The Extraordinary Case of the Anonymous Cretin

Lately I’ve been receiving complaints about being too positive. I can see where these have come from – I’ve got a new book out, in a lovely edition, and by and large people seem to be digging it, so yes, perhaps I have been a little on the happy-clappy side. So, to reassure you that I’ve not entirely gone over to the light, here are my thoughts on a recent shabby episode.

Warning: the following contains invective. Read no further if that sort of thing troubles you.

Here’s how it all went down. The moment Sour Grapes came out, Private Eye magazine ran a huge and vicious review, torpedoing our small-press, £0-advance novel as though it were a hyped six-figure behemoth that needed taking out. Tossers. Shitty reviews are a depressing part of the rough and tumble of publication season – ask any author: they are inevitable. Mostly, though, once the red mist has lifted it’s possible to feel sorry for the rotten wazzock reviewer for having such poor taste, before getting on with your day (with, if you are in any way human, a lifelong grudge safely stashed away on the dark side of your heart). I can’t even complain too much, as I’m here to freak out the squares, and in a way it would be a disappointment if at least some of them didn’t oblige by being freaked out from time to time. The Royal Literary Critics’ Guild is bursting at the seams with their kind, and the villain of this piece is at the heart of that world. Some reviews still really get my goat, though, particularly those that are full of telltale signs that their writer has opened the book determined not to like it, and has most likely accepted, or even pursued, the commission because they see an opportunity to grind their axe. The most obvious giveaways are misreadings, which betray either a lack of attention to their work, or a determination to stick to their initial plan of destruction without being hamstrung by facts (remember those?). The Private Eye reviewer was guilty of this kind of bollocks, but what really pushed me over the edge was them committing the sin of sins: giving all the plot twists away. What kind of spiteful knobhead would do that? I made it my mission to find out.

[Note to overseas readers: Private Eye is a long-running fortnightly magazine whose raison d’être is to uncover political hypocrisy, corruption, and the slippery ways of newspapers, big business, etc.. They also have a lot of funnies scattered throughout; it’s been at the centre of the British satirical scene since the 60s. The cartoons are great. It’s a broadly righteous entity, albeit one with a creepy whiff of boarding school snobbery about it. I don’t subscribe, but I’ve been a regular reader over the years. Circulation c.210,000]

As with all the Private Eye book reviews, it was published anonymously – they don’t reveal the identities of their critics in case the offended authors (all of us, as their reviews are invariably snarky) leave unpleasant items on their doorsteps. So I had to play detective…

Sadly (because it’s likely to scupper my plans for a 24-part Netflix adaptation of this post), it turned out that solving The Extraordinary Case of the Anonymous Cretin was quite elementary. One morning, after I’d been gnashing my teeth for a few weeks as I scoured for leads, a workmate brought in a photocopy of a review of Sour Grapes that they’d seen in The Spectator magazine. As I read it, I had a creeping sense of déjà vu. Dolly zoom.

[Note to overseas readers: The Spectator is a right wing hellrag, mainly written by bug-eyed, fact-bending psychopaths. However, like a lot of nauseating, bile-spewing publications (see also the Daily Mail) they maintain a reasonably civilised book section. I suspect that this is because the management don’t read books, and leave the swots to get on with it relatively undisturbed. Circulation c.100,000]

The Spectator review was written by a little-known novelist called DJ Taylor, and was noticeably similar to the one in Private Eye. It was less waspish overall, but there was so much overlap, with so many of the snarky observations being identical that I was left in no doubt as to the identity of my shadowy foe. Busted! 

This discovery added a glorious layer to Taylor’s ignominy. It wasn’t so much a case of ‘Last night a DJ saved my life’ as ‘Last night a DJ clumsily rewrote a piece he’d already placed with one magazine, and flogged it to a rival publication, hoping nobody would notice’ – as if writing nasty reviews wasn’t already a low enough occupation. I don’t know how Private Eye feel about this flagrant double-dipping, but I’ve heard rumours that the books desk at The Spectator are so impressed by DJ Taylor’s initiative and enterprise in charging them top whack for microwaved leftovers that they’ve presented him with a ‘Cherished Contributor’ statuette for the mantelpiece of his Norwich bungalow. Congratulations, DJ!!!!

With the mystery solved, I could now crack on with comparing and contrasting these reviews (though there’s not a great deal of contrasting to be done), going through them line by line and bringing them crashing down. But I won’t trouble you with that. At some point you’re going to have to get on with the ironing or something, and I don’t want to keep you here too long. Trust me though, DJ Taylor’s work is balls-out bad writing, and it makes for bad reading. I’ll save my deeper thoughts for the witness box. I will, though, single out one particularly wretched angle that he took in both reviews. Get a load of this, from the Spectator review:

Amazing – but not in a good way. In Sour Grapes I make lots of gags about the London book scene being ruled by toffs, but DJ Taylor derides me for this, seeming to be under the impression that one day, somewhere around 2007, somebody high up blew a whistle and the British publishing world magically turned into an egalitarian paradise. This is the kind of laughably demented hogwash you’d expect from The Spectator, but it’s a bit tragic to see the same insidious sentiment in Private Eye. In both reviews it’s central to Taylor’s dismissal of the book, brought in as a concluding flourish, but I wonder why the Eye waved through such transparent piffle. I can’t help wondering whether it would have anything to do with DJ Taylor being an old Oxford University mucker of the Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop? Could it be that Hislop has granted his old frat buddy carte blanche? 

[Incidentally, a couple of weeks ago The Guardian ran a piece by Natalie Jerome in which she decried the inequalities in the publishing biz. She strikes me as a righteous firebrand, and I would sooner listen to her than a sexagenarian white male luvvie from private school. She’s a rare example of a literary agent who has the guts to call out publishers when the need arises (I once had an agent whose mantra was ‘Don’t rock the boat’ – in other words: keep your head down; be meek. I struggled to comply, and we soon parted ways). Natalie Jerome works for Curtis Brown, the agency that also represents a certain DJ Taylor. Maybe she’ll collar him at their next summer party and set him straight. I do hope so. I’ve been in the book trade, in one way or another, since 1994, and in all that time publishers have been bleating on about the importance of increasing social diversity, without doing nearly enough about it. There remains a long, long way to go. (As a side note, Curtis Brown also represent Adolf Hitler, but we don’t have time to go into that now.)]

Cronies sorting one other out with low quality work that they are able to undertake without scrutiny is exactly what Private Eye is supposed to be dead set against. Yet the desperate hacks who write their reviews (and I would put hard cash on them being predominantly ageing males) seem to have a licence to publish any old bollocks. It’s a shame, really, because once you know for a stone-cold fact that these people make things up to suit themselves (a few people got in touch with their own similar experiences) it makes you wonder what else Private Eye is letting through unchecked. It weakens the good work they are doing on some of their other pages. There are plenty of kick-arse journalists working for them on important stories, and it’s a shame that their book pages, being a rest home for pathetic old shitsacks, undermines this. It’s certainly settled the eternal ‘Should-I-subscribe?’ question.

Tempted as I am to keep this going until the end of time, I’ll start to wrap things up with a bit of barrack room legal philosophy. In both his reviews, DJ Taylor makes much of there being dramatic talk about whether or not I’ll be sued for writing Sour Grapes. This hasn’t been the case at all – whenever it has been mentioned it’s been in a light-hearted way, in keeping with the spirit of the book (also, at the time of filing the Private Eye piece, only one other review had been published, and Taylor chose to inflate their playful mention into a Big Deal). However, legal repercussions could still be on the cards. While the Private Eye review was still anonymous, I went jovially apeshit on the Internet and called its unknown author a ‘dingy dickhead’, a ‘turd’, a ‘cretin’, a ‘pitiable square’, a ‘dismal book trade patsy’ and, I expect, plenty of other things ­– all hurled in jocular fury at a nameless figure hiding in the shadows. At one point I went so far as to lump all their anonymous reviewers together and dismiss them as ‘absolute pricks’. Now that DJ Taylor has ham-fistedly blown his own cover, might he sue me for saying those things, even though I didn’t know who I was saying them about at the time? Or will I be allowed to continue calling him anything I called him before his identity became known to me? And if not, why not? And if I’m allowed to call him, say, a ‘dingy turd’ with impunity, why would other people not be allowed to do so as well? “Welcome to the Today Programme here on BBC Radio 4. This morning we’ll be talking about the just-announced Booker Prize shortlist with the dingy turd DJ Taylor.” It strikes me as a risk you take when you decide to become an anonymous critic, and it’s all come back to bite him on the arse. Judging by the content of these two reviews, Taylor seems to be morbidly preoccupied with the topic of low-level litigation, so hopefully he’ll send in the lawyers and we can leave it up to Judge Nutmeg to decide. Lord knows we could use the publicity. Either way, I expect this tricky point to be debated in ethics seminars around the world for decades to come.

[Note to DJ Taylor’s legal team: the above instance of the term ‘pathetic old shitsacks’ is the first time I’ve used it in this saga, and I am happy to confirm that I am including your client in the group to which it refers. I feel this is pitched at a comparable level of jocund vituperation to the other examples given. However, since it is new to the squabble, and is the only such slur introduced after I became aware of his identity, I would suggest you concentrate on this phrase when we get to court. Don’t forget: it’ll all come down to ‘pathetic old shitsacks’.]

Not that I’m suggesting you lay into him, of course. I wouldn’t want you to get into trouble, and besides it must already be bad enough to be DJ Taylor – he’s in his sixties, nearing the end of his life, and he must have moments when reality intrudes and he realises how low he has sunk: imagine being reduced to ruining other writers’ novels by giving away their plot twists, and ending your days re-heating and re-selling reviews to meet the cost of your Werther’s Originals. He’s a sad man and a small man, so please don’t hate him. Pity him and, if you are so inclined, pray for him.

[One last thing: sometimes even friendly reviews give too much plot away. Stop doing this, book reviewers. Nobody wants it. I genuinely believe that this is one of the main reasons why your line of work is in a death spiral.]

And if you’ve not got your copy of Sour Grapes yet, let Rebus persuade you:

Happy reading.