A Spot Where Nobody Really Bothers?

Mark Haddon received savage reviews for his poetry collection, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village, which followed his amazing novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But does Haddon’s next novel, A Spot of Bother, atone for this misstep?

You wouldn’t know it from the reviews.

The Independent‘s Rebecca Pearson says Bother is “a superb novel, and I was shocked when it didn’t make the Man Booker longlist.” Meanwhile, the Guardian‘s Patrick Ness notes that it’s “a perfectly readable yet strangely undemanding novel of familiar domestic drama.” No starred review from Publishers Weekly, but the PW review insists it’s “great fun.” The Voice‘s Alexis Soloski gives it a lukewarm if positive review.

Like Fade Theory, I find it a bit difficult to gauge the book’s qualities with the current review coverage. Pearson’s review features plenty of ecstatic praise, but it doesn’t attach these plaudits to anything specific in the text. Likewise, the other reviews I’ve cited resort the majority of their space to summarizing the plot. If the reviewers are understandably jaded after Haddon’s poetry chapbook, I can understand. But The Curious Incident wasn’t exactly small potatoes. And if the reviewers can’t be bothered to follow Haddon’s career trajectory, I’m hoping more comprehensive heads might be employed to do so.

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9 Comments

  1. “Like Fade Theory, I find it a bit difficult to gauge the book’s qualities with the current review coverage.”

    Reading it yourself is a traditional method for resolving these ambiguities.

  2. Which is what I intend to do, Teresa. Of course, I don’t expect humorless nit pickers like yourself around unable to parse the deeper meaning of my sentence (i.e., I find it difficult to gauge whether or not I’d be interested in reading this book based on these reviews — ergo, the criticism may be deficient).

    This is a warning. If you have nothing constructive to offer here, I will ban you from this site. I have no interest in playing babysitter to jaded souls incapable of saying anything positive.

  3. Goodness. I would have thought it was an unexceptionable observation — and a true one as well. Reading is in fact a very highly thought-of approach to these questions. The more complex sort of literary reviews can’t be relied upon to function as buyers’ guides.

    Are you certain I don’t have a sense of humor?

  4. Well, you’re right on the money with my unexceptional conclusion. Can’t argue with you there. 🙂

    I wonder why there can be some halfway point between complex literary reviews and this buyers’ guide mentality — something that permits relatively meaningful literary coverage to subsist with obvious monetary concerns. This is one of the things I have long hoped for with Salon and the NYTBR’s coverage, only to see these outlets (in particular the latter) resort to conflicts of interest (John Dean reviewing Mark Felt’s memoir) or hiring people who know little about the genre they chronicle (Dave Itzkoff for science fiction, Laura Miller profoundly misunderstanding Lovecraft in Salon). The whole question is mired by the limitations of word count, of editors who must decide what’s hot or who must prioritize a popular author over a literary author, of reviewers who are underpaid and, as a result, reading too fast or possibly not at all (see Jack Green’s “Fire the Bastards!” from 1962 — this problem casts a long shadow), and the sad development of arts coverage being gutted (see the Dallas Morning News books coverage and the recent Voice layoffs).

    In the end, as you observe, there is no substitute for plunging into the text. I just wonder what role, if any, newspaper criticism has in helping to frame various reader responses and book discussion. Or whether it’s all meaningless and, if so, what can be done to make it meaningful again.

    Of course, this could be an inflated question. Negative reviews of John Updike’s TERRORIST didn’t stop copies from flying off bookstore shelves.

  5. The most powerful consideration in an average reader’s buying decision is whether he or she has read and enjoyed another work by that same author. Next down is that the book was recommended by someone they trust. That person can be a reviewer; but not all reviewers are equally trusted.

    From a sales viewpoint, the most important thing about Updike’s Terrorist isn’t the reviews; it’s the words JOHN UPDIKE on the cover.

    Assigning incompetent reviewers is an old game the mainstream plays with the genre. It’s worse when they pick a dead-wrong reviewer from within the field, like having Marion Zimmer Bradley review a novel by Thomas Disch. (That actually happened. It was painful.)

    How much do newspaper book reviews influence readers’ experience of and response to a text? Not much at all, especially if that newspaper doesn’t regularly publish complex, thoughtful reviews. Stuff printed in the NYTimes or the Washington Post Book World gets more attention, but that’s a relative measure. Unless you’re the sort of reviewer whose work gets republished as collections (and there aren’t many of those), it’s an ephemeral form.

    There’s one other exception: readers will pay more attention to reviews or quotes written by authors whose books they’ve liked. But isn’t that typical? It’s almost impossible to get readers to value anyone else’s opinions over their own.

  6. MZB reviewed a novel by Tom Disch? The mind reels. Do you recall the name of the book she reviewed and perhaps where the review appeared? I would like to track it down and read it, just to see how awful it must be.

    (It sounds a bit like the time the NYTBR assigned William Buckley to review a book by Hunter Thompson, THE GREAT SHARK HUNT, if memory serves me right. It was a silly stunt that was worth a chuckle but didn’t serve readers well.)

  7. MZB’s review of Disch
    http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/08/09/specials/disch-businessman.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

    You’re right. She openly confessed that she had no particular love or desire to penetrate the genre.

    Unfortunately, Buckley’s review of TGSH doesn’t appear online. (The NYTBR archives only go back to 1981.)

    These are very interesting examples. While book editors are usually meticulous about conflicts of interest, in matters of genre or “difficult” books, they often miss the mark.

  8. Thanks for the link. I haven’t read the book, unfortunately, though I think it has a pretty good reputation. I can think of a lot of people who would have been a better choice at the time to review it — John Crowley and Peter Straub immediately came to mind.

  9. I read the book. I got ahold of a review galley a couple months ago. I missed the bad press about his poetry (I assume all poetry is bad unless proven otherwise, and steer clear).

    I loved Curious Incident, but my feeling about Spot of Bother is a big “meh”. It was okay. it was a very average, cute british romp. If you know anybody who loves 4 Weddings And A Funeral, Bridget Jones, and the oeuvre of Nick Hornby, they’ll enjoy it. I loaned it to my mom when I was done. But it’s pretty forgettable.

    It seems to me that reviews matter in buying decisions only in that if a book is “important” enough to get reviewed at all, people will buy it. Even if the review is bad. A bad NYT writeup is far better than no review at all.

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