Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rant No. 1

Giant Righteous Rant Re Reviewers or GRRRR!Let’s be clear. This is certainly not a rant against all reviewers. It’s not even a rant against people who give negative reviews. Everyone’s entitled to express their opinion. No – this is a rant against irresponsible reviewers, who bring their own agenda, don’t check their facts, score cheap points and generally abuse their power. Oh, OK. I admit. It’s actually against one particular reviewer, Elena Seymenliyska at the Guardian.

Here’s the review in question.

Trading Tatiana, by Debi Alper (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £10.99)
Orphaned at 18 (hippy mother under train; father unknown), Jo Cooper is a soft touch for a hard-luck case. She gets by, selling candles at Greenwich market and babysitting for her neighbours in a council high-rise on the Old Kent Road. On a day trip to Brighton, she meets Tatiana, a teenage Ukrainian on the run from a nasty bunch of mullet-haired, leather-jacketed compatriots, and gets embroiled in a story of people-trafficking, prostitution and extortion. Debi Alper's follow-up to Nirvana Bites revisits the south London milieu. While her characters never move beyond stereotype and her plot is as fresh as a car-boot sale, her clunky prose wins the prize for unintentional hilarity: "The brothers had split up and would trap her like an eyebrow hair in tweezers"; "Blythe clung to my hand like a Black and Decker Workmate." To top it all, Alper's blasé attitude to Russian betrays her as a writer who'd appropriate any old cause for effect.

Ouch! We all know that, by their very nature, reviews are subjective. No one has ever written a book that everyone either loves or hates and I defend the right of ES – or anyone else – to dislike my novels. So although I disagree with her literary criticisms I absolutely accept her right to express them (even when she misquotes the text!).

No, what I really object to is the final sentence - Alper's blasé attitude to Russian betrays her as a writer who'd appropriate any old cause for effect – which as far as I’m concerned moves away from literary criticism and into vitriolic personal attack – although I’ve never met the woman and she clearly has done no research into my background.

Is she upset by my attitude to the Russian language? The people? It’s unclear exactly what she has a problem with – apart from the fact that I’ve obviously hit a raw nerve somewhere along the line. Anyone who bothers to check could find out about my political commitment (see the biog on my website). While we’re at it, I should state that my father’s parents were from the Ukraine and my mother’s were from Russia and Bessarabia. But that really isn’t the point.

My objection is to her portraying me as someone who would ‘appropriate’ the suffering of women like Tatiana and Nadia for my own benefit. I was devastated that people who don’t know me would have no reason to reject her analysis. As a new author, with few other national reviews to provide balance, why should anyone disbelieve her version? A new author is such an easy target. I had no means of replying or defending myself. If I wrote to the letters page, all I would succeed in doing is drawing attention to her review. Many people, outraged on my behalf, tried to comfort me on the grounds that:
  • at least my book had provoked a strong response·
  • lots of people don’t read reviews anyway
  • those that do, often forget the content of the review and just remember the book title.
But it didn’t help. Say it loud – these people do have power – and as far as I’m concerned, she abused hers big time. Yes, I know my skin has to thicken. Once you stick your head above the parapet, you have to be prepared for people to chuck things at you. My book had obviously really got to her and in revenge, she attacked me at my most vulnerable spot – the fear that people might think I was exploiting the issues rather than deliberately using my role as a writer to draw attention to them. At least I’ve now had the opportunity to reply. For more balanced reviews, see Trading Tatiana - reviews on my website.


Bruce said...

I see no problem in a smidgen, smudge or swath of exploitation of an issue. As far as the issue itself is concerned, don't they say something along the lines of 'There is no bad publicity.'

And, perhaps I'm missing the point but, I don't follow the implication that an author who does 'exploit' a topic is any less of a writer than someone who wanders about it on the balls of their feet.

I'd be tempted to write to ES under a pseudonym and wildly insult her about her hairy toes and decrepit prose. It wouldn't assist correcting the wrong but it would make me feel better.

Debi said...

Yippee! Hi Bruce - you have the dubious distinction of being the first person to access and comment on my blog. Since I have virtual virgin status on this stuff I have no idea how you came across me - but would love to know ...
Thanks for support re ES. I had originally intended to send her the rant - though not anonymously. But then I decided, having had my say, I should move on. Anyway I wouldn't have mentioned her hairy toes as I have a great fondness for hobbits.

Bruce said...

Hi Debi - 'tis an honour to be your 'first'! Gotta be quick - found your blog by clicking on the "Next Blog" on the top right of the blog page toolbar. I think that then sends you to next most recently published blog - so it's really just the luck of the draw. I find I have to peruse hundreds to find just one worth reading.

I think the best way to develop a readership is to, obviously, write good stuff, and also become part of a network of 'Links.' You find other blogs that you like, comment, get to know the author and then put a link to their page as they might, on theirs, to yours. That is my understanding at least. Personally, I shun such wanton celebrity (only coz you ain't got it! - Ed). Ahem. Keep up the good work.

Bruce said...

O yes, and there is a time and place for hobbitses!

Debi said...

Oh I see! ie I see what you mean re checking out next blog. And I also see what you mean about how much junk there is out there in the ether. I even see what you mean about Frodo et al ...


I sympathise. If it's any consolation I think The Guardian Arts section is in decline.. I also liked your Black and Decker line. It's original, raw, descriptive and very real and it reveals a sense of humour.

Debi said...

Thanks, Island Monkey, and welcome. That's just what I felt about the Black & Decker line (which was better in the original text anyway) and feel it's far preferable to the much-cliched 'vice-like grip'.
Just goes to prove you can never please everybody.
Indeed, there must be s-o-o many people out there that the likes of you and me would be very worried to hear we had pleased ...


Hi. Just wanted to expand the debate and add something more about that Black and Decker line which I thought was quite important and I think possibly reveals some class bias on the behalf of the reviewer and in fact is one of the reasons I really like your confident use of it.

It is very common culturally to use Brand names as generic names for products in British working class culture. I grew up with my family referring to all vacuum cleaners, as Hoovers for instance.

When you go to school or University teachers tell you not to do this but it is something which is culturally entrenched in a certain strata of post-war British society across several generations so I think your use of it adds a refreshing dose of realism...

The lack of understanding from the reviewer only reveals a certain prejudice about the way language is used and for the benefit of whom, you might argue..

Debi said...

Hi again, Monkey. Couldn't agree more re the class bias.
Can't help wondering which bit of me ES found most offensive but suspect me being obviously gobby, working class AND articulate played a large part!
To add to your points, I'm fascinated by this stuff. I was brought up using words like settee, pouffe, lounge etc. In retrospect I can see that my parents thought they were being posh (probably because the words sound a bit foreign). Whereas the genuinely posh could see through them in a flash.
I've been 'corrected' on all the above plus more (it's 'cutting the grass' not 'mowing the lawn', 'wash basin' not 'sink' etc etc).
I leave it to your imagination to guess my response!

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I'll email you a bit later (about your Spanish translation), but just wanted to put in a public (if now outdated) place my opinion of that Guardian review. I like to be precise in my wording, and to use just the right word in the right place. I used a thesaurus to find a polite equivalent of the original word that sprang to mind, and found a resonant word rich in history, sociology, connotation, possibly used by Dr Johnson himself. Yes, you have guessed. In the end, the vast richness of the English language - the language of Alf Garnett, of the Rusty Lady herslf - yielded a fair, honest, balanced, and sensuously evocative word to sum up the review.


... because the first part is dull exposition, and the second part, as you say, the vicious reaction of someone with an agenda, though I can't see what that agenda is, especially as we're not talking about a Telegraph review. Others have noted how apposite Black & Decker weas to lightheartedly describe a child's (yes, child's - didn't the reviewer read it?) excited determined selfish grip. The eyebrow squeezer is more questionable - apt, but maybe wrong register for seriousness of T's situation. But that's not the point. I remember some arrogant prick called Taylor doing a Times review of Mike Moorcock's incredible Vengeance of Rome (fourth and final vaolume of the Between the Wars quartet, far far better than the fantasy stuff he's always labelled with - and with a Ukrainina anti-hero, by the way: I strongly recommend the books to you)and devoting about 30% of his 'review' to trying to prove Mike had mixed up the words 'White Chapel' and "whitehall'. In fact, it's the character who mixes them up, one among a myriad examples of his false learning, but it doesn'at matter even if it was an authorial error. In a 600-poage book, you do not NOT try to score one over the writer dealing with ONE word. Similarly, here, the 'reviewer' has picked out what SHE (it?) thinks are bad similes, and presented them as her 'evidence' of a bad book.

More important, I dunno if the subject of immigrant prostitution is a common theme in modern UK novels (I Live in spain) - even if it is, that doesn't invalidate another book on the same (intensely tragic) subject - but I think she called your characters stereotyped or something like that, whereas two of them at least - the narrator and Tatiana - are much more subtly drawn than the seeming broad strokes might suggest. Jo is prsented as always making errors (even the final tragic one, though you have to recall a bit of earlier excellently placed omniscient narrtator stuff to remember why), and Tatiana is presente4d quite harshly, is indeed quite unappealing despite her plight - precisely because, as Smokey Pete says, she is 'damaged'. How could she be 'nice'? These are not stereotypes. I would agree the baddies are a bit alike, but the 'reviewer' says ALL teh characters are cardboard.

Again, the prose is not consciously 'stylish' or 'literary' but is I think just right for a fast-moving tale like this. The plot may not break boundaries (though I found it exciting)but to call it 'carboot' is ...well, crap, and the ending was brilliant. I'd even stuck a pencil note about 30 pages from the end, 'tension released too early ' - more fool me!

And the other point you have answered yourself. The last comment is vicious, spiteful, unwarranted - and totally unprofessional.

There, a rant by proxy! Now to see if I can get out of this page without losing the message
(I'd onlyu meant to write a couple of hurried lines)

Debi said...

Wow - over a year later and this post is still getting attention as a result of Trading Tatiana being published in Spain.

Thank you so much, Steve. I hope I've made it clear already how much this comment means to me.

日月神教-向左使 said...
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