How to Review a Novel

London Review of Books Editor Mary-Kay Wilmers
on the Language of Criticism

How do novel reviews begin? Just like novels very often:

Motherless boys may be pitied by mothers but are not infrequently envied by other boys.

For the friends of the Piontek family, August 31st, 1939 was a red-letter day.

All her life Jean Hawkins was obedient.

It looks as though the writers of these reviews have set out not to summarize the plot but to tell the story, with the drawback, from the novelist’s point of view, that readers may content themselves with the reviewer’s version. Other reviews begin with a different sort of story—the reviewer’s:

Halfway through Beryl Bainbridge’s new novel I found I was laughing until the tears ran down my cheeks.

Some start by characterizing the novel:

An aura of death, despair, madness and futility hangs over the late James Jones’s posthumous novel.

Others by characterizing the reviewer: “Count me among the Philistines,” says Jerome Charyn, inauspiciously, at the start of a review in the New York Times. Some begin with a paragraph on the novel now; some begin by addressing the reader:

You might not think there would be much wit or lyricism to the story of a subnormal wall-eyed Balkan peasant who spends 13 years masturbating in a pigsty . . .

Some kick off at the end: “Final Payments is a well-made, realistic novel of refined sensibility and moral scruple”; and others at the beginning: “The five writers under review have been browsing . . .”

Different openings suggest different attitudes, both to the novel and to the practice of reviewing novels. There are ideologies of the novel and ideologies of the novel review, fictional conventions and reviewing conventions. They don’t necessarily overlap. A regular reviewer, confident of his own constituency, may describe a novel in terms of his own responses to it: he wouldn’t for that reason applaud a novelist for writing in a similarly personal vein.

What reviews have in common is that they must all in some degree be re-creations: reshapings of what the novelist has already shaped. The writer’s fortunes depend on the reviews he gets but the reviewer depends on the book to see that his account of it—his “story,” to use the language of the newspaper composing room—is interesting. Dull novels don’t elicit interesting reviews: not unless a reviewer decides to be amusing at the novel’s expense or tactfully confines himself to some incidental aspect of it. A generous reviewer may also invent for the novel the qualities it might have had but hasn’t got.

Although every novelist has had bad reviews to complain of, it sometimes seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state.

The most brusque reviews occur in the most marginal newspapers: “The new novel by Camden author Beryl Bainbridge,“ said the Camden Journal, “took just a few hours to read yet cost £3.95 . . . The story is fairly interesting, mildly amusing and a little sad.” A hundred years ago the most brutal things were said about novelists and their works (cf. Henry James on Our Mutual Friend: “It is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion”).

Today many literary editors, alert to the fact that the novel is under pressure, ask their reviewers to be kind and most of them are. Kind to the old novelist because he is old; kind to the young novelist because he is young; to the English writer because he is English (“all quiet, wry precision about manners and oddities”) and not American or German; to others because they are black (or white) or women (or men) or refugees from the Soviet Union. Every liberal and illiberal orthodoxy has its champions.

Failings are seen to be bound up with virtues (“there are rough edges to his serious simplicity”); even turned into them (“though inelegant and sometimes blurred, their heaviness and urgency create their own order of precision”); but seldom passionately denounced, and although every novelist has had bad reviews to complain of, it sometimes seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state.

The reasons have a lot to do with the economics of publishing. In the 1920s Cyril Connolly described the reviewing of novels as “the white man’s grave of journalism”: “for each scant clearing made wearily among the springing vegetation,” he sighed, “the jungle overnight encroaches twice as far.” The jungle has now dwindled to something more like a botanic garden (“it is a knockdown miracle that publishers continue to put out first novels,” noted a reviewer in the Times), and far from having to hack his way through the springing vegetation, the critic is required to give the kiss of life to each week’s precarious flowering.

“SAVE THE NOVEL,” implored the novelist Angus Wolfe Murray addressing reviewers. Only in the case of such writers as Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon, whose fortunes or morale he cannot affect, does the reviewer have the freedom to write as he pleases.

Given that the novel is to be saved, what claims do reviewers make for it? John Gardner in his book On Moral Fiction (1978) complains of the flimsiness of “our serious fiction”:

The emphasis, among younger artists, on surface and novelty of effect is merely symptomatic. The sickness goes deeper, to an almost total loss of faith in—or perhaps understanding of—how true art works. True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets towards the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.

But it is clear from the exhilarated comments they make that many reviewers regularly find in the novel they have been reading the kind of guidance and instruction Gardner has in mind:

In the vaunted creative process, he has transcended himself and given us an access to liberty.

Her book is full of lessons about the art of creative literature, and about life, and how each reflects and enhances and deepens the meaning of the other.

Its indignation is blazingly imaginative, furiously vital and gives us hope.

A truer and deeper perception of the world’s agony comes from the . . . stories . . . about her native land.

There is no suggestion here that novelists are suffering from diminished responsibility or reviewers from any cramping of their responses. But it depends which reviewers one reads. Hope, agony, the meaning of life and of art, a transcending of the self: for every critic who finds these in the novels sent to him for review—and a critic who finds them once tends to find them once a week—there are more who see confusion, ambivalence, ambiguity, and count themselves well pleased:

The best English novelists are getting more ambiguous all the time.

I suppose this is what Iris Murdoch means when she distinguishes between philosophy and fiction—that what the novel does superlatively is mirror our continuing confusion and muddle.

Gardner is not eccentric in detecting among both novelists and critics an active commitment to uncertainty; as a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement observed apropos of a novel involving a mystery and its detection: “Once upon a time novels and readers and detectives discovered things; now they fail to discover them.” An achieved character is a mixed-up character: “his grief and obsession lack ambiguity and don’t feel real”; he “is confused but by that token the more convincing.”

Gardner finds repugnant the notion that confusion may be the most appropriate response to a confusing world, but on countless occasions novels are praised for making it clear that nothing is clear, that a trouble-free verisimilitude can no longer be expected:

The book is convincingly comic, and at the same time ambiguous and nervy enough to suggest that nothing is as solid as it seems.

His theatrical memoir-scribbling existence is the best (i.e. most problematic) metaphor for how most of us function.

The brackets here reinforce the point, assuming as they do a coincidence of meaning between “best” and “most problematic.” In another review Frank Tuohy’s stories of English life are said to have a “grim predictability” but when he writes about Englishmen abroad his “subtle talent emerges”:

The barriers of language and culture give rise to a slightly baffled and tentative querying of reality; perspectives shift and blur, appearances bemuse and all our certainties suddenly lack foundation.

The writer should not merely baffle but himself be baffled: a way perhaps of acknowledging, and absorbing into a naturalistic tradition, the more exigent dubieties of such postmodernist writers as Borges, Sarraute, or Robbe-Grillet, whose ritual dismemberings of plot and character, especially when mimicked by native writers, have not gone down well among either reviewers or the public.

The baffled writer has various ways of disclaiming verisimilitude. In Renata Adler’s Speedboat, for instance, the narrative is fragmented into a series of discrete events, anecdotes, perceptions. Elizabeth Hardwick, writing about the book in the New York Review, showed her respect for it by adopting in her review the novel’s own fragmentary procedures. Likening it to some of the work of Barthelme, Pynchon, and Vonnegut, she claimed for all of them an “honourable” attempt to deploy “the intelligence that questions the shape of life and wonders what we can really act upon”; but then added:

It is important to concede the honor, the nerve, the ambition—important even if it is hard to believe anyone in the world could be happier reading Gravity’s Rainbow 

than reading Dead Souls.

The old, unreconstructed pleasures of reading sometimes slip the reviewer’s mind but a conflict between enjoyment and the “honourable” measures writers take to accommodate doubt and perplexity has to be acknowledged. Take Robert Nye’s Merlin. Instead of a plot, it offers, as many non-conventional novels now conventionally do, a sprawling of plots, lists, jokes, and retelling of old stories. A prospective reader may be more grateful for a review that tells him what it is like to read such a novel (“In the end, it is just too much . . . rather like finding a hotel that serves you a Christmas dinner three times a day”) than for one written in the spirit of the novel itself and dedicated to teasing out its many “implications about art and reality.”

The most frequent recourse of the baffled writer is to offer himself as part of his fiction, stepping into the novel either in person (Margaret Drabble in The Realms of Gold) or in the guise of another novel writer purportedly engaged in writing this novel or another novel contingent on it, so that the novel tells two stories concurrently, its own and the novelist’s, thereby foreshadowing, and in some cases forestalling, its own reviews.

Just as some novels supply their own reviews, so many reviews supply their own novels.

Two recent instances have been The World According to Garp by John Irving and John Wain’s The Pardoner’s Tale. The latter links a conventional account of a novelist’s life with the equally conventional novel he is currently writing. Malcolm Bradbury, a critic committed to the notion of the text that doubts itself, praised it as being “among [Wain’s] best novels, realism modestly considering itself.” Reviewers often talk about realism as if it were something tangible (Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato contained, according to the New Statesman, “a strange and impressive balance of realisms”), the idea being that where intention and meaning are in doubt, literary styles and devices have a life of their own.

The World According to Garp is a much more complicated book, baroque, labyrinthine, full of internal fictions and comments on those fictions. One reviewer remarked that “there is little one can say about the book or its author that Irving has not in some way anticipated in his own text.” The baffled writer, it turns out, has this advantage over his critics: he can tell them what is wrong with his novel before they tell him.

Just as some novels supply their own reviews, so many reviews supply their own novels. It isn’t so much a matter of different interpretations (which are unavoidable: one reviewer saw in The Pardoner’s Tale “the lineaments of gratified desire . . . persuasively drawn . . . an amorous haze spreading delight,” another “a man who has evaded what real love requires”) as of giving a novelistic account of the novel. For instance:

William Trevor’s characters . . . seem to live perpetually in an afternoon sun which filters through the Georgian fanlight onto a balding carpet.


Whether “she“ is Nell or Julie or Ellen there’s always the same tearstained voice, stuffing old love letters into the mouth to hold back the sob at parting.

That Beryl Bainbridge has a quirky way of doing things may be put straightforwardly:

She views life from so odd an angle that normal proportions and emphases are disconcertingly altered.

or, if you like, mimetically:

The characters proclaim their loves and loathings dimpled with breadcrumbs, adorned with swellings, fiddling with troublesome socks.

One danger is that the reviewer’s novel may stand in the way of the author’s. Sometimes the two are incompatible: when the Canadian writer Marian Engel describes the adulterous hero of Injury Time as having been “instructed to clean up his act,” another, mid-Atlantic Beryl Bainbridge is brought to mind. A further danger is that mimicry may become parody (one of the standard ways of dismissing a bad novel is of course to ape its mannerisms), and a reviewer adopting the manner of the novelist may do the novel an injustice where no injustice was intended.

When a reviewer mimics a novel simply as a way of describing it (without, that is, any pejorative intentions) he is in some sense taking it over, as if he too could predict how the characters might behave. Those contemporary novels that disclaim verisimilitude make it difficult for the reader to enter their world; indeed, by making an issue of their own fictiveness they deliberately set up barriers against it. In their more extreme Sarrautian forms they may invite him to participate in the invention, but that in itself is a way of pointing up what would in these cases be seen as the fallacy that fiction imitates life.

More realistic novels by contrast offer the reader a whole new world with new friends (or enemies) and new places to go to. “We follow the life of her heroine,” a grateful reviewer reports, “through a circuitous route where we meet a plethora of well-drawn characters and visit a number of interesting places.” But reviewers in discussing this world are inclined to be over-eager:

Perfectly observed details—a steaming mug of tea in a transport café, a misfired blind date in a lurid pub—make you feel you’re living Desmond’s life.

It may be that the best fiction has a reality that reality itself hasn’t got (however well we know the details of other people’s lives we don’t often feel we’re living them), but the examples here don’t support the claim that is made for them, and the reviewer, mistaking familiarity for something better, has been hasty in casting aside her own life in favor of Desmond’s. It’s the same with characters’ emotions which too readily become the emotions of the reviewer: “I relaxed as much as the hero and his wife do when she burns her ovulation charts.” It’s hard to believe in that degree of empathy.

A critic who professes to share all the characters’ ups and downs tells us too much about his own responses. David Lodge reviewed Mary Gordon’s Final Payments. He thought it a good novel and one of its qualities, he said, was that it engaged the reader’s sympathies on the heroine’s behalf: “It says much for the power of Ms Gordon’s writing that the reader feels a genuine sense of dismay at the spectacle of the heroine’s mental and physical breakdown.” The point he is making is very like the one being made by the reviewer who said she relaxed when the hero’s wife burned her ovulation charts, but he is putting the emphasis on Gordon’s writing rather than his own sensibilities.

Generally speaking, the more highbrow the publication the more self-effacing—or apparently self-effacing—the reviewer. A critic in a popular paper may, rightly, claim that but for him a whole section of the literate public might never hear of certain writers and that this enjoins on him the necessity to be forthright and uncomplicated.

Experiment, symbols, allegory: reviewers don’t often like them.

Auberon Waugh, who reviews novels in the Evening Standard, is such a writer. One of his habits is to complain of personal suffering—excruciating boredom, a pain in the ass—on reading novels he doesn’t like; another to award prizes—“my gold medal . . . a peerage or some luncheon vouchers to go with it”—to those he does. Waugh sees himself as deploying the common sense of the common man: a reviewer in a more serious journal or newspaper has to suggest expertise, give evidence of special qualifications (though even here there are some who choose to make their comments personal as an excuse for slipping out of responsibility—to say “I enjoyed it” is sometimes a way of saying “little me I enjoyed it”).

Whatever the publication, it is probably fair to say that most readers of reviews do not go on to read the novels themselves: in that sense reviews act as substitutes for the novels, incorporating as a further dimension the experience of the reviewer in reading them. Hence perhaps the documentary interest reviewers show in the lives that are led in novels (the more sociologically particular the world that is described, the more confident the praise: “exactly conveys the tone and feel of a theater”; “quite faultless in its delineation of every aspect of the cinema”).

Experiment, symbols, allegory: reviewers don’t often like them (“there may be an allegorical meaning here that I’ve missed; if there is, Mr Keating isn’t pushing it, and I’m all for that”), and novels that have a grand plan or an easily detected message are rarely well received. Time and again a book is praised for understating its intentions:

Getting Through leaves so much unsaid that what is left—the story itself, pared down—becomes the reflection of great things.

The purpose of their encounter is never formulated by authorial commentary or by the intrusive use of imagery.

The book never loses its distant innocence of expression—as if the full surface of the world can only be conveyed by a prose that neither moralizes nor obtrudes.

Authorial unobtrusiveness (“clear spare sentences,” “direct factual observation,” “clear but unemphatic patterns”); modesty of effect and affect—these are the qualities reviewers speak well of. What is wanted is not “hectic” plotting but “a meticulous circumstantiality,” “not clashing symbols but uninsisted juxtapositions.”

On the other hand, it is the reviewer’s business to make explicit what the author has been commended for rendering inexplicit; to spell out (“in their interaction they retrace the patterns of social intercourse familiar to us all”) and to extrapolate (“Violence, Bainbridge seems to be saying, is as casual, as impersonal as the shadows we know”). Novelists may not be allowed to moralize but reviewers do it all the time:

To him, the conquest of pride is ultimately more important than the conquest of Prague. It takes a lot of courage to suggest this, but the only real antidote to the think-alike, talk-alike herd instinct of Marxism is the liberation of your own soul from second-hand thinking and borrowed feelings.

I don’t accept any form of racism and I applaud Mr Brink’s honest novel.

And if writers don’t moralize, or are told that they ought not to, they are nonetheless praised in moral currency: “Where [the characters]—and Miss Sagan—truly shine is in the sections that describe their acknowledgment of a colleague’s cancer.”

Praising is the reviewer’s most difficult task. Allocated, in most newspapers, a thousand words in which to give his views of three or four novels of average merit, he hasn’t the space to build up the case for each one and must therefore resort to an encomiastic shorthand. In what is usually the first part of a review, where we are told what sort of novel it is and what happens to whom, the novel itself does much of the work; and if a reviewer gives a coherent account of it and makes the characters seem interesting, he has already done a great deal to commend the book to the reader’s attention.

A skilful reviewer will also interweave judgment and description. “Bernice Rubens’s new novel is convincing about the need for people to see plots in their lives”: that “convincing” carries conviction because of what follows it; if it had been placed at the end of the review—in the phrase “a convincing novel,” for instance—one would scarcely have heard it.

Since the vocabulary of praise is limited, the same words occur again and again, while some acquire emblematic loadings. Truth, for example. When a reviewer says a novel has “an overall ring of truth,” he may just be talking about “plausibility” and making it sound like something more important. But it is the final adjectival blast that offends. Marvelous, delightful, brilliant: it is hard for a reviewer eager to say good things about a novel to avoid such words, yet they have been used so often in connection with novels which, when compared, say, with Our Mutual Friend, are merely mediocre that readers may find some difficulty in giving them credence.

It’s true they are important to publishers, who use them in their advertisements, and a reviewer anxious to promote a novel will be sure to include a few for the publisher to quote, just as many literary editors, alert to the danger of one novel review sounding very like any other novel review, will want to cut them out.

Some reviewers, it’s obvious, are better writers than others, but even among good writers there are recurrent mannerisms.

Reviewers are varyingly responsive to these embarrassments, but the stratagems they may resort to for avoiding the clichés used by their less self-conscious colleagues quickly become clichés themselves. One doesn’t often come across the simple phrase “a marvelous novel” nowadays: the fashion is for triads of adjectives (“exact, piquant and comical,” “rich, mysterious and energetic”) or for adjectives coupled with adverbs—“hauntingly pervasive,” “lethally pithy,” “deftly economic”—in relationships whose significance would not be materially altered if the two partners swapped roles—pervasively haunting, pithily lethal etc.

The praise is made to sound less bland by the use of negatives (“a completely unponderous story”) or of oppositions indicating that a novel hasn’t made too much of its virtues (“stylish but troubling,” “unforced yet painful”); and by various minor syntactic devices: one novel “is saved by energy from pretension,” another is rescued from overfamiliarity “by the author’s evocation of certain oblique and mysterious states of consciousness”; one “gives us a feel for our own loony culture that is so recognizable we blink with shame and embarrassment,” another produces “shocks so true to life that they hardly seem paradoxical.”

Some reviewers, it’s obvious, are better writers than others, but even among good writers there are recurrent mannerisms. Wordplay is one: “Amid stern actualities, Kundera gamely concocts (like Sterne, and hence unsternly) stories about people playing games.” Verbs are preferred to adjectives: a “story spurts and fizzes,” a “sense of humor crackles”; and so sometimes are nouns, usually in their plural form—intricacies, acutenesses and so on.

The abstract and the concrete may be unexpectedly juxtaposed: “details slither rat-like into their lairs”; and rather than speak directly of a novelist’s talents, reviewers have lately been much inclined to anthropomorphize the novel: “grinding on like that is, Hanley’s fiction knows, the hardest of all feats.” The desire to avoid clichés is strong and commendable, but leads to some perplexing formulations: “Through all such knots and breaks of time, a rare aptitude for patience is the unassuming form of Trevor’s irreplaceable imagination.”

Novel reviews don’t of course end like novels: novelists seldom finish off their work by praising or scolding their characters, though they may (or may not) award them happy lives. But what is wanted of a reviewer is much the same as what is wanted by the reviewer: a modest, unemphatic originality, a meticulously circumstantial account of the novel’s merits, and a plausible (or should I say truthful?) response to them.



Excerpted from Human Relations and Other Difficulties: Essays by Mary-Kay Wilmers. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 27th 2019.  Copyright © 2018 by Mary-Kay Wilmers. Introduction copyright © 2018 by Orlando Books Ltd. All rights reserved

Mary-Kay Wilmers
Mary-Kay Wilmers
Mary-Kay Wilmers is the co-founder and longtime editor of the LRB. After a childhood spent in America, Belgium and England, Wilmers went to Oxford to read French and Russian. She is the author of The Eitingons, a book about her family and their cold war deeds and misdeeds, which the Daily Telegraph called “transfixingly readable."

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