Saturday, January 16, 2010


Various trivia has set me thinking about critics. I upset one recently by critiquing their critique, if you see what I mean. Apparently the biter does not like to be bit.

I can across an interesting story on the London site – another nickel in the machine:

It concerns a rather arrogant young man called Colin Wilson. He was a 24 year old working class boy from the Midlands who turned up in London in 1956 and who wrote a book. He had no education, having left school at 16 and was living rough on Hampstead Heath while writing each day in the British Museum. In short, he was the perfect working class hero to be taken up by the upper class London glitterati who liked to think that this was the new age of the common man. This was the era of ‘The Angry Young Man’.

The book was 'The Outsider', a collection of essays that explored the concept of alienation in literature (with a capital L). I always associate this with Camus. The book was a sensation, selling out on the first day of publication. It did not just receive critical acclaim; it was elevated to the highest levels, as possibly the most important book of the decade.

Wilson was lionised with lots of moody B&W pics taken of him on Hampstead Heath and living with his girlfriend Joy in Notting Hill – so wonderfully Bohemian – and Wilson revelled in it. Quote: 'I had taken it for granted that I was a man of genius since I was about 13'.

But those who live by the sword tend to die by it, and that goes double for the press. It was not long before the tabloid reptiles discovered that Wilson lived rough on Hampstead Heath to avoid paying maintenance to his wife and child. Then Joy’s parents turned up to rescue their daughter from a life of sin........

What is interesting is to track the written opinion of a literary critic, Philip Toynbee, son of the famous historian and father to Princess Polly, the Queen of political correctness.

He originally described “The Outsider” as “luminously intelligent” but within months was writing “I doubt whether this interesting and extremely promising book quite deserved the furore which it seems to have caused.' Toynbee reviewed Wilson’s second book in ’57, ‘Religion and the Rebel’ as ‘a vulgarising rubbish bin’ and noted that ‘The Outsider’ had been 'clumsily written and still more clumsily composed.' Ho hum.

Wilson made around £1m (in modern money) from 'The Outsider'and went off to live in the Westcountry where he wrote New Age conspiracy and horror books and married Joy.

But what are we to make of critics with such flexible memories? Well, they must be appeased if you write literary novels where fashion seems to be almost everything. But if you write commercial novels then just snap your fingers and ignore them. Your work either sells or not.

So here’s a challenge. What was the most ludicrous/pompous/vicious review that you ever read?


1) I am now on Twitter under the name 'johnlambshead'.

2) An eArc of my novelette, Storming Venus, can be viewed for free at Baen's Universe:

This story is a sequel to Storming Hell.


Anonymous said...

The most outrageous reviews I see are the ones that attack the author's politics/religion/whatever and have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual book itself. In fact, it's often obvious from the first few sentences that the reviewer never even read the book in question and is simply using the review as a convienient platform to launch an ad hominem attack on the author. (Starship Troopers is the textbook example of this)

However, this can backfire and be downright hilarious when the reviewer gets the author's politics/religion/whatever completely and utterly wrong. (Like reviews of Old Man's War accusing Scalzi of being a right-wing militarist)

C Kelsey said...

Frequently I come across reviews on Amazon of other Baen authors that make it painfully clear that the person writing the review hasn't read the book in question and is actually writing a review for an entirely different type of book anyway.

John, I finally had a chance to read your latest story yesterday. Just as good as Storming Hell. You have created some extremely interesting characters in those stories. So... book please. :)

John Lambshead said...

Dear RJ

An English reviewer once said David Drake would not write such ghastly stuff if he had ever been in a war...

David of course was a Vietnam veteran from the elite Blackhorse Cavalry.

His descriptions of war are terrible, just like my father's memories of Anzio.

If more people read Drake's novels then we would have less enthusiasm for wars from civilians.


PS You realise that all Baen authors are interchangeable, at least according to one critic.....

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris

It is well known that all of us Baen writers are ultra right-wing militaristic fundamentalist evangelical protestant Christians from Alabama or Bavaria.

I only pretend to be a pinko-liberal, southern English academic and Eric Flint only pretends to be a socialist.


Some Baen authors are right wing and some right wing Baen authors are bloody wonderful writers.

You don't have to agree with an author's politics to like his fiction.


PS Glad you like Storming Venus - I was smugly pleased with it.

John Lambshead said...

Actually, thinking about your comments gentlemen, you are right. Some people criticise a book not for what it is but what, in the critic's opinion, it should have been.

Sometimes, peer-group reviewers do that. The review usually start: the authors should have addressed the question.....

One (quite fair) critique of Lucy was disappointed that she spent her time fighting daemons rather than improving the lot of 16th C. women.


C Kelsey said...


Eric is a card carrying communist (whom radical right-wing nutjobs like me are supposed to not like at all, for any reason), not a socialist. ;) He's also an exceptional gentleman and a heck of an author.

As for Dave Drake's books, you are right on all accounts. And yet, look at a book like The Forever War, by Haldeman, and you see the author, from the same war Drake was in, totally fail at the message that war is hell. (The fact that it was an amateurish book may have contributed to that).

Anonymous said...

Of course they're all interchangeable, John -- didn't you get the memo? :-D

Though, just as an intellectual exercise, it would be really interesting to interchange authors just to see what happens: what a Vorkosigan story by Mike Williamson would look like, or an Honor Harrington story by Dave Freer, or perhaps a Kildar story by Sarah Hoyt ("Oh Sarah Hoyt no!"). It's always interesting (for me, at least) to see what different authors can do when playing in someone else's sandbox -- which is why I find shared-universe anthos a real treat.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

John, literary reviews are like the Emperor's New Clothes.

Even if a reviewer has read the book and they are not out to whinge about their private soap boxes, the depth of the review depends on the reviewer's life experience.

There's a Movie Show in Australia that has been for around 20 years. Both the reviewers are in their 60s.

Yet, the woman doesn't have the life experience to understand some of the things she comes across in movies.

For instance -- 'A History of Violence' which had a really interesting premise. (Can a man with a violent background re-invent himself as a man of peace?).

In this movie the husband and wife, love each other. Then his past surfaces and she his horrified to learn who he used to do. They become estranged. They end up having sex on the stairs. (Ouch). The reviewer described it as a rape scene and didn't like it.

What she didn't understand was that the sex was a form of non verbal communication. It was the only way the two characters could express their love for each other, while they were intellectually estranged.

If a reviewer doesn't get what your doing, it may be the reviewer's fault, not a flaw of your writing craft.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Actually, thinking about your comments gentlemen, you are right. Some people criticise a book not for what it is but what, in the critic's opinion, it should have been.

Yes. I dare you not write the book I could have written, if I had the talent and was willing to put in the work!

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena
Ah yes. It is a truism that a critique tells you as much about the critic as the book.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Ori
I have noticed that creative writing courses are churning out people who 'know' the rules on how to structure a story.
Some become critics and then criticise the techniques of great writers. I read one critique which explained how Ian Banks was incompetent at structuring a novel.....


WangZheng259 said...

I remember seeing a thread on Baen authors on a fanfic forum. The context in this case is that I have been Kratman fan for years, and have read a significant amount of what he has posted on the Kratskeller. So I've read his position on purely libertarian societies a few times. This is, if I have it right, that they tend to fail and be net producers of tyranny. So reading someone say that Tom is a libertarian is rather funny, especially when the thread goes on to attempt to correct that evaluation. (Facist is not any more accurate.) Of course, whenever my blood pressure doesn't get too high, I tend to find the Tom Kratman-inaccurate reviewer interactions hilarious in general.

Anonymous said...


I was pulling Eric Flint's leg one time by saying I was a "libertarian fascist." He thought about that for a couple of minutes and then insisted, " You're an anarcho-nationalist."


Tom Kratman