Every so often, a critical book review sets off a bit of a storm. These reviews have usually been pungent, challenging, and provocative; they have triggered discussion, and made our cultural world take a good, long look at itself. The latest of these is Jim Perrin’s review of I, Eric Ngalle in Wales Arts Review, which has caused quite a lot of anger.
Usually, critical reaction against a provocative review focuses, on the one hand, on the judgement of the editor who has chosen to give a platform to such a challenging piece of writing. Is the editor deliberately stirring the pot, but taking no responsibility for doing so? Can the editor hide behind disclaimers about free speech and censorship, about the view of the reviewer not being the view of the publication in which it appears?
Reaction also often focuses on the alleged animus of the reviewer. Does the reviewer have some personal grudge against the author? The credibility of the reviewer will come under attack, with claims that they don’t have the standing, or authority, or expertise to assess the work.
The response on social media to Jim Perrin’s review certainly follows this pattern. In the past, these complaints about reviews in literary magazines might have appeared in the Letters pages three months later. Now, of course, it’s instant – and in this case, it’s quite substantial.
In addition to the public responses, both the Books Council and Wales Arts Review have received correspondence about it. According to editor Gary Redmond, the responses that Wales Arts Review have received have been ‘roughly split between people concerned about the article’ who wished to discuss it with him, and people ‘who found that the review was broadly correct about the book and the questions it raises.’
Whatever one’s view of its accuracy or allegations, the review and the reaction to it provides a useful opportunity for discussion, reassessment, and a cultural stock-taking.
How we formally and publicly discuss our literature and other cultural productions goes right to the heart of how we present ourselves to the world and how the world perceives us.
There is a long history to discussing the question of how, in a so-called ‘small’ culture, we can speak freely and frankly, and engage critically with work by those who are often our friends and colleagues – and who will often review us in turn. The closeness and usually warm mutual support among our writers and publishers (illustrated here by the fierce defence of Ngalle, an emerging writer), has in the past sometimes led to playing things too safe, which resulted in a stultified culture that rewarded and celebrated the mediocre, and failed to recognise the exceptional.
That had serious consequences, as indeed it can have in the present – not least for how seriously we, and our cultural productions, are treated beyond our borders.
An overly safe reviewing culture is damaging to our country’s standing and credibility, and editors, therefore, need the freedom to commission and publish provocative work, and reviewers need the freedom to honestly assess the value of new work, no matter what the reputation or circumstances of the author under review.
But that does not mean anything goes. It does not mean dispensing with the exercise of editorial judgement; nor does it mean relinquishing attentiveness to our own prejudices and biases – as editors and writers and reviewers.
I have no intention of defending Perrin against criticism, but I do think that his writing of this review needs to be seen in a wider context than that so far in evidence in the public reaction against it. Anyone can look for information about Perrin online and come to their own conclusions about his character. Discovering the troubling allegations that have been made about him (many of them collected and documented over several years on one website) might result in people looking no further. This is particularly true for those made aware of Perrin for the first time through his review of Ngalle’s book.
But Perrin is a writer with a long list of well-regarded publications to his name. More recently he has been better known for writing about the natural world, but his contribution to the climbing world is perhaps more important – first as a climber, and subsequently as a writer about climbing, and as a biographer of prominent climbers. It’s nearly impossible to climb in Gwynedd or Anglesey or Pembrokeshire without being aware of Perrin’s presence here in the past. Whether or not you like his flamboyant writing style, Perrin has made a mark in both our literary and physical landscapes.
That does not mean he deserves to be protected from criticism: far from it. But angry reactions to the review are tending towards an assessment of his character rather than an assessment of his writing. Responding to character assassination with character assassination won’t lead anywhere constructive, and that’s what is provided by this review and the anger it has caused: an opportunity to open up a productive discussion.
I have not read Ngalle’s book, but this review has certainly made me, like many others, want to read it. Perhaps it is deeply flawed in the ways that Perrin suggests, but there is evidently power in it too, if it has triggered such a response. In that sense, this is a ‘good’ review – one that provokes controversy and, unusually, leads to an increase in sales. But in so many ways it is, at best, a very unfortunate review.
Firstly, it tells us more about the reviewer than about the book under review. There’s a good deal too much about Perrin in it, which is one of his regular shortcomings as a writer. Both this and his objecting to Ngalle as an ‘unreliable narrator’ suggests cluelessness rather than unforgivable sin, however. In life writing, he asserts, ‘the perceived reliability of the narrator is crucial’, which indicates he’s somewhat out of touch, and it is a bit rich coming from someone who has himself been accused of fabrication.
But Perrin’s discussion of Ngalle’s narration is problematic because during the course of the review this alleged ‘unreliability’ becomes progressively less qualified, and progressively more focused on judgement of character, until, in the concluding sentence, he dismisses Ngalle as a ‘dubious author’.
Here, bizarrely, Perrin does what he criticises another reviewer for doing about a memoir of trauma: he describes her review as ‘the paradigm of an insolently brutal and sneering superciliousness’, and claims that he would never himself ‘have put down a vulnerable fellow-writer so brutally, however strong the temptation’. Sadly, he has given in to that temptation here.
More problematic still is the allegation of tokenism that Perrin levels against those who have, as he puts it, ‘showcased’ Ngalle. It’s hard to imagine that the recognition accorded to this writer from Cameroon would have been described as ‘tokenistic’ if the writer under discussion had been white and working class, though I could imagine the same term being used if Ngalle had been white and transgender.
So, while the term ‘tokenistic’, offensive as it is, does not in itself make the review racist, it is one of several troubling tropes that have provoked accusations of racism.
Taken together with this ‘tokenistic’ dismissal, Perrin’s expressed concern about the gift that this ‘dubious author’ allegedly gives to ‘those seditious racists, the ardent brexiteers’ feels rather too like projection to ignore.
To identify the embrace and support of a writer as tokenism denigrates the writer, reducing him from an individual to a mere representation, a statistic, and a focus for compensatory guilt. And it dismisses the validity of the writing, implicitly making it unworthy of recognition and assessment on its own terms.
The accusation of tokenism does an injustice to the author, who has no control over the decisions others make to support or promote or engage with him or his work. It is a peculiarly nasty term with which to dismiss a writer’s success, and it is this personal animus, and these tropes, that undermine the authority of the review. Citing tokenism, in particular, reflects poorly on Perrin, and reflects as poorly on the editor’s judgement for allowing it through.
Perhaps the book under review is as full of flaws as Perrin asserts. But all writers, including Perrin himself, deserve to be assessed on their writing, not on others’ responses to it, nor on the basis of allegations about poor moral character.
So I, like many who have read this unreliable review, intend to buy the book and find out for myself. An unsavoury review that reads uncomfortably like professional jealousy might seem like a misfortune, but in this regard, the review is rather more a happy failure, for it has created a larger readership for the book it finds wanting.
But it has also demonstrated that we need to re-examine our reviewing culture. Evidently, we need diversity of identity and experience in our reviewers as much as in the works under review. And evidently, we need to make room for different voices and experiences that are challenging to established values, and to establishment norms. We need to develop new critical approaches to assessing their quality, and recognising their excellence.
To do that, as editors and reviewers, we must learn to recognise when our preferences or choices express biases that reflect positions of social power, rather than some notionally universal set of values. We need to do all this in a constructive way, though, and resist indulging in the immediate gratification of character assassination, no matter how tempting it might be.