Books in the media

Posted by Guy Pringle, 29th November 2010

This weekend two book-related stories caught my eye in The Sunday Times. First, Jamie Oliver’s book sales broke the £100 million mark, making him second only to JK Rowling (albeit by a still hefty margin).

This struck me as something of a dog-bites-man story. Since The Naked Chef first graced our screens back in 1999 Mr Oliver has demonstrated superb nous for choosing his campaigns on food issues. Once allied to the considerable air time his programmes command, he has won a firm place in the hearts and minds of Joe and - more likely - Josephine Public.

Unless he does something unutterably stupid, his national treasure status will grow further and one can only wonder when those sales will break the billion pound barrier – at which point we’ll have a bigger-dog-bites-man story.

My air of cynicism derives from the likelihood that the whole episode has been cleverly engineered by one of Penguin’s talented publicists offering journalists a seasonal reason to further publicise their author.

The only downside I can see to this is a feeling of ennui among other published chefs – a substantial genre nowadays.

Of all the authors I have had the privilege to meet I can’t think of any I would cross the road to avoid but undoubtedly there’s a rivalry bubbling under the surface. When one is thrust into a spotlight the other/s feel/s should have been theirs it is only human nature to feel deprived. But just how far would they go to redress the balance?

Which brings me to a somewhat darker piece about the ‘Cut-throat tricks of Amazon warriors’. To summarise, 16 out of 119 reviews of Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You gave it only 1 star. Ms Alison feels there is skulduggery afoot and is apparently now in dispute with Amazon about said reviews, although presumably she doesn’t object to the complimentary ones.

‘I don’t really like getting involved in these kind of things,’ she’s quoted as saying but that hasn’t stopped her asking a company that specialises in protecting online reputations to do some checking.

Hence a quantum leap to Polly Sampson – whose Perfect Lives is a featured book in nb61. Ms Sampson is guilty of being married to one David Gilmour, guitarist of Pink Floyd, occasioning some snide Amazon comments. Ms Sampson has had the good sense not to get involved – although her book is getting noticed elsewhere and was listed as one of the newspaper’s fiction books of the year in its Culture supplement.

Thereafter the story meanders somewhat until lo and behold, reviewer of this parish (and also for Amazon’s Vine network), Sally Zigmond, pops up. Being a reviewer of both Alison and Sampson’s books it is refreshing to hear a voice of common sense, ‘I didn’t like the Alison book very much, I’m afraid, but it was a personal opinion. I try to be honest but I probably give friends higher reviews than I normally would have done.’

Who exactly has come out of this piece well is debatable and while Amazon has long had a reputation for hosting – probably unwittingly – reviews ‘planted’ by friends, associates or, dare one say, editors of certain books, I don’t envy them the job of policing their site. The internet is gathering a reputation for what others may want to 'contribute' under the cloak of anonymity that they probably wouldn't have said face to face.

Of course, you could do worse than visit our review listing comprising only reviews by reviewers known to us. There may be individual tastes and concerns at play in what they write but they do so in the conviction that it will help other readers decide whether they want to read the book as well.

And as yet, we have only had one author complain about a review that we posted in good faith. Our response then – as now – was to send us another copy which we would review and if the second review was markedly different from the tone of the first then we would remove it or run the second review alongside, depending on the degree of difference. Suffice to say that the second review mirrored the first and we agreed to disagree with the author.



Marjorie Neilson said...

I read this with interest and visited the Waterstone’s site where Rosie Alison's book got 5 stars from 3 reviewers. But then I picked up the review by Jane Shilling in The Telegraph and I quote as follows:

‘This year’s Orange Prize longlist is duly accompanied by some surprises. Among them is Rosie Alison, a film producer whose debut, The Very Thought of You, was launched by its small publisher to a resounding silence. Not a single review appeared in the books pages of the national newspapers. […]
The trouble is Alison’s characters. There are far too many of them, and they all have the same problem – of being out of love with the person that they’re married to, and keen to hook up with someone else.
The narrative monotony is compounded by an omniscient third-person narrator who tells us what everyone is feeling, in terms that fail to distinguish between one character and another. Thus Anna, about to leave home, “looked up at her mother with unblinking eyes. In the years to come, she would remember that fragile day, its touchless light, their quiet elations.” This is a determined stab at evocative writing, but what does it actually mean? What is touchless light? What are quiet elations?
The Very Thought of You is a pleasant, competent book. Thousands like it are published every year. But consider the heart-stopping opening passage of Alison’s fellow Orange longlister, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which the beaten child Thomas Cromwell, lies on the ground, bleeding and thinking, “I’ll miss my dog”, and you may conclude that in the selection of their longlist, the Orange Prize judges have given themselves a task as problematic as trying to compare cupcakes and turnips.’
You can read the full review on-line. So, perhaps "the lady doth protest too much" and her book is, dare I say it, not good enough.

Posted on Tue 30 Nov 2010 @ 22:06

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