where the sheet of paper was in places blackened ... From a distance of several yards off, you could see that a review by Pritchett was a serious and intricate piece of work.’

The hundred or so pages of reviews Raban offers for inspection here may not reach that level, but they are never ephemeral and are occasionally remarkable, like the longish piece on Mayhew. He’s not a slasher – though there is a very severe notice of the autobiographies of Anthony Powell and Peter Quennell – and he seems to enjoy being generous to other reviewers, as when he justly praises John Updike. He is full of gratitude to literary editors, commemorating Ian Hamilton’s work on the New Review in terms only this side of idolatry. Such writers and editors do the work he wants to help with – they keep going some intelligent conversation about books.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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