After two years of faithfully documenting and reviewing every single book I’ve read I have decided to draw a line under My Bookish Friends blog. It’s been a wonderful asset to my reading and, if nothing else has both helped me analyse what I liked, learnt and loathed about the books I’ve been trundling through. It has also acted as a fantastic curating tool, allowing me to remember what I’ve been reading and ensuring individual books did not disappear into the increasingly enormous library in my mind. However, I’ve decided it’s time to draw a line under My Bookish Friends and move on to pastures new and yet-to-be read. There are a number of reasons why I’m doing this.
Primarily, I simply don’t have time to do justice to the reviews. It’s been an incredibly busy season and I’ve decided that I’d rather spend my free time reading and writing rather than writing about reading. If someone’s taken the time and effort to labour over 100,000 words, (or in Donna Tartt’s case, significantly more), I’ve decided that it’s a little disrespectful to churn out a flippant three sentence review of what they’ve created. I was also beginning to find my reading patterns unduly influenced by the blog. If I’d just finished a story collection or a really good Murakami novel, I’d find myself reluctant to plough into more of the same, even if I was craving a series, simply because the blog might appear repetitive or samey. This year is proving to be taxing enough without adding a reading agenda to the mix and so stepping away from the blog will give me the freedom to read exactly what I want, when I want, even if that looks like sixteen Agatha Christie novels in a rather predictable row.
However, mostly I am killing My Bookish Friends because I’m too afraid of the consequences of keeping it going. I write and work in a community of other writers. For the most part it feels like a warm and nurturing extended family. Occasionally it feels like an incestuous little goldfish bowl. As I make further inroads into my writing and literary programming career I am increasingly reading books by people I work with, love and respect. Many of these writers are dear friends and have been incredibly encouraging and supportive, some are still distant heroes I one day hope to shake hands with. I’m very conscious, and perhaps a little afraid, of having my own words come back to bite me at a future date. I remember reading once how Robbie Williams in his very early days with Take That openly criticised an A-List pop star, duly forgetting his words until five years later, by then an A-Lister himself, Williams found himself backstage at a talk show with the man he’d so enthusiastically dismissed. The A-List pop star confronted Robbie Williams with his own words, “so I heard you think I’m a bit of a wanker,” and Williams was rightfully mortified. (It should be noted that this anecdote betrays the fact that I’ve read Robbie Williams biography cover to cover. Might I add that I also quite enjoyed it?) I’ve already had two, very successful novelists contact me to challenge my blog reviews and whilst I stand by what I’ve written, I am at this stage in my writing career, far too chicken to start taking calculated pot shots at the bookish giants who loom over me.
There’s little point in a book review which isn’t honest and there’s far too much risk in unleashing the honesty when you’re swimming in the same goldfish bowl as the fish you’re critiquing. So I won’t be reviewing books any more. I don’t think I’m removed enough from the books to critique with any kind of objectivity and am afraid I will either bite the hand that feeds with an honest response or puddle about in the land of platitudes for fear of causing offense. This is not to say I don’t believe in critique. Critique is absolutely essential if an artist is to develop in his or her creative craft. The Northern Irish arts scene is suffering from lack of genuine and mature critique. It’s wonderful to have such supportive community and we have all benefited from the encouragement and opportunities which come from being part of a tight network of local writers and artists. But in a country this small such a mutually supportive community can often lead to reviews which are more like pep talks and platitudes than honest, structured analysis of the work being produced. No one wants to hurt the feelings of a friend and yet without truthful reviews and meaty criticism where criticism is due, it’s incredibly difficult to push through the boundaries in your work and continue to grow as a practising artist.
I’m not brave enough to be a critic but neither do I want to create in an environment where genuine measured criticism is no longer practised. I need critique as much I need encouragement. So, I’m hanging up my critic’s pen this morning and hoping there are some fearless individuals out there- people removed enough from the restraints of mutual artistic dependency- to consider stepping into that fine critical tradition and serving us all some wise home truths and well-considered grounds for growth.