Dan Rhodes is disliked by…
Regular readers will know that whenever Dan Rhodes has a book out we present a lucky arts correspondent with The Maggie Gee Award for Unbelievably Stupid Reviewing. It’s named in honour of our all-time favourite bad review, when rent-a-pundit Maggie Gee took to the airwaves – at the licence payer’s expense – to complain that Rhodes’ debut, Anthropology and a hundred other stories, had “been packaged not as a ten-thousand word block of prose, but as a novel, and that’s something that I think is isn’t.” That was a book called, quite clearly, Anthropology and a hundred other stories. It was never pretending to be a novel, for crying out loud. Twelve years on, this still makes us laugh and seethe at the same time (but mainly seethe). Anyway, we have turned this all-time low for arts broadcasting into one of the most keenly awaited events in the cultural calendar. So who will win this time around?
Rhodes’ latest novel, This Is Life, has received unexpectedly good reviews - unexpected because the book makes all kinds of fun of arts correspondents, so their enthusiasm for it has been a pleasant surprise. At first the raves came so thick and fast that we were even wondering whether we should cancel the award this time around, but no. As is always the way in showbiz, there have been one or two people who just haven’t got it. At the time of writing, it has been out for less than a month. It’s too early to declare a sure winner, but the pundit to beat – and it’ll be a hard job to top this one – is Edward Docx from The Observer. According to his Wikipedia page, Docx went to an expensive private school and then on to Cambridge University, where he became head prefect of the junior common room. Well done him. Sadly, though, while it’s possible to buy a fancy education, it’s not always possible to buy a full set of brains to go with it.
Docx starts well enough. “Like much of Rhodes’s work,” he says, “This Is Life is a charming and warm-hearted book, full of dark paradoxes and witty ideas.” So far so good. At this point Edward Docx is sounding like someone we could invite to the skyscraper as a Guest of Honour. However, the carping soon kicks in, and snowballs into a climax so baffling that you end up feeling sorry for him. “I found,” he concludes, “that ultimately the trick of magical realism did not quite work for me.” What? What? WHAT? This is not a magical realist novel IN ANY WAY. We just don’t see how anybody could think it is. He has completely misunderstood the book. It was written as a fun, enjoyable comic romp – something that Docx clearly cannot comprehend. It plays with various conventions (in other parts of the review Docx misreads this playfulness so woefully, not to mention sanctimoniously, that we feel embarrassed on his behalf), but not magical realism. It just isn’t there. To complain that the writing is not enough like “Kafka, Marquez, some Rushdie” would be laughable, were it not so completely unfunny. It’s tragic. We could weep for him.
Docx (we have a feeling this is his real name – now we’ll never be able to open a Word document without picturing his mean, moody and pouting face. Here he is, brooding from a number of angles) is the clear frontrunner. [***UPDATE*** We are delighted to announce that the Observer's Edward Docx is indeed the winner of this year's Maggie Gee Award. Congratulations to him, and of course to his editor, who must be very proud.]
The only other contender so far has been perennial fan favourite Claire Allfree of The Metro, who gave the book a very positive review. “An unashamedly feel-good romcom,” she said, along with all kinds of further praise, before killing any potential sales boost by only giving it three stars. We’re sure she wouldn’t have lopped off a star or two as payback because Rhodes declined to be interviewed by her (for the reason for his refusal, see her archived review below – in short, he wasn’t prepared to drop everything and travel all the way to London to meet someone who had been so poisonous). It doesn’t read like a three star review, so why does it only have three stars? And why would somebody want to interview the author of a book they thought only merited three stars? It’s all very fishy, whichever way you look at it. However, we are prepared to accept that her finger may have slipped. So not a stupid review so much as an annoying one – Allfree will have to make do with an Honourable Mention. We look forward to further assaults on Rhodes’ livelihood from her – she could even be in line for a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Archived oldies below:
Little Hands Clapping has received really great press, and for once the Venn diagram archived below does not apply. That isn’t to say, though, that the book hasn’t fallen into the hands of some people who just don’t get it. Two of Rhodes’ long-standing foes, The Guardian’s snooty Saturday Review section and the execrable free ‘newspaper’ The Metro have made their traditional attempts to sabotage his livelihood [****2012 update - The Guardian has given This Is Life a cracker of a review. They have finally realised that it's best to send Rhodes' novels to someone with a bit of taste. You can't beat a happy ending - we are glad that they have at last turned a corner.****]
The Guardian always sends Rhodes’ comic novels to people with no discernible sense of humour and, true to form, this time around they gave the gig to a reviewer who was never going to be sharp enough to get it. Colin Greenland was clearly not concentrating particularly hard when he read the book, and after a positive but muddled opening, he finished with a sales-stalling final paragraph:
“Little Hands remains the slightest of Rhodes’s novels, more mannerist than moving. Despite the comedic exaggerations and simplifications of the plots that involved them, the tender Veronique in The Little White Car, the sad and seedy Cockroft in Timoleon Vieta Come Home and the determined, vulnerable Miyuki Woodward of Gold were complex characters: subjects of contingency, emotionally variable, capable of change. Morbid and modern as his story is, Herr Schmidt is a cartoon by comparison, a puppet: an etiolated Mr Punch.”
He deserves an etiolated Mr Punch in the lower abdomen, if you ask us. These are just silly comparisons. Veronique, Cockroft and Miyuki are the hearts of their novels. The beating heart of Little Hands Clapping is Madalena, not Herr Schmidt. Herr Schmidt is the villain, for crying out loud. This review left us bubbling with fury for a number of reasons, but we won’t go into further details because we all feel a bit sorry for Colin Greenland. After all, maybe when Rhodes gets to the age of fifty-five he too will be reduced to churning out destructive piffle about the work of younger writers. Maybe he too will completely fail to understand the novels he is attempting to strangle at birth.
Greenland’s review finished with a plug for his latest novel, from eight years ago, which is called Finding Helen. Why not buy a copy, and see if you can help get it into the Amazon Top 800,000? We’re not sure what it’s about – possibly goblins.
The Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, The Observer, always gives Rhodes great reviews, and his books are often championed by other pages of The Guardian, but there seems to be a block with the Review section. As we’ve said before, this may not be terminal. Maybe one day Rhodes will run out of ideas and write an excruciating fictionalisation of an episode from the life of Henry James, and they’ll love it so much they’ll give him the cover.
And on to The Metro. Well, what can we say about the Metro? We’re just glad we live in Taipei and don’t have to put up with this waste of paper littering our trains and buses. This time around they’ve given the review to a character who’s just pitiably humourless. And just how has Andrzej Lukowski decided to put the brakes on any potential sales? Here’s how:
“Rhodes’s desire to create a world where every loose end can be tied up leaves his morbid universe a little less vibrant than it ought to be.”
So, The Metro has decided to have a go at Rhodes for telling his readers what happens to all the main characters at the end of the book. Good grief. Our girls in the IT department have found out that Lukowski has a Twitter feed (whatever that is) which reveals him as being, basically, Nathan Barley. Perhaps he read the book while feeling ‘somewhat stiff’ after having gone ‘clubbing’. It’s also not surprising to find on his Myspace page that he has volunteered the information that he is single and straight. Good luck finding a girlfriend, Andrzej.
We’d written off both these review sources before the book even came out, so there have been no surprises.
And that’s more or less it for iffy reviews. Neither of them are particularly clever, but then again, neither really sink to the depths that would make them eligible for the Maggie Gee Award for Unbelievably Stupid Reviewing. Maybe the winner for Gold, Lloyd Evans of the Daily Telegraph, will get to keep his crown… [UPDATE - the award was given to Greenland - his review was really dumb.]
And let’s not forget that at least 90% of the reviews for Little Hands Clapping have been pretty much glorious.
And we’ll keep the oldies here, by popular demand.
We had planned to discreetly retire this page, but with so many dim bulbs who Just Don’t Get It still on the rampage it is with profound regret that we find ourselves updating it for 2007.
For as long as Rhodes has been in the business, the critical reception his books have received has been divided precisely thus:
The publication of Gold has seen this pattern continue with staggering constancy. Way back in the summer of 2006 we predicted that some folks would get it and some folks wouldn’t, and we were right. There have been a few reviewers whose bile and/or incoherent babbling is so extraordinary that we believe it deserves as wide an audience as possible. Here is a selection of our current favourites:
Tom Adair of The Scotsman: “Gold is pure dross. I look forward to Rhodes’ return to form.”
We are confident that Rhodes will do everything he can to further anger Tom Adair with his future books.
Now let’s see what Rhodes’ friends at the wretched free ‘newspaper’ Metro had to say:
“Pointless – Rhodes’s book actually manages to be even more vacuous than the characters he writes about, which is some achievement. *” One star review by Claire Allfree.
Good for Claire Allfree – she’s not afraid to speak her mind. We hope she stays reviewing books for Metro forever.
And how about the Guardian’s Saturday Review? Well, it would be cruel for us to undertake a detailed dissection of Carrie O’Grady’s piece - she was clearly way out of her depth and it just wouldn’t seem right. We’ll pick out just one nugget from her clunking critique. Of the conversations heard in The Anchor, she says:
“In any other novel, these solitary small-town boozers would be hiding something behind all these platitudes, but here their true feelings are as vague as their words.”
Let’s overlook O’Grady’s absolute failure to grasp what is going on in the book, and concentrate on the beginning of this sentence. In any other novel, she writes. In any other novel. Unbelievable. Rhodes always sets out to write books that aren’t like any others. No further questions, Ms O’Grady.
Gold received a rave review in the Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer, and Rhodes’ writing was lauded by The Measure on the style pages of the Saturday magazine, but we have come to accept that he is unlikely ever to find favour with the Guardian’s snooty Saturday Review section. Let’s not forget that they dismissed his previous book, The Little White Car as ‘shit lit’. Nice. *** 2009 UPDATE – When the small format paperback edition of Gold came out, the Guardian book pages gave it a nice review. So a happy ending there. *** *** 2010 UPDATE – They’re back to their old tricks. ***
We’ll wind things up with the almost unbelievable words of Lloyd Evans of The Daily Telegraph. Lloyd Evans clearly needs to Get With The Programme in the taste department, but that isn’t all. He also needs to ask himself whether he is up to the job:
“Would a half-Japanese thirtysomething lesbian really spend her summers wandering into pubs in Pembrokeshire..?”
Er… the book is very clearly set in the winter. Lloyd Evans seems to have read Gold with his eyes closed. And is it really so implausible that somebody would go on a walking holiday in Pembrokeshire? What an odd boy he seems. Unfortunately, he carries on from here, disgracing himself at every turn. This is his take on the relationship between Miyuki and Grindl:
“Any bestselling author will tell you this is not how to construct a romance.”
Lloyd Evans seems to be suggesting that Rhodes’ books should be like everybody else’s in their construction, written to some kind of template. Rhodes is not any bestselling author, and nor does he set out to be. He sets out to be something more interesting than that. Further on in the piece Evans seems overly concerned with the commercial prospects of Rhodes’ books – maybe he should have been an accountant instead of a book reviewer.
The Lloyd Evans quotes above are simply the carping of somebody who doesn’t know brilliance when he sees it, who doesn’t concentrate when reviewing books and who has trouble grasping the nature of fiction, but there’s worse here than mere carping. This is why we at the Dan Rhodes skyscraper, here in the heart of downtown Taipei, strongly believe that this piece of ‘work’ (it’s staggering to think he was paid for it) should not have made it as far as the printers. Towards the end of this rant Lloyd Evans states that “the dust jacket carries endorsements [of Gold] from DBC Pierre, Paul Bailey, Rose Tremain […] and Louis de Bernieres,” and he hilariously concludes that, “They must have spotted something I missed.” Had he been paying even the slightest attention he would have seen that these recommendations are clearly for Rhodes’ book Timoleon Vieta Come Home, not for Gold. Timoleon Vieta is mentioned explicitly in each of these quotes. We wonder how these authors would feel about having their words recontextualised by an apparently half asleep, and indubitably half-arsed, book reviewer. What if they were to find out? Would they be unhappy? We expect they would.
This is sloppy copy. It’s really not for us to say, but perhaps the Telegraph should look a little more closely at what Lloyd Evans hands in from now on.
And that’s all for now. We were going to say that such reactions were inevitable with a work of such brilliant subtlety as Gold, but then we looked at our pie chart and remembered that it’s just inevitable anyway – if you write fiction that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to then some folks are never going to get it. We are grateful that we are not among them. Five books in, it’s now clear that if you don’t have taste and/or a sense of humour, then there’s a strong possibility you will dislike what Rhodes writes. But, thankfully, there are plenty of people of taste out there – people like you.
And by popular demand, here are some archived oldies:
For various reasons Dan Rhodes is widely disliked throughout the book world. Here are some people, not all of them the brightest of sparks, who have decided that he is no good.
Metro [yes, them again], on Anthropology: “While one of these stories is not enough, 101 of them is too many.”
This reviewer has made a mistake. 101 is widely acknowledged as being the perfect amount of stories. London’s free newspaper will occasionally print extraordinary factual inaccuracies about Rhodes, and make up absurd “quotes” supposedly given by him. However, they recently made his name an answer in their crossword – surely the pinnacle of showbiz success – so they aren’t all bad. (STOP PRESS – Metro is all bad. See above.)
Maggie Gee – Saturday Review, Radio 4, on Anthropology. “It is rather shallow… It’s been packaged not as a ten-thousand word block of prose, but as a novel, and that’s something that I think is isn’t.”
This is believed to be Rhodes’ favourite bad review. It is certainly the most asinine. Wake up Maggie – the book is called Anthropology and a hundred other stories. This is written on the front cover and the spine of the book. It is also written on the title page and on every even-numbered page throughout the book. Nobody at any stage was trying to present it as a novel. The author used to play a recording of this review at readings, and never failed to be delighted by the slack-jawed disbelief of the audience. Rhodes is known to have written to “Deep” Maggie Gee to inform her of this. *** 2007 UPDATE – sources close to Rhodes say that this remains his favourite stupid review of all time. *** *** 2010 UPDATE – yes, it’s still the one to beat. ***
Cahal Dallat – Saturday Review, Radio 4, on Anthropology. “He’s used an expression again and again – I was so in love I could think of little else, I was looking forward to our wedding so I could think of little else, My girlfriend died and I could think of little else. It’s rather like the death of Little Else – it just goes on and on.”
Unbelievably this is from the same radio show as the Maggie Gee quote – surely an all-time low for BBC arts coverage. In order to make his lamentable death of Little Else gag, Dallat has made things up about the book. Anthropology contains the playful phrase little else twice (in the stories Sleeping and Schnauzer). Twice does not constitute again and again. Nor do these two instances of the phrase just go on and on. It is also interesting to note that none of the phrases that Dallat ‘quotes’ are in the book. He simply made them up. Who is Cahal Dallat anyway, and why was he allowed on the radio?
Adam Mars-Jones – Saturday Review, Radio 4, on Anthropology. “I had a slightly annoying impression which was that at least if it had been ten years ago he wouldn’t have been able to just press a button and get a word count – he would have to count his one hundred and one.”
This is not a slightly annoying impression. It is a very annoying impression. To accuse Rhodes of having written Anthropology in a sloppy, lazy manner is outrageous. The author wrote many drafts of each story by hand before going anywhere near a word processor. Rhodes wrote to Mars-Jones after hearing this, to inform him that he wrote the book with a pen. He did not receive an apology. Licence payers will be incensed to learn that this is from the same radio show as the previous two quotes. Incidentally, sources close to Rhodes have reported that he recently sat opposite Adam Mars-Jones on a southbound Northern Line train as he (Mars-Jones) read an Anne Tyler book of which he was later to write a sniffy review for a Sunday paper. Rhodes resisted the temptation to push him on to the live rail as they changed platforms at Kennington, and to point out to him that if he spent less time on mean-spirited trouncings of the hard work of other authors he might get some proper book-writing done himself. Not that the world is exactly holding its breath. *** 2009 UPDATE - Mars-Jones has since published a book of his own. Nobody noticed. ***
firstname.lastname@example.org from London – Amazon.co.uk, on Anthropology. “Dont (sic) bother wasting your time. This book has to be one of the worst books I have ever attempted to read. The stories are all too short and are complete nonsense. If you have any sense take my words (sic) for it and do not read this book. It is a waste of your time and your valuable brain cells. It could have potential if it wasn’t writen (sic) by a complete maniac who obviously has no luck with women.”
The author would have taken legal action against Amazon for posting the line about him being a complete maniac who obviously has no luck with women, had it not been so crushingly accurate at the time. It’s hard not to warm to good old Monkeyspunk.
Simon Barrett from Beckenham, Kent – Amazon.com, on Anthropology. “Chick-lit for would-be intellectual chicks. Sorry, Dan.”
Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Still, it was nice of Simon Barrett of Beckenham to apologise for his one star review. But hold on a minute – look who’s back with yet another one star review…
Simon Barrett from Beckenham, Kent – Amazon.com, on Anthropology. “Heck, why SHD I be sorry for you, Dan – you’re sitting on a gold mine!”
He wouldn’t let it lie. If Simon Barrett had paid attention, he would have noticed that the edition he was reviewing (the Random House US version) was out of print and consequently generating NO MONEY WHATSOEVER for the author. Hardly a gold mine, for crying out loud. This review appeared during a year in which Rhodes’s writing made him £6900 before tax, and he had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere near that much.
Nicola Nicolson, 34, full-time mum, Manchester. ‘You The Critic’, Red magazine, on Timoleon Vieta Come Home. “Not my sort of book – it’s definitely a modern novel and I like my classics. Although it was easy to read, there wasn’t enough depth, and I didn’t like the characters, not even the dog.”
Scientists have been unable to explain why somebody who professes a dislike for modern fiction would volunteer to review modern fiction for a magazine. Although Timoleon Vieta Come Home was Red’s must-read of the month, Nicola Nicolson will have ruined any potential boost this might have given the book with her baffling outburst.
Chris Roberts – Uncut, on Timoleon Vieta Come Home. “This clumsily-titled novel has spells of grace and flashes of genius, but doesn’t induce the hoped for hoped-for throes of ecstasy. Timoleon Vieta is a dog, and stories about dogs bore the tail off you if you’re no dog lover. If he’d written about cats we’d be tipping him for Pulitzers. He’s gifted, quick-witted but dancing to alien rhythms here.”
When good fans turn bad… Here former Rhodes champion Chris Roberts damns the author with faint praise in a three star review. He appears to have made the mistake of thinking that the book is about a dog. It isn’t – it’s about people. And as for dancing to alien rhythms, Roberts appears to have forgotten the time he quit journalism to become a pop star with his band Catwalk. Look them up in your Guinness Book of Hit Singles – not a sausage. Still, at least he had a go.
Unfortunately, for legal reasons we have only been able to include public anti-Rhodes rantings. This means that we are unable to transcribe Rhodes’ favourite rejection letter (from the London Magazine, to whom he had sent a few of the stories that subsequently appeared in Anthropology. Ever supportive of new and innovative writers, the magazine replied thus: “These really don’t amount to stories in our view. There simply isn’t anything to arouse the reader’s interest. With best wishes, Jane Rye”). This is a great loss to this site.
The last word must surely go to the Reader from Marysville, Washington who wrote on Amazon.com that, “After reading this book I stuffed it in the toilet then tore it into pieces.”
How very unhygienic.