Thursday, 20 August 2009

When bad reviews are just plain bad

I love reading bad reviews; it’s a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the word. I don’t for example feel guilty or wrong-headed for enjoying such artistically questionable fare as I-see-dead-people-cop-show Medium, the albums of Take That and the films of Richard Curtis; I do, however, feel ashamed that I enjoy reading someone kicking seven shades of batshit out of someone else’s long sweated-over creative endeavour.

Of those god-awful reviews I’ve enjoyed over the years, the vast majority have concerned books I have either hated or not read. The only book I loved that got a real good pummelling was Being Dead by Jim Crace. And I laughed that off because it was written by hatchet man, Dale Peck, a huffy old queen whose essays on the sacred cows of modern fiction are a sublime, bitchy joy. His reviews are often so hysterical it’s sometimes hard to take them seriously. Which leads us neatly to George Walden’s review of David Peace’s Occupied City.

Let me begin by stating that I am a huge fan of David Peace; but am far from a zealot. He can be confusing, irritating, pretentious, overblown and relentless; what he isn’t, however, is shit. Which is pretty much what George Walden says in his review. He needn’t have gone into 800 words to say it either. He could simply have daubed Occupied Shitty onto a piece of paper using a shitty stick dipped in shit and then faxed it through. Had he done that, I suspect it would have made a far more cogent and far less bitter argument than his eventual piece.

Walden starts by laying into Peace’s “textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms”. So far, so obvious: they can, after all, be wearying and you certainly have to be in the mood for them. If he’d have expressed why he believed these tricks didn’t work, or why they ruined the book for him, I wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it. But he doesn’t, and this is where the problems begin.

What Walden wants is Peace to deliver “the goods on the hallucinatory horrors of postwar Japan”. Which is, I would argue, the precise reason why Peace uses “textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms” in the first place. The fact that the novel has multiple narrators, that events are replayed from different perspectives, that each chapter is written in its own style, using its own textual variants creates a believable world full of those hallucinatory horrors Walden seems to crave. Take away the repetition, the tics and styles and the very atmosphere, tone and feel of this book is destroyed.

Ignoring this seeming contradiction in his argument, Walden – with all the fusty self-importance of an old man at the Saatchi Gallery – sums up Peace’s style by grumbling that “large parts of the book are scarcely readable”. I don’t know what he found so hard about it, to be honest.

Of Peace’s recent books, this is remarkably easy to follow. Compared to Tokyo Year Zero, which had me baffled for the majority of its pages, it is a doddle. But, confusingly, Walden sees TYZ as an easier read, with Occupied City being built on “ponce-worthy proclivities” (just cutting and pasting that phrase makes me somewhat bilious) which were only hinted at in the earlier book. This either suggests to me that he hasn’t actually read Tokyo Year Zero. Or, most likely, he has and he’s hoping that the readers of the review haven’t.

Because the problem with this review is that it’s not really a review at all. It is an 800-word essay on why the modern British cultural world is a moribund, foul and self-regarding morass of drek and garbage. It’s telling that Walden does not even blame Peace for the faults he finds in Occupied City; instead Walden finds fault in our “bloated culture, with its perpetual need for wunderkin­der.”

I expect doddering old giffers to wring their hands about the modern world; it is their function, as important a job as their keeping garden centres in business and the post sacks at the Radio Times and the Daily Mail offices bulging. But what Walden puts forward is so risible that even the members of his local Conservative Club might raise a Denis Healy-sized eyebrow. His argument is that Peace only got praised for his last book because – and it still makes me laugh this – he is Northern, youngish and writes about class.

That’s right, things have changed so much now that young northern white men are the latest pet project of the left-wing media. They are praised to the heavens, patted on the back for their cleverness and in a few years someone will invent a prize for these poor northern men to run alongside the Orange Prize. When the shortlist for the Booker is announced, there will be plenty of Op Ed pieces about the distinct lack of white northern men who made the cut. It might not be a literary response, but come on, for fuck’s sake: what is Walden thinking?

According to Walden, Peace is the victim of his generation; an unthinking writer who only cares what the critics (or his “betters” as Walden lovingly describes them) think of his work. I’m sorry, George, but this is palpably ridiculous. This is the author of eight novels we’re talking about, not some jejune kid fresh out of UEA. He has developed a style, for better or for ill, from the processes in his own mind, from his experiences as a writer of fiction. He’s not some empty vessel waiting for his "betters" to tell him what to do, and to suggest that he is shows a fundamental lack of respect to a writer. A writer, I might add, who is capable of writing some of the most imaginative and innovative fiction of this or any other generation.

But Walden won’t agree with me on that. No. Because all of Peace’s formal invention has been done before. And according to Walden, if something has been done before any writer should not be allowed to do it again. Capital letters in a text – sorry, son, Hubert Selby did that in the 50s. next! Circular writing? Appolinaire, bitch! When Walden writes “Lines crossed out? Done two centuries ago, in Tristram Shandy," I can imagine him shouting “HA!” at a picture of Peace, "how you like that, experimental boy!”

This whole thing is so wilfully negative, so hectoring and smug that it’s easy to lose sight of how good Peace is. The fact is that the textual innovations of Occupied City exist to create a specific effect – not just to prove Peace’s post modern credentials. Walden, however, implies that this isn’t the case and Peace is little more than ticking po-mo boxes (capitals, check; italics, check . . .). Walden is being both disingenuous and unfair; but then he’s only ramping himself up for the final insult.

“Reading Peace," he writes, "can be dispiritingly like watching a naughty YBA lady putting fried eggs on her tits in the belief that it puts her up there with Tristan Tzara. Sad really, all the more because when Peace is not playing at being quirky and original, his work can be much more interesting than that of the YBAs.”

The comparison is unfair, unwarranted and utterly spurious. There is not the remotest link between Peace and the YBAs, But Walden groups them deliberately to suggest that they have similar aims and ambitions. For the second time in the article, Walden implies that Peace is a delusional airhead, his artistic merit fuelled by hyperbole. Which is objectively untrue. And if I was David Peace I would be fucking livid.

When I asked Peace at a recent event whether he ever thought he’d gone too far with the inventive nature of his prose, he said No. That if anything he hadn’t gone far enough. And all I can say is here, here. It is great news – if only so I can read another entertainingly ridiculous hatchet job from the baffling pen of George Walden.


  1. Jesus Christ. With eight novels behind him, Peace is hardly a wunderkind being pushed into the limelight before he's ready.

    A shame too, as I'd always (can't remember why) marked Walden down as the acceptable face of the old Tories, a man with, I would have surmised, a few ponce-worthy proclivities himself.

    Still, I must confess that despite my love for his old chum Gordon Burn, I haven't read a word of Peace. Where oh where would one begin?

  2. Good points - and yes, much as I regret it, I have to echo theasylum. I've not read any Peace either and sometimes the first book is not the best choice. Where would you start?

  3. I would start with GB84. Personally I think his best book is a toss up between 1977 and The Damned Utd, but I think you'll decide soon enough whether you're interested by 20 pages of GB84.

    Thank you both for the comments: it is appreciated.