Saturday, September 30, 2023

A grand occasion!

For no reason at all, a poem. 

 The colours and shapes decided

They needed to sort out what’s what – 

If the blue could beat green in a blue, 

If rectangles were best, or the dots. 


So they found a municipal oval, 

And prepared for a very grand day, 

And sent out the word to each other

That now might be a particularly auspicious time to play. 


First up were the black and white zig zags, 

Who bested the greeny-blue squares; 

But then came the fuchsia diamonds, 

Who put stop to their little affair. 


The pink polka dots beat the purple – 

The game was a jolly good romp; 

While the match up of teal versus salmon

Turned into a contre-temps. 


O! The crowd cried with eager excitement, 

With passion and fervour and rage

At the stripes, the houndstooth, the triangles, 

The amber, the peach and the beige! 


But now, in this final of finals, 

Which side would be best of the best? 

Out came the shapes and the colours 

For a truly terrific contest! 


First up were the lilac-cream squiggles – 

The crowd roared with glee from the stand; 

And then came the buttercup checkmarks – 

This final was grander than grand! 


But ah, what a jolly imbroglio – 

What more of this show need I say? 

Though the squiggles played wonderfully well, 

The buttercup checks won the day. 


What a perfectly spiffing occasion! 

They all gave a most rousing cheer, 

And determined that, all things considered, 

They would meet up same time next year! 

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

You can misquote me on that

I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so. - Sydney Smith. 

News comes in via the Grauniad that critics and author societies are disgruntled at the habit of publishers using part of their bad reviews in book blurbs. Now, this is an issue that I am torn about, because on the one hand, I think bad reviews should be quoted loudly and proudly on the back covers of books, I love bad reviews and think they should be encouraged, and if a critic really takes the time and deliberation to eviscerate your book publicly, you know it’s something they really care about, the critic that sneers is the critic that cares. And, on the other hand, critics should really embrace this practice of publishers by writing finely-calibrated reviews full of sarcastic praise, and, after all, being quoted by mercenary publishers is a kind of compliment for their hard work and experience. So I suppose I’m not torn on this issue at all, I’m in fierce agreement with myself, if I were any fiercer in my self-agreement, I would be agreeably tearing myself to shreds. But you know what I mean. 

FIG 1: The good Dr Samuel Johnson has nothing in particular to do with this article. He was just awesome. 


There’s nothing like a good-bad review, they’re an art all on their own: not always a very nice art, but an art nonetheless. Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe claimed to be a collector of bad reviews, and, expounding on this concept, would often quote a bad review given to another composer – ‘This is a piece that gives A major a bad name’ – and proclaim, ‘I would love to have a review like that written about a piece of mine!’ Reviewer John Wilson Croker supposedly wrote the review that killed John Keats, which is unfortunate; even more unfortunate, then, that the review is hugely funny. (However, it wasn’t actually the review that killed off Keats: it was tuberculosis, a disease not known for its interest in the finer points of literature or literary reviews). Or then there is the artist Hal Porter’s highly amusing pisstake of Patrick White (‘he commits poetry’), to which White wrote an equally memorable, if not particularly amusing, review of a review (or, rather, a review of a reviewer): ‘a sac of green pus throbbing with jealousy’. 


But the example that really comes to mind, and really seems pertinent to the issue here, of publishers of mischievously and misleadingly quoting critics, comes on the covers of Dan Brown’s bestselling Da Vinci Code. For those who have been living under a rock for the past two decades, Dan Brown is an author who has dedicated his life to writing very popular, and very bad, fiction; for the benefit of critics, he has placed tautologies and superfluities and errors and infelicities of writing on every page, in every sentence (in fact he has done his best to place them in every word). He really is a wonderful, generous writer, and one can only hope the writers of bad reviews really appreciate all he has done for them. Several early reviews of the Code are quoted on the covers, including one from the New York Times’Janet Maslin, of such effusive praise that it can clearly only be understood as sarcasm. 


The word for ''The Da Vinci Code'' is a rare invertible palindrome. Rotated 180 degrees on a horizontal axis so that it is upside down, it denotes the maternal essence that is sometimes linked to the sport of soccer. Read right side up, it concisely conveys the kind of extreme enthusiasm with which this riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller can be recommended… That word is wow.


And so, it’s a beautiful thing, this relationship between the author and the critic – the author that loves, and the critic that hates; the author that loves to love, and the critic that loves to hate; the author that loves to misquote the critic that hates the author, on their front cover, even in the act of the critic hating. It may seem perverse to us, but we must not kink shame. It is by no means the strangest thing to happen in the attention economy we all live in. On the one hand, the author does not love the critic; on the other hand, the critic does not love the author; on the third hand, they both clearly do. 


Now, as a publisher (which you either are or you aren’t), when it comes to misquoting a critic in your book blurb (which you should never do), just how should you go about it? Personally, I recommend blatantly. That way, there is a simple and winning honesty to your dishonesty that will make you seem winsome and charming. However, there are other ways the publishers like to go about it. Passages are excerpted willy nilly, at large and at small, taken from the one paragraph of praise in a lengthy, excoriating essay; or, when even that isn’t possible, taken from the sentences at either end of the column that could, in certain lights, be seen, or be interpreted as being seen, as praiseworthy. Random words can even be taken from wildly different geographies of the column, and then cobbled together, in a delightfully avaricious homage to Dadaist collage technique. 


As for the critics, they, too, can generously prepare their columns for misquoting, anticipating this strange, unethical-yet-earnest tribute to their own literary efforts paid by publishers. They can provide neat little paragraphs of grossly hyperbolic praise for critics, maybe even put them in a little box so the publishers may notice them better, like an attractive and inviting fenced public garden. They can cultivate exaggerated, esoteric and archaic terms of deliberately ambiguous phraseology and euphemism, so as to sound like praise but leave some reason for doubt. They can even engage in their own elaborate literary and cryptic exercise, by writing a paragraph in commendation of the book that, nevertheless, encodes incredibly rude messages about the author and/or publishers (in accordance with Gwen Harwood’s notorious ‘FUCK ALL EDITORS’ sonnet). There can hardly be any exercise more literary than this, writing about a subject without writing about it. Writers hardly ever write about what they are writing about. That’s how you can tell they really mean it. 


On the whole, the practice of taking quotes from critics and deliberately misquoting them for the sake of book sales is wrong, and cannot be condoned; but it will certainly happen anyway, because critics are critics, and publishers are publishers, and their aims and wishes are so very different. The results, also, are so frequently entertaining and of such literary interest that we should probably encourage them anyway. So even though you shouldn’t do it, you should. I suppose I am conflicted about this matter after all, which is a great relief, I will not have to tear myself to shreds in the ferocity of my self-agreement, I am calm, I am at peace, I am at two with myself at last. Isn’t it beautiful how literature can do that? 

Email: timhtrain - at -

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