A recent spat on This-Space, concerning Steve's judgement of Ian Holding's Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted novel Unfeeling, has again highlighted how differently different readers read from one another. Steve was accused by one of those commenting on his post of being "out of touch with general critic's views" (something Steve rightly saw as an accolade!) "Prof. J. Williams, Kent" asked, "Don't you know that the book was widely hailed and got rave reviews when published?" And "Jane, Surrey" wrote, "The novel DID get rave reviews and HAS been highly praised for its literary qualities."
So, bang to rights, Steve is caught out: praised by other book reviewers, shortlisted for a prize, Holding's novel must be "BRILLIANT!" (Prof. J. Williams's word).
When reviewing books -- and I mean reviewing in the widest sense, for instance proselytizing about what you've just read to a bunch of mates in the pub -- the temptation (and one I'm certainly not immune to) is always to hyperbole. A book is often hailed as either "shit" or "great". This is why we turn to the best critics: for argument; for nuance. Sadly, we rarely get it. The most cliche-ridden novels, with the tritest of plots, are regularly hailed as "classics". Each week a "must read" book gets over-praised and the genre of literary fiction continues to spew forth mediocrity. In truth, a "must read" novel comes along very, very rarely. And whilst we wait for the next, we get work that exists along an arc of the undistinguished and prosaic.
What confuses the matter further is that the separation between fine writing and art (what I'd like to dignify as Literature), which seems to me to be Steve's central concern, is lost on many readers. Steve seems to have been condemned by his commenters (who really could have saved their energy by reading the very careful arguments about writing that This-Space has articulated over very many months) for not swooning, as they do, over a polished paragraph or a nicely-turned phrase.
Paradoxical though it may seem, fine writing is not synonymous with Literature. Indeed, it might be better to think that what is synonymous with Literature is paradox itself.