This week isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed something for the Times Literary Supplement—I’m surprised to find my first review was published in 2005—but it is the first time my name’s ever been on the cover.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect a little on my own experience of being a reviewer. In the last decade, I’ve published ten reviews in the TLS, around one a year. I don’t think that makes me a regular reviewer. Perhaps a level up from occasional? I’ve always liked reviewing for the TLS for three reasons. Firstly, you feel in very good, if frequently very intimidating company. In the early days of the TLS, contributors included T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, authors who saw criticism as a genre in its own right and not simply a means of making money. Until 1974, reviewers in the TLS were anonymous. Authors had to guess who had reviewed their book. No such luck anymore. Angry authors can write back immediately. Secondly, the TLS is actually read by thousands of people. You can even buy it at the train station in Sheffield. As academics, most of the time we write for a very small audience. Our books are rarely in bookshops, never mind newsagents. The connection with a readership feels distant. Not when you publish a review. Thirdly, the process from research to writing to publication is about fifty times quicker than any scholarly article. When I reviewed Haruki Murakami’s short stories a decade ago, I remember finishing the book on a Friday, completing the review on Monday morning, checking proofs that afternoon, and seeing the review in print that Thursday. Having waited literally years for some essays to be published, the speed of publication still feels miraculous. I only finished typing it last week, I often think. What is it doing in black ink so quickly?
Something else I like about reviewing is being edited carefully. Although I attempt to keep to word limits, I have a tendency to digress and embellish. The editors of the TLS tactfully keep such habits in check. Proofs always arrive with my eccentricities and quirks gone. It’s like going to bed leaving one’s trousers in a heap and waking up to find somebody’s gone to the trouble of ironing them. The editors also choose a title for the review and if it’s long enough, an illustration to accompany it. The Murakami review even had a cartoon!
This week, my review of Joanna Walsh’s Hotel has two titles. The cover promises a piece about ‘Home in Hotels.’ Inside the paper, the review is titled ‘Somewhere else.’ The book is about hotels as homes and hotels as somewhere else places. In other words, two titles felt very appropriate.
Reviewing contemporary fiction often feels like writing without a safety net. There is no secondary material to consult, nobody else’s opinions to consider or engage with. It’s just you and the book and after that, your verdict. I love the freedom and the risk of that: the freedom to say whether a book is worth reading and of course the risk that you are wrong. I’ll only know that next week when I check there are no ‘Letters to the Editor.’