Art is subjective.

monochrome imp swirly letters

I have just finished Possession by A S Byatt, which is a slight lie, I finished it ages ago and with the grinding of the wheel of life, I have just gotten around to writing a review now. I read this book for a number of reasons, quite a few people, generally older women friends, say this book is one of their favourites. It also won the Booker Prize in 1990–so this is reason enough to dip in. The other reason I personally read it, I write contemporary love story novels and you need to know the lineage of literature to be able to talk with authority if somebody refers to it, especially in relationship to your own work, obviously this does not apply to everyone that has read it, or attempted to read it.

I did not find it the most stimulating book with regard to content, but it is a work of supreme craft, for example Byatt wrote all the poems herself for the fictional Victorian characters Randolph Henry Ash, as well as Christabel LaMott. If you are writing poetry based on Browning, Tennyson and Rossetti you lay yourself open to ridicule and scrutiny. She made this up: In certain moods we eat our lives away. In fast successive greed, we must have more. Although that more depletes our little stock. Of time and peace remaining. We are driven.

Byatt also fabricated journal entries and letters for the two Victorian lovers, something, unless you have sat down and tried to do, is both time consuming and difficult. There is an enormous amount of research in this long novel, something else that requires huge amounts of time and skill to edit for the final inclusion within. It is quite easy just to end up with an information dump situation, without skilled measure.

Then there is the breadth of vocabulary within the novel, which is quite frankly, is bloody enormous–I’m glad I read it on a Kindle; otherwise I would have spent a lot of time looking words up; bathetic, pother, Gadarene, glaucous, revers, lien, costiveness, parvenu, Fourierist, phalanstery, louring, lambent, bedizened, athwart, palimpsest, simulacra, adumbrate, induration, abjuration, couchant, casuistry, oolite, gimcrack, liminality, suttee, exigent, tumescence, circumlocution, sublunary – imagine if I’d gone to the effort of highlighting all the words I did not know, instead of quickly flicking through the book as I have just done! If you get to the end of this book and have not had to look words up, you are either; a genius and should get on with writing the next great literary work, have a photographic memory or a vampire.

That is just the vocabulary emphasized, imagine if I had highlighted some of the turns of phrase, the clear constructs, the similies and metaphors, the knowledge needed for a work of this vast literary scope. Here again is just a few I found flicking through my Kindle, without very much effort;

Desire lies on the other side of repugnance.

His eyes behind were underwater eyes – sad and large and full of veiled friendliness.

Over unimaginable time, by the gradual action of ordinary causes.

Eyes looked out at the world steadily enough, fearless but with something held in reserve.

And his face took the brightness of her glance.

They bring their work and warm each other with their comfortable presence.

Ancient Druids believed that the spoken word was the breath of life and that writing was a form of death.

So it is with rumours. They waft, they burgeon.

Then there is the questions’ the book throws up, not just about the literary critic of postmodernism and metafiction, but the juxtapostioning of the modern academics and contemporary lovers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey: Has much changed with regard to love? Would you give your child up now–When did that change? Would you not be more honest with your feelings? Would you choose to sacrifice comfort for academia? Who really owns works of art from the past, and copyright? Etc, etc, etc. The book throws up as many questions as it answers.

So, here’s the thing that annoys me: how can someone give a book like Possession one or two stars?!? Ok, you might not like the tone or the narrative, or detailed flowery prose, but some people not only mark it low, they have the temerity to quite openly admit they only read a few pages before giving up! Why bother going to the effort of reviewing it then, surely an honest review is carried out at the end of a process? I have absolutely no problem if someone does not like a book and can give some concrete personal reasons why they did not. I can only assume that some readers, unlikely to be writers, might want to mark down a book that lots of others love, to be different, misanthropic and alternative, like people who say, ‘I don’t like the Beatles…(Oh, but I quite like The Long and Winding Road)’. The same theory applies–probably?

So for Possession–a magnificent literary work, you could substitute many other great works in its place. I can see why Mein Kampf gets 2.95 on Goodreads, but not why Possession gets 3.86 and Catcher in the Rye 3.77.

I feel better now, cathartic self-counselling! How about a simple rule: if you don’t read a book, don’t review it. “I can’t review this book as I only read the first twenty pages.”  “I would like to have reviewed this book, but I only read the first chapter, it wasn’t my cup of tea, and life’s too short to read a book in its entirety if you have that gut feeling you will not enjoy it, but if you like classic fiction, especially romantic fiction (not Chick-lit) you will love this. In the same way if you love Sylvester Stallone, you will love ‘The Expendables’.” Why would you want a book you have not read to show up on your bookshelf, unless you like the idea of being well read, but can’t quite be arsed with the actual reading! But that surely is a modern nihilistic paradox? I took time out of my busy life to open this book, any dead time (the time authors crave and need to create) is wasted time, “and by the God of all things holy will it be recorded in the slideshow of my life so others can see. I belong to the Twitter generation!”

Here are some more reviews out of 5 stars;

The Finkler Question 2.74 (Not a book I warmed to, but enjoyed the writing and the angst.)

Moby Dick 3.4 (I bet he wished he’d have made the money he deserved from this book while he was still alive, and not seen it deleted for a time!)

Fifty Shades Trilogy 4.16 (This just baffles me, not the rating, if you enjoyed them, so be it. I would hate to think what feminists make of it. The only thing I can think of with its appeal is, ‘we all want to be looked after, but less pain on the nipples for me, thank you.’)

The Master Plan a novel about purpose 4.9 (I have no idea either, but it was the highest I could find.)

The Fault in our Stars 4.43 (When I see a teenager (nearly always a girl) reading this it lifts my spirits.)

The Hunger Games #1 4.4 (2.8M reviews! Respect to that. We all like to be entertained; it is the number one purpose of a novel.)

So here’s what I’m advocating. If you have not read a book, don’t review it, that’s not hard. Otherwise you could read the first few pages of thousands of books and pretend to be well read. When the electronic device or site you have purchased your book from asks you for a review, just ignore it–you can you know. You don’t have to let the storm of information and requests snow-blind you. No one will notice, really, they won’t. If you know someone that leaves reviews without reading a book, quite politely say to them, “You are aware you’re a nihilistic imbecile aren’t you?” If they have the audacity to defend themselves, interrupt them sharply, “Oh, it was a rhetorical question.” When their faces contort like they are warming up for a Lancashire gurning completion, explain what ‘rhetorical’ means. If I have annoyed you, it’s for all our benefits, you know whom some of these people are–point at them in the street like an extra from a Zombie movie; you’ll be doing us all a favour. Society will come up to you in a bar one day, wrap a comforting arm around you and thank you, assuming society has not been arrested itself by then?

Right, go about your business now, as Charlie Brooker would say: “Go away now.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you’re probably a part-time moron. Help is available at: Imbecile Department Incorporating Other Tiresomes. http://www.idiot.ahrr


Ian Pindar writes books. Here’s some he wrote recently:

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Seriously, go away now.

Tags: Possession A S Byatt, reviews, idiots, nihilistic, Art is subjective, Booker Prize, Goodreads