The reviewer’s art

A lot’s been written recently about reviewing – from the ‘Sock Puppet’ controversy to the many anonymous trolls which/who seem to lurk everywhere. I thought I’d add to it by a sort of double review: the first a reviewer’s assessment of my own work, the second my review of that review. It came in the form of a 4 page card from one Isla Kirton. She’s at primary school and she’s the granddaughter to whom I referred in a blog way back in June.

Her first page is non-committal but already introduces a disturbing element. It seems to depict the reviewer, the reviewer’s brother and a long, thin, bespectacled person with a book, which is obviously me. The sun is shining, giving the opening a positive spin, but the reviewer’s dress – the only real splash of colour – is an arrowhead in disquieting red, the colour of anger, heat, blood; the colour referenced by Marlowe’s Faustus when he cries ‘See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament’. Already then, under the surface of the review, there’s an unsettling implication that all is not as it seems. (The thinness of the bespectacled giant is no doubt a satirical reference to my girth.) On each face there is a smile, my own no doubt indicative of a certain smugness, the others revealing a knowledge of what is to come.

And what does come next is a stark, seemingly unambiguous symbol. Once more, no words are used. The reviewer is disarmingly direct. In the middle of the heart, an ugly, evil tear suggesting that the time is out of joint. What can it mean? That love is a fiction? That her liking for my work needs to be qualified in some sinister way? Or simply that it has a dodgy aortic valve? Its elongated shape adds yet another dimension to the critique it represents. It is clearly an inverted teardrop which ends in a pair of buttocks. This is reviewing at its most complex.

But then comes page 3 and, for the first time, words. But what words – enigmatic, mystical, seeming to evoke global truths (‘In the earth live some herts’), reversals in Nature (‘In the leevs live some trees’), and then, bringing the referential framework right down to the personal level and hinting at a rhyming game we played when I last visited her, the seemingly artless ‘In mummys live some tomees’ – a clear reference to gestation, with ‘tomees’ signifying wombs.

And then, the power of the gap in the narrative, the wordless space between her gnomic pronouncements and the true start of her critical analysis. It’s a space in which the reviewer pauses for breath, gives the reader time to absorb the mysterious, complex frameworks she’s constructed, before her direct appreciation of me as a ‘grate writer’.

And yet, the greatness of her critique, its teasing ambiguity, even as she expresses her love, is continued in the intrusion of that one little word ‘it’. On the surface, ‘I hope you get better’ is a clear ‘Get Well Soon’ message, but ‘I hope you get IT better’ begs a question. What ‘it’? My writing? The valve? The recognition she thinks I deserve?

But, as one turns over to the final page, her breathtakingly assured mastery of the medium is clear. In both words and image, she delivers her conclusion. The small figure sitting at the computer table is her, representing my readership, tiny and existing at a level beneath that of the greatness of my works, with the larger screen suggesting perhaps that it is time for those works to be adapted for the cinema. 

It is a master class in criticism..


    1. Thanks Gwen. She’s also the one who’s having tennis coaching at Wimbledon. Her father’s relying on her to provide a decent pension.

  1. Aw, Grampa, that’s pure dead brilliant, so it is – Isla, not you. You’re merely grate.
    No gravatar? Is that vocative or is the gword a noun?

    4 pages of a review! Jings! That has to be a record,
    E x

    1. Thanks Eileen. Gravatar? Vocative? I’m afraid I’ll have to pass your query on to Isla. She’s clearly more qualified than I am to provide the necessary exegesis.

    1. Yes, Rosemary. With any luck, I could get her to write (and illustrate) all my blog posts. She’s certainly got me far more hits than I usually get.

  2. oh my gosh. She can draw better than I can! This was the most honest review I’ve ever read. I love the double entendre of ‘grate writer’. Hmm. Now to ponder that meaning…

    1. Donna, if this leads to her being offered a reviewing job on the London Review of books or its New York equivalent, I’d better make sure I get her to sign an agreement now that gives me a decent percentage of her fees.

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