Everyone’s a Critic?

27 September, 2010

Last week I went along to English PEN‘s Everyone’s a Critic? event at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon to see a panel chaired by Alex Clarke including Lynne Hatwell of dovegreyreader scribbles, John Mullan (Professor of English at UCL), Sam Leith (Literary Editor of The Daily Telegraph) and Erica Wagner discuss books, reviewing and the increasing popularity of blogging. Of course I went to the event to see Lynne as I’m a HUGE fan of her blog and also Erica Wagner who is Literary Editor of The Times. I am still heartbroken that her Saturday Times Books Section was culled. Bring it back, I say!

The discussion was extremely interesting and touched on topics such as professional critics (academics) vs. amateur critics (journalists and bloggers), the nature of criticism, whether negative reviews were helpful and the difference between newspaper and blog reviews. I was expecting bloggers to get a drumming and was pleasantly surprised to hear the encouragement with which both Leith and Wagner spoke of blogs. And although it shouldn’t have really surprised me considering everyone on the panel was in the literary trade because of their love of books, but they were all reluctant to actually damn any books they reviewed (unless the author was highly established). I think I came away from the discussion feeling that they all felt that books were precious and that anything that made people read was a bonus. Erica Wagner said a lovely thing; that the only conversation is between the book and the reader.

However they did admit that the publishing world was tough and Wagner said that although they review 20 books a week at The Times, she actually receives 150 books a day. And of those, there’ll be certain big names they have to feature which leaves little room for new authors.

One of the first things discussed was what the panellists thought differentiated print reviews from blog reviews. I was expecting to hear such words as professionalism, authority, etc., but Leith surprisingly said the only difference was in format. Journalists were as amateur as bloggers when compared to academics. But they get paid, said Lynne. Very true.

Mullan did bring up an important point that however subjective people’s reactions were to a book, if there are several people with that subjective reaction regarding a similar point, it no longer is subjective and becomes something objective. Deep. They also discussed why many readers may find certain books difficult or scary and Lynne pointed out that one of the reasons for her blog was to demystify such books (such as with her Ulysses read-a-long). However, Mullan believes (as an academic) that there are books where a casual reading without academic help doesn’t really do it justice. Not that you must get a literary companion text but that if you don’t, you may miss certain subtexts that may not be immediately obvious (such as with Paradise Lost).

And a last interesting point was the question of nepotism/favouritism in the reviewing sphere where mates review their mates’ books. Some in the audience though that wasn’t fair however I agree with the panellists who said that if you had a certain book about a certain topic, it would actually be more interesting to get a reviewer who was a fan or knew something about that topic to generate an interesting review/interview. It’s what normally happens with academic peer reviews (although not all are fans). Wagner however commented that at The New York Times, any connection with the author would automatically disqualify you from reviewing a book. Interesting.

I know that there are differing views regarding whether book bloggers should call their posts reviews or not (Lynne doesn’t like to call her posts reviews as she feels they are subjective). What do you think? Do you agree with the above?

And to end on a lovely note, I met up with some book bloggers in Oxford last weekend for a day of interesting book chat and some sightseeing. Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book for organising the day and to Becca of Oxford Reader for showing us around Somerville College. Beautiful. And it was great to see some familiar and new faces: Annabel of Gaskella, David of Follow the Thread, Jackie of Farm Lane Books Blog, Harriet of Harriet Devine’s Blog and Peter of Morgana’s Cat speaks. It was great to meet you all! And do check out their blogs if you haven’t done so already.

I wasn’t planning on going to any of the London Lit Fest events at the Southbank this year simply because I had too much going on, what with friends visiting and me going off to Munich for a holiday. I had such a lovely time there last year that I was a bit sad about it, but then one of my lovely friends wasn’t able to make it and had a spare ticket to see Barbara Kingsolver! So of course I said yes (who wouldn’t?)

I hadn’t read any of her books so I wasn’t really desperate to see her, but I thought I’d better start The Poisonwood Bible before the event just to get a flavour of her writing. I read the first page and got goosebumps. You know when you read a few sentences and just know that the writing is something special. I had to read each sentence very slowly. I wanted to take my time and savour each word. It’s amazing, and I’m only on the third chapter. Said lovely friend is a big fan of her work and had recommended The Poisonwood Bible a few years ago. Her partner, who was at the event, informed me my friend’s favourite book by Kingsolver is Prodigal Summer. I’m definitely getting that. That is, after I finish this book and The Lacuna, both of which I got signed…heheh!

Kingsolver is a brilliant raconteur: self-deprecating, funny and very personable. She spoke a lot about her writing life and the mechanics of writing. One advice she gave was to write for yourself, not for the market. Make a contract with yourself that you do not have to share it with anyone else. This will lessen the fear somewhat and allow you the freedom to write. And it helped that her interviewer was Suzi Feay (who reviews books for The Financial Times) of whom I’m a great fan. So if you ever have a chance to go and see Kingsolver talk, I urge you to do so. It will be a most enjoyable hour and a half that you won’t regret.

And talking about reading slowly, here’s an interesting article in the Guardian.

And did you know there was a Poetry Library on the 5th floor of the Southbank Centre? Oh yes, and it’s free to join and has an amazing collection of books which you can borrow. I can’t believe that I’ve been visiting the Southbank Centre all these years and didn’t even realise.

Ugh, when I read articles like this which was posted on the Literary Saloon, it makes me spit at the mouth and grow horns on my head. So I’m going to rant and get it out of my system.

Frankly, all literary festivals are indulgent. You need to make time to go there, pay money to listen to authors and maybe even have to buy some books and spend even more time queuing to get them signed. But you know what, like all the arts, we need it. It’s one of the many things that make life worth living. It’s food for the soul. I’ve only recently started to go to literary festivals and haven’t even made it to the big ones in the UK such as Hay, Cheltenham or Oxford, but I’ve had the good luck to have parents living in Sri Lanka and my annual holiday home is in January because I can’t take Christmas off. So imagine my delight when I found out about the Galle Literary Festival.

It’s still in its infancy (4 years), and I’ve only been twice, but each year, there is more topical diversity, larger audiences and, most importantly, the organisers have made sure that there is more given back to the community. There are year-long programmes benefiting the children of Galle, and during the festival there are opportunities for them to interact with the visiting authors. And all provided gratis. I think the organisers have done a tremendous job amid very harsh criticism. Especially from people who have come and enjoyed the festivals themselves. Like at any festival, you’ll get your it-crowd who are only there to be seen and photographed, but the majority of people there love books. Otherwise why would you sit through hours and hours of people talking about things in which you have no interest? I certainly wouldn’t.

And going back to the article above, I love Ian Rankin and his books featuring John Rebus. They gave me the first taste of Scottish noir and I raced through them all when I was supposed to be writing my thesis. And Rankin is a brilliant writer. But I wouldn’t say that he’s the only A-list writer at the festival this year. I mean both Michelle de Kretser and Mohammed Hanif were short-listed for the Booker Prize. I don’t really have to say much about writer and biographer Claire Tomalin (who has won 4 major prizes including the Whitbread Book Award and was also shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize) and novelist and playwright Michael Frayn (who has won 5 major prizes including the Whitbread and was also short-listed for the Booker Prize) who are giants in the English literary world. And Wendy Cope? She’s one of the best poets writing in English that we have (and she has won 2 major awards and was short-listed for the Whitbread Poetry Award). And let’s not forget Shyam Selvadurai who also has 2 awards to his name and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. I’m exhausted listing all these awards and I haven’t even named them all.

I suppose in this case, A-list means best-seller and not critical. I’m not panning Rankin, because I think he is an intelligent, sophisticated and literary writer (whatever that means and I don’t really want to go into the whole literary/genre controversy here), but I guess for some people, books that don’t exist on bestseller lists aren’t really A-list. But I doubt that’s how book lovers would rate authors. In fact, I didn’t go and see Ian Rankin talk because his session clashed with that of another up and coming author. A literary festival is somewhere where you go and learn about new authors as much as the established ones.

Frankly, calling these authors C and D-list, then writing an article that doesn’t even discuss the literary events apart from a few (and there were many extremely interesting events suited to all tastes) and concentrating your article on all the non-literary events (which I agree were brilliant and only enhanced the literary festival) just shows that maybe some people do only read nursery rhymes (and Ian Rankin). Obviously that hasn’t stopped them coming to the GLF every year and enjoying themselves. In fact, maybe they want to put people off to ensure tickets for next year’s festival.

During the GLF this year, Sunila Galappatti, the director of the festival invited one of GLF’s vocal critics on stage so that they could discuss what bothered him about the GLF in public. After almost an hour of arguing and getting nowhere, she asked him why he was here. And his reply? Because he liked coming to the festival. If you like it so much, why are your pissing on it?

I don’t think there can ever be a perfect festival. And in a highly literate country like Sri Lanka (over 90%), having a festival in English excludes a large percentage of people seriously interested in literature but who may not be so fluent in the language. And even if you do understand English, the festival is still closed to you. I understand the frustration. The price of tickets and rooms are just too high for local Sri Lankans and yes, if possible, something should be done to even it out. And this year, the organisers have provided a lot more free events, both literary and musical.

But the GLF is an international literary festival celebrating literature in English. Instead of going on and on about how insulting this festival is to Sri Lanka and its people (hello, the GLF is generating a lot of tourism and revenue for the country), why don’t these unhappy people organise a literary festival in Sinhala and Tamil? You won’t even have to invite these ‘imported’ authors. And you can get rid of all the expats and foreigners. Perfect.

But that doesn’t really solve anything, does it? The GLF doesn’t have to be the sole literary festival in Sri Lanka. What it’s done is opened the template to what a literary festival can achieve. And it’s modelled itself on the literary festivals that are so popular and successful abroad. And if Sri Lankans can take that and make something that can be enjoyed by everyone, then surely, that must be a good thing.

This GLF bashing seems to be a perrenial pastime for many journalists and attendees. And part of the reason is the language politics that still dominates Sri Lankan politics today. David Blacker, a Sri Lankan author, discusses this more eloquently here.

Anyway, enough with the ranting. I had a great time at the Galle Literary Festival this year. And I chose to go because I wanted to meet some of my favourite authors whose words have enriched my life and given me an insight into the world. And maybe I’ll never get the chance to meet them again, but to me, it was totally worth it. And yes, that includes spending my hard-earned cash.

*I have not been paid to advertise or promote the GLF.

was brilliant. Unfortunately my parents couldn’t make it as our dog was poorly (although much better now) so I went to Galle with some old family friends who kindly kept a room for me at Mama’s Guest House – a small guest house in the middle of Galle Fort with a roof restaurant serving some fantastic rice and curry and a beautiful view.

This year I was eagerly awaiting talks by two of my favourite writers, Michelle de Kretser and Shyam Selvadurai who were both charming, erudite and very, very nice. They spoke about their books and early life in Sri Lanka before their families had moved abroad, scenes that are familiar to many families of the diaspora.

In preparation I re-read Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens which was beautifully written (and got that signed!) and am excited to learn about his new work which will be a re-telling of the Buddhist Jataka tales (about the lives of the Buddha) which I confess I don’t really know much about (very embarrassing since I grew up in several Buddhist countries and my family is sort-of Buddhist in a non-religious way.) But then I never went to Sunday school (and yes, I mean Buddhist Sunday school) and am probably more versed in biblical stories due to my Western education. So I’m looking forward eagerly to Selvadurai’s next book.

Mohammed Hanif and Ru Freeman were two authors I had heard a lot about but never read so I’ll be looking out for their books, A Case of Exploding Mangoes and A Disobedient Girl. You can check out Ru Freeman‘s wonderful and erudite post on the GLF 2010 here.

I also went to a poetry reading by Wendy Cope who was a great raconteur and had us all in stitches. I don’t read much poetry but Cope’s poems are funny, simple and go straight to the point, and were the first poems that made me want to go out and buy some poetry. And she dispelled the myth that the world of poetry is all love and roses with no bickering or bullying. It’s a cut-throat world (as we’ve seen with the Oxford Professor of Poetry fiasco).

Louise Doughty gave a wonderful talk about her Romani heritage, a subject which is simultaneously fascinating and tragic and which made me want to seek out her books. Did you know that a lot of Roma have simple surnames such as Smith and Lee but flamboyant first names?

Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn gave talks that were entertaining, serious and illuminating. I’ve been a fan of Frayn’s since reading and watching the play Copenhagen about the lost weekend in which the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg visits Copenhagen to meet his mentor Niels Bohr during WWII after the capitulation of Denmark to the Nazis. Historians of science have always puzzled over what the two scientists discussed, with Bohr knowing full well that Heisenberg was working on the Nazi nuclear weapons programme, and which led to a break in their friendship. Tomalin spoke of Dickens and his mistress and all the other women who have been swept under the carpet of history. Fascinating stuff.

What was really great about going to a literary festival is not just to hear your favourite authors talk about their books and lives, but to also be exposed to new and previously unheard of authors who you may not automatically pick up in a bookshop but whose world view and words entice you to try out their writings and you come away with a new list of books for your wish list.

I enjoyed a wonderfully mellow evening at The Closenberg Hotel, a tuk tuk ride away from the Galle Fort as Ashok Ferrey, together with some friends, read from his new novel Serendipity. We sat in the garden surrounded by bougainvillea and overlooking the sea, and we didn’t mind the mosquitoes so much because we were laughing too hard. The Closenberg is somewhere my family always stopped by for tea and lime-juice every time we drove down south so it was nice to become reaquainted with the historic hotel.

Some of my favourite moments at the 2010 GLF included a talk given by Richard Boyle about books published about Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) from the mid-sixteenth century to the present. Although he focused on books in English (there are probably as many books in Dutch and Portuguese as parts of Ceylon were ruled by both countries for many years) it was interesting to see the impressions that the people of Ceylon gave to the foreigners who tried to subdue and rule them. Even the infamous Aleister Crowley had made a pit stop in Sri Lanka!

And the other two memorable events weren’t book-related but gave a flavour of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. There were two free outdoor concerts by the Ravibandu Vidyapathi Drum Ensemble and the Chitrasena Dance Company that were the highlight of my 4 days in Galle. The performances were a brilliant fusion of the traditional with the modern. Surrounded by twinkling floor lights, we saw the drummers and dancers in the dark under the giant trees in the central Law Court Square. It was a magical ending to a brilliant festival.

There’s only two and a half months left before I fly off to sunny climes and needless to say I CANNOT wait. London has become extremely chilly all of a sudden and I’m missing my sunshine. My fingers feel frostbitten without gloves and my head is missing my hat. OK, so I’m a hypochondriac and it’s not really that bad, but seriously, I feel I’ve forgotten what Winter is like. Everything seems new and fresh this year. The cold, the sudden darkness, this feeling of mono no aware. I kind of like it. Makes me feel all tingly and alive.

So, I’ve just realised that two and a half months isn’t really that long for the list of books I’m planning to read in preparation for the Galle Literary Festival 2010 at the end of January. I still have my stash of Sri Lankan/diasporic literature safely tucked away on my TBR shelf and I think I really ought to clear some of it before I go. I have the following titles and if I’m organised, maybe I’ll get through half of them:

On Sri Lanka
All is Burning by Jean Arasanayagam
When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan (an interesting essay here)
The Banana Tree Crisis by Isankya Kodithuwakku
Mosquito by Roma Tearne
Bone China by Roma Tearne
The Far Field by Edie Meidav

And also:

On Asia/India
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Maharanis by Lucy Moore
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

If I can read about half the books on this list by the time I’m on that plane, then I’ll be happy. I’ve had most of these books for a year and feel slightly ashamed that I actually bought some of them the last time I was in Sri Lanka a year ago….what can I say? I’m easily distracted.

But I did finish two collections of short stories The Good Little Ceylonese Girl and Colpetty People by Ashok Ferrey which were delightful. And if I have time, I might reread Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens as he will be one of the participants at the upcoming GLF. And can I also mention my favourites Romesh Gunasekara, Michelle de Kretser and Michael Ondaatje? I might try and dig out Michelle de Kretser’s first novel The Rose Grower to read if I can find it as it’s somewhere in storage at my sis’.

No doubt I will be buying a lot more books in Sri Lanka. The Perera Hussein Publishing House always brings out a nice selection of fiction into the world, and I love going to the bookshop at the Barefoot Gallery to browse their incredible array of books on Sri Lanka. And my father has promised that he will take me to a street of secondhand booksellers near the Fort, an area of Colombo that we had been increasingly avoiding due to the occasional bombs during the conflict but which we used to frequent when I was a child. This year I’m taking my Sony e-reader and one big fantasy book (it’s Steven Erikson vs. George R.R. Martin at the moment) so I’ll have loads of space in my suitcase to bring back any interesting finds!