Grand Theft Book Review

We’ll start on a high note. This is a Booklist review of my friend Sabina Murray’s new novel, Forgery. Booklist, I should point out, is famously hard to impress. 

(Starred Review) Forgery.
Murray, Sabina (author).
June 2007. 272p. Grove, hardcover, $24 (0-8021-1844-5).
REVIEW. First published June 1, 2007 (Booklist).

Murray’s latest novel tells the story of Rupert Briggs, a recently divorced man who, in the summer of 1963, heads off to Greece to find new items for his uncle’s art collection. But, like quite a few things in this beautifully written book, the title is deceiving; although it does refer to dubious works of art, it also (and primarily) refers to Rupert himself, a man who isn’t quite what he appears to be. There’s also friendly Steve Kelly, who may not be merely the journalist he claims to be. In fact, the story itself is something of a forgery, a psychological thriller posing as a gentle travelogue, a fairly dark voyage of self-discovery posing as a relatively light story of comic misadventure. Rupert is an intricately designed, intriguingly presented character: we know we like him, but we also know there are plenty of things about himself he isn’t telling us (including, perhaps, the truth about the death of his young son). Murray does a lovely job of transporting us to mid-1960s Greece, a country teetering on the edge of political upheaval; unlike the people, this place, which no longer exists, feels entirely genuine. Forgery is a deeply complex, emotionally and intellectually rewarding novel about the lengths people can go to to make themselves into the people they wish they were.
— David Pitt

Now, there was once an unwritten rule of a kind, where as a writer, you’d avoid giving a negative review because you wouldn’t want to get one, and what review could be worse than no review?

Bee Wilson, author of The Hive, just out in the US from St. Martin’s, doesn’t think so. She has taken the trouble to craft a vicious hatchet job in today’s New York Times Book Review for my friend Sabina Murray’s newest novel, Forgery. And it would be one thing if the review were a considered evaluation of Sabina’s efforts, by a peer, but instead it’s glib and in some cases clearly patched together out of Google searches about Sabina. It looks like someone out of their depth in the reviewing of fiction, inventing concerns for the review that no author of fiction would or should take seriously.

It was once the case that you could expect the killing review for a book, should it come, to be written by this or that historian or expert, called on to declare a novel rubbish because it had failed to include this or that single historical fact. Now you can expect it to come from the person who knows nothing of the subject whatsoever—someone, in this age, who has only opinions, no matter if they’re uninformed. Wilson begins by invoking some masterpieces of fiction set ‘in the recent past’: War and Peace. Middlemarch (it’s my hope that a review of her book soon begins with a comparison to Origin of Species, as my friend Anston suggested, or Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon). Wilson, who has no background in art forgery, the writing of fiction, or contemporary Greece, then attempts to pass herself off as an expert on Greece in the 60s, first attacking Sabina for not including the murder of Gregoris Lambrakis, a politically important murder that was the subject of the film “Z”, and then in other ways, claiming that the characters are anachronistic to the place, in their language and behavior, and even tut-tutting their sex lives as too modern, by innuendo.

But Wilson didn’t live there then—she doesn’t know from Greece in the 60s, whether it comes to their sexual mores, language, or what the tourists would have been thinking about local politics, and her suppositions are imaginary ones—the stance of a competing fiction, unwritten, inside Wilson’s mind. And against which anyone but her would fail. Meanwhile Sabina, who personally knows people who did live there then and who summers there herself, every year, is excoriated. What’s more than that, though, faulting the lack of the historical event is a bizarre standard to hold a novel to—will all novels set after September 11th now be expected to include September 11th? Internationally? Will they be called rubbish if they don’t? Does every novel set in the year of the Kennedy assasination have to tell us where the character was when Kennedy was assassinated, in order to be credible? She holds up On Chesil Beach by comparison, but I don’t see McEwan’s characters thinking on the politics of 1962, the year previous—say, the entry of Great Britain into the European Common Market—his characters are virgins, which no doubt meets Wilson’s demand for sexual purity—and are very focused on their personal lives. As are Sabina’s. And yet that novel passes muster.

She also refers to Sabina’s narrator as ‘chilly’—another review of this novel called him ‘icy’—and the phrase used to describe A Carnivore’s Inquiry, Sabina’s novel prior to this one, came directly from another review in that paper, by Michiko Kakutani, but appears uncredited in Wilson’s: “A grisly thriller.”

Why a negative review? Well, a negative review takes a moment that is meant to be for the book being reviewed and turns it into one for the reviewer. It’s a hijacking. No doubt today she’s reading it and chuckling to herself as friends call and say, ‘Oh, good one, Bee. Good one. Hilarious.’ She may even be congratulating herself on getting her name out among the American audience she seeks. You know—driving sales. Because Bee Wilson is promoting her new book, The Hive, a ‘who knew?’ book about bees, and with her book just out this July, Ms. Wilson (born Beatrice) was probably a little too busy to finish reading all of Sabina’s novel, which would have answered certain of her review’s criticisms, much less any of Sabina’s other books, in order to work up the thoughtful, mid-career review Sabina deserved. It was asking a lot of a food columnist from Great Britain, whose claim to literary fame thus far is that she wrote a book about the insect for which she is nicknamed.

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6 thoughts on “Grand Theft Book Review

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    Bad reviews…haven’t had one yet but I’ve had mixed critiques. The last reaction I want my books to provoke is indifference so, in that sense, your friend’s review isn’t TOO horrific. As long as the reviewer provided a half decent synopsis of the plot, the review could actually provoke MORE readers (weird but true). Reviewers aren’t held in the same light (respect) as they used to be. They are guideposts but NOT definitive. Good luck to your friend…

  2. koreanish says:

    It’s a commonplace of publishing that this sort of review in this paper kills the book and while I hope, certainly, that someone who knows nothing of Sabina’s book might be provoked to read it (say, people who like novels about people who “scoot around Greece on Vespas, eating a lot of eggplant and sleeping with one another when the whim takes them”) I’ll stick with being pissed on behalf of my friend, and pissed about the insult inherent in having someone like this reviewing literary fiction.

    Someone who should stick to reviewing eggplants, for example. Which I’m sure she does superbly.

  3. JimT says:

    Yes, pieces like this are all about the reviewer, Alex, the book stood upon as stage, the reviewer’s cleverness and superiority her one true subject. Grand theft, indeed!

  4. John Hennessy says:

    Editor’s note: My friend John’s letter to the Times in response. I’ve edited out the intro, where he calls the evil eye down on Wilson all Brooklyn-style. . .

    John Hennessy
    315 Pelham Road
    Amherst, MA 01002
    (413) 256-6128

    August 28, 2007

    Dear Editors,

    Before you run Bee Wilson’s smug, shallow, and “sophomoric” review of Sabina Murray’s
    novel _Forgery_, I hope you will read the book for yourselves. Once having read
    it, I’m sure that you will agree with me that Ms. Wilson’s review is full of unsubstantiated
    sniping. At best her claims are supported by a few quoted words taken out of context.

    Foremost among Wilson’s criticisms is her claim that the novel’s American characters
    “seem ill at ease in 1963,” and as support for this claim she charges Murray with
    negligence for not mentioning the assassination of John F. Kennedy. First, Murray’s
    readers who _were there_, Americans who were in Greece during that decade of unrest
    and eventual oppression, startled Murray in my presence by calling to her, “Sabina,
    how did you get it _so right_ in this book?” Second, the events of the novel to
    which Wilson refers take place in the summer of 1963, during which JFK was alive
    and well, and his administration was supporting a right-wing counter-insurgency—-clearly
    significant in the novel.

    Wilson’s ineptitude as a reader and reviewer, at least as evidenced here, should
    preclude publication of her piece. In fact, if she were a student of mine, even
    in a general-education literature-survey course, I would ask her to re-write her
    essay. (I am presently the Amy Clampitt Fellow in Poetry at Lenox, MA; in the spring
    I will return to teaching at the University of Massachusetts and at Amherst College.)
    Instead of placing Forgery in the tradition of Anglophone ex-pat writing to which
    it belongs, instead of comparing it to the work of Henry Miller (invoked in the
    epigraph from _Colossus of Maroussi_) and Lawrence Durrell—-or even Henry James,
    or _The Sun Also Rises_ or _Tender Is the Night_, for that matter—-Wilson oddly
    summons the Costa Gravas film _Z_ to prove the book lacking. (Her initial references
    to _Middlemarch_ and _War and Peace_ suggest to me that she hasn’t read much fiction
    since high school and college. She also apparently does not understand the Larkin
    poem she nods to. Larkin is ironic when he suggests that “sexual intercourse began/
    In nineteen sixty-three,” and he would have recognized very well the characters
    in Murray’s novel.)

    Wilson refers to Murray’s last book, _A Carnivore’s Inquiry_, as a “grisly thriller”
    (language she has taken from someone’s review of the novel) and the implication
    is that she has read it. If she had, she would know that the novel is not “grisly”—-in
    fact, some critics have expressed displeasure that the cannibalism of the narrator
    is not explicit enough, that too much of it happens off-stage. Nor is the novel
    a “thriller,” per se (it is clear from the outset that the narrator, Katherine,
    is the cannibal), although the pyrotechnics of Murray’s language and her ability
    to assimilate instances of cannibalism both factual and fictional are certainly
    thrilling to many readers.

    As for _Forgery_, Wilson calls the character Olivia, who at first is uninterested
    in Rupert’s advances, a “narcissist,” but she fails to mention that Olivia has already
    lost two husbands and is dying of ovarian cancer. When Rupert, in an effort to assist
    his friend in a seduction (when he tries to be a good “wingman,” to put it in “the
    voice…of modern America”—-and what qualifies Bee Wilson as an authority to judge
    _that_, I ask), he makes a joke about his gyros being “very tasty.” Wilson takes
    this out of context to prove that his approach to the grief he feels for his dead
    son is somehow not quite dignified or sensitive. She also seems to have missed the
    fact that Jack, the artist in the group, is forging antiquities in order to raise
    money for communist rebels, which is disclosed near the novel’s end. Maybe Wilson
    didn’t skim the book that far.

    Sabina Murray deserves better than this from The New York Times. Give her books
    to a better read, more competent reviewer next time, please. For this book, for
    example, why not find a reviewer familiar with Greece, or forgery and art history?
    Or, since Wilson places such a premium on it, why not choose a reviewer who actually
    remembers 1963? (Wilson, born in 1974, is at a disadvantage here, although she implies
    throughout her review that she is significantly older.) Murray is a young writer,
    still in her thirties, yet she has already won the PEN/Faulkner Award, a Guggenheim
    grant, been included in the Norton Anthology and the Asian-American anthology Charlie
    Chan Is Dead, and her screenwriting has earned her nominations for an Independent
    Spirit Award and an Amanda Award (Norway’s “Oscars”). She refuses to be categorized
    as a person or a writer: she has published fiction about the Pacific Campaign of
    World War II, the explorers Magellan, Balboa, and Dampier, the whale-ship Essex,
    Montezuma and his court, Marcos-era Manila society, 21st-century Greenwich Village,
    contemporary street musicians in Portland, Maine, and she is currently writing a
    novel about Roger Casement, the Irish patriot and humanitarian executed in 1916.
    Wilson may call Murray an “American,” but she is no more an American than she is
    an Australian or a Filipina. In any case, readers of Anglophone literature take
    her seriously, and The New York Times should, too. Why give her novel to a food
    writer who proves to be sloppy and slap-dash when tackling a novel review? Or, maybe
    you could have tapped Ms. Wilson, an expert on bees and food, apparently, to review
    _A Carnivore’s Inquiry_.

    Let me say that I am Ms. Murray’s husband and therefore it is unlikely that you
    will publish my letter; I write in order to persuade you to form your own opinions
    of the book. For example, _A Carnivore’s Inquiry_ received an unfavorable review
    in the _Chicago Tribune_, yet a few months later the editors named it a “Chicago
    Tribune Best Book of the Year.” Let me also mention that I have never responded
    to a negative review of her (or my, for that matter) work before. But this review
    is just incompetent and poorly substantiated. I wonder if Wilson even finished the
    book. Maybe you will ask her?

    John Hennessy

  5. Dan Gendel says:

    I think the review was, to say the least, a poor hatchet job. I happened to read the book on a Greek island and found the book to be pretty darn accurate (as a reader and not a writer). I consider all of Sabina’s books so far as at least good literature and consider them well written. One can argue that he/she did not like the plot but that does not take away from this interesting story with considerable depth.

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