(Today is less of an essay and more of a mission statement.)
I can’t read another book review where the sound of knife-sharpening is clearly audible. I can’t read another book review written by a man in gently flared bootleg jeans and a stained fleece who believes himself to be waging an assault on literary pieties. My objection to this is in large part aesthetic: I find it unkind, but mostly I find it tragic and aggressively uncool. The world of letters is wretched enough as it is without people unsheathing their terrible word-swords everywhere. Enough.
I can’t read another book review where the writer is in hot pursuit of something nice or meaningful to say. Orwell moaned that “Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.” I can’t read another book review where you can see that this is what’s going on. They are always written by the person you dread being seated next to at dinner – someone who is very Helpful and good at unobtrusively clearing away the dishes, but who asks too many rote questions and is thrown totally off guard if someone interrupts them. Such people tell themselves that it’s fine to have no sense of humour at all, because they make up for it by being Helpful. They are unfortunately mistaken about that.
I don’t know if it’s always been this way, or if I just noticed it now. I am possibly being ungenerous. And there are, obviously, very many brilliant reviewers and very many erudite people who don’t know what the hell I am talking about. Still, I have the very strong feeling that talking about books, especially in South Africa, could be a bit more fun and interesting, and a bit less uptight and effortful.
My solution to this is Booksnakes! I thought of the name before I thought of anything else. Like bookworms, but more powerful.
Booksnakes, for now, will be published on this site. I would like it to be a place where all different kinds of people write reviews, on any sorts of book they feel like writing about: new ones and old ones, serious ones and not. It doesn’t have to be the standard review format, it doesn’t have to be Funny or Clever or make some sort of overarching point. It doesn’t have to be a disquisition on this terrible world. If I was giving a Power Point presentation about the purpose of Booksnakes, I would flick over now to a photograph of people going very fast on a speedboat, or else riding a horse at full gallop, or Dickie Greenleaf on his yacht. I would say, “I’m thinking fun, I’m thinking freedom, I’m thinking first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
So. I sent out an email a little while ago, to a few people, with the very first Booksnakes questionnaire attached. I set out twenty questions, which I’ll post here too. The responses that I’ve got, so far, have made me very happy. Everyone is so funny and charming, and everyone has such strong opinions about the books they like, and the books they hate.
I will be posting more of these in the coming weeks, but here are a few little bits, for now.
Who is your favourite heroine of fiction?
“Heidi because she had such a brilliant life with her grandfather and Peter when she was small and then married Peter and had twins in the end”
“I fell in love with her”
“Cathy because she’s wild and full of shit and loves Heathcliff”
What is a book that you would recommend to a teenage boy?
“Anything Beatnik or Gonzo. Might as well get it out the way. Maybe Animal Farm for the same reason. But more seriously can I recommend something I haven’t myself read? “Crime and Punishment”. Hardship. Stoicism. Idealism. I think these are good things for teenage boys to see depicted romantically.”
Do you like it when a novel goes on and on about what people eat? Which is your favourite example of this type?
“Definitely. Especially what posh people are eating. That said I will never forget Pip’s pork pie for the convict. And the brandy of course.”
“Only in Brideshead Revisited. ALTHOUGH I will never forget all the epic stuff Denise ate in The Corrections (kidney, grappa).”
“This is really a stupid idea. And sometimes they put recipes in. Can’t think of one now , but its probably one of the books I abandoned, that being one of the reasons.”
Do you like it when a novel goes on and on about what people wear? Which is your favourite example of this type?
“No, that’s crap.”
“Yes. I love reading all the footnotes in Pride and Prejudice about the clothes.”
“Yes. I love it.”
Have you ever had a book pressed on you that you cannot believe anyone thought you would like?
“THE MAGUS. An unbelievable number of times.”
“Actually a few people have tried to press some Ayn Rand on me, saying, “oh my god, you will love Atlas Shrugged”. I’m hoping that they’re just hopelessly self-involved, and not that I come across that way.”
“Anything by Salman Rushdie”
Have you abandoned books? Which ones?
“Ulysses. I bought it in Ireland, and thought it was the proper place to read it. I deliberately left it on a train. I also abandoned a dreadful Australian book about the second WW in Burma, that won the Nobel prize recently.”
“All the time. I’m ruthless – I have never read the last chapter of The God of Small Things for instance.”
“Yes. John Updike. Kingsley Amis. Robertson Davies.”
“Books that are too dry or sad, like Invisible Man or maybe any Coetzee book that goes on about the Tokai picknpay.”
Which author do you feel certain would personally dislike you?
More soon. I think this could be the start of something beautiful.