Friday, July 21, 2006


The Guardian reports on the longlist for the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize.

I've read only one of the list: Ian Holding's Unfeeling, and I'm staggered that it has been selected. It was the subject of my first review for the TLS last year (online only to subscribers). I was particularly disappointed with the novel's predictable form. The main character sits out in the African open where "the haunting sound of a boar rose again, sticking hard in his skull like a razor-edged arrow splintering the bone, slicing cleanly into his brain." The judges could mitigate this, I suppose, as overwriting is appropriate for a prize named after Dylan Thomas.

However, when a debut novelist resorts to wordy third person narration, you know he hasn't too many doubts about the form. You might think this is a purist's complaint; only someone who has read too much would make it. For the average reader, it's an engaging and relevant story about post-colonial Zimbabwe. He or she gets to learn about this troubled land through the imaginative empathy of one of its most eloquent citizens.

Unfortunately, the form also reveals more than the author might be wish to confront. In the review, I noticed that
Each black person is a caricature, a psychopathic monster at one extreme or a grovelling servant at the other. If [the white characters] can be imagined empathetically by the author, why stop there? The lack of an original black character has ramifications which Holding is apparently unwilling to explore.
There are good reasons why awarding prizes for novels is a problematic enterprise. What, for instance, is it rewarding exactly? The usual defence is that it gets more people to read, but would they say the same thing about a BNP pamphlet going through every letterbox in the country?


  1. Anonymous12:07 pm

    You say you are "staggered" that this novel by Ian Holding made the list, well, quite frankly I am staggered by how out of touch with general critic's views you are. Don't you know that the book was widely hailed and got rave reviews when published? Did you also know that one of the judges of last year's Booker Prize has admitted that it would have made the SHORTLIST had it not been for the fact that Holding, as a Zimbabwean citizen, is not eligible beause Zimbabwe is no longer in the Commonwealth. You say it's overwritten, yet you clearly choose to focus on perhaps one phrase? Because all other reviews that i've read have praised it's sparse prose. Newsweek called it one of it's Books of the Year. The Times said it was "riveting". Just who is out og touch with reality here? Clearly, another case of a wannabe writer, frustrated by his own lack of ability, who has chosen to take his anger out on those young writer's who actually CAN write. I'm a retired professor of modern literature and I can give my qualified verdict on Ian Holding and his novel UNFEELING: it is an incredibly powerful, incredibily well written and well-structured novel which shows devatstating insight into the world of political violence and the consequences of racial hatred. You clearly don't know how to judge a good book from a bad one. This one is BRILLIANT! Prof. J. Williams, Kent

  2. Oh I'm delighted to be considered "out of touch" with general critics. It's why I write reviews - because most reviewers (and most professors of modern literature) seem to have no feeling for literature. They swoon at every dreary repetition of a tired formula. Holding has a facility for producing that at least. I'm SO jealous.

    And on that subject, if I'm wrong because it's just sublimation of my resentment that I can't write, where does that leave the rave reviews? Could it be I'm just being honest?

    I've had the same problem with those fawning over Javier Marias' latest. Neither his nor Holdings are interesting as novels (if I wanted "devatsting insight" into those things I'd go for non-fiction; it's the recourse of apologists for poor novelists to turn to socio-political issues). At least Marias' isn't racist.

    And isn't it obvious that the example of overwriting is, er, AN EXAMPLE? The book is full of it. Sparse prose my arse.

  3. Anonymous9:12 pm

    Steve - face it - you ARE out of touch!! The novel DID get rave reviews and HAS been highly praised for its literary qualities. Of course you are entitled to your opinion, no one objects to that, but it does strike me as somewhat absurd that you call yourself a proper critic and then seem to squeal like a kid when someone decides to question your comments. Really, you've shown by your reaction to the good Prof Williams above that you're completely unprofessional. A REAL critic would say his piece (as you did in the TLS) and then rest your case. Why the need to defend yourself? All you're doing my friend is admitting that your view was somewhat shaky to start with aren't you? Certainly looks that way and seeing as I've got a paperback copy of Mr Holding's very fine first novel and can clearly see that it's littered with GLOWING reviews, I'm beginning to have my doubts about you too. I hope Ian Holding proves you wrong and goes on to win whatever prize he's been nominated just to keep whining no-bodies (and yes, those who DO have a jealousy problem with REAL writers) like yourself quiet.

    Grow up Steve. Honestly.
    Jane, Surrey

  4. Why defend myself indeed?! I should just let people carry on overrating run-of-the-mill books and let them tell me the REAL reason for honestly judging a book negatively.

    As I made clear, I'm MORE THAN HAPPY to be regarded out of touch if this is what passes for "very fine". Why are you telling me to face something I've already accepted with delight?!

    It's probably significant that you didn't spot that. Can you actually work things out for yourself or do you need to be told be blurbs what to think?

    No doubt I do have a problem with jealousy with REAL writers. Or it could be that I'm a genuinely passionate reader, hence my labelling another southern African's recent novel as one of the great novels of recent decades? I asked the undistinguished prof what it might mean for me to praise a writer to the skies in the light of his extraordinary powers of psychological insight. Nothing. You merely repeat it. Gosh, such intellect!

    But yes, I'm jealous - jealous in the same way you are with me because you realise (it's so obvious) that you're not a perceptive a critic as I am.

    Finally, WTF has Holding winning a prize got to do with proving me wrong? Winning a prize is usually evidence of a middlebrow, committee-led compromise usually appealing to books journalists will be interested in. Unfeeling is PERFECT prize fodder and is bound to win if the judges can tell it apart from all the other pap they have to wade through.

  5. Anonymous10:26 am

    Well, Steve, seems your judegement is way off line after all: your worst nightmare has just occured as the brilliant UNFEELING has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize (announced yesterday). At least the prize judges - experts in their field - can tell a worthy book when they see one. You earlier had the nerve to call all the contenders nothing but "pap" - how can you be so arrogant! These young writers are the future voice of writing. If you don't like it then get out of the literary game my friend.

    Prof. Williams, Kent

  6. Anonymous8:47 am

    "Tumbleweed" ?????!!!!! What, cat got your tongue now Steve? Seems your opinions aren't exactly on que after all are they?

  7. Anonymous2:22 am


    I think this was a well-written review; I absolutely agree with your perspective on the unoriginal black characters, as well as the stiff, cliche writing.

    Simply because other reviewers write good things about a book, film, whatever, doesn't mean every needs to go out and like it too. Agreeing blindly to things others write is, in my opinion, a dangerous thing to do.



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