‘Modern Reviewing’ by H.G. Wells

Now and then I like to share interesting findings with you, so you can reap the benefits of my trips to the library and research for my DPhil.  I thought this brief article by H.G. Wells – published in a magazine called The Adelphi (edited by Katherine Mansfield’s husband John Middleton Murray) in July 1923 – might be of interest.  Not only is it about Lady Into Fox, which a few of you have read or want to read, but it comments on the whole business of reviewing.  And things in the world of reviewing have changed surprisingly little in 90 years!

‘How many people have read Lady Into Fox by David Garnett?  Most of us round and about the professional literary world have done so, but has it got through yet to the large public of intelligent readers beyond?  I very much doubt it.  Our critical reviewing people are cursed by a sort of gentility that makes them mumble the news they have to tell; busy doctors, teachers, business men, and so forth, have not the time to attend to these undertones.  No doubt Lady Into Fox has been praised a good deal in this mumbling, ineffective way.  But has it got through?  In the newspapers we ought to have more news about books and less hasty essay writing by way of reviewing.  A book, bad or good, gets its two or three or four or five inches of “review” in the papers and then no more about it.  You cannot tell from most book reviews whether the book matters in the slightest degree, whether it has any significant freshness in it at all.  The good things are hustled past public attention in a crowd of weary notices, weak blame, weak praise, and vague comment.  Newspapers don’t treat tennis or golf in that fashion.  A new golfer is shouted about.  Why was there no shouting about Stella Benson’s The Poor Man or Gerhardi’s Futility – shouting to reach the suburbs and country towns?  Both these are wonderful books and only quite a few people seem to have heard of them yet. Lady Into Fox is the most amazingly good story I have read for a long time.  I don’t propose to offer criticisms.  I accept a book like this; I don’t criticise it.  I have nothing to say about how it is done, because I think it is perfectly done and could not have been done in any other way.  It is quite a fresh thing.  It is as astonishing and it is as entirely right and consistent as a new creation, a sort of new animal, let us say, suddenly running about in the world.  It is like a small, queer, furry animal I admit, but as alive, as whimsically inevitable as a very healthy kitten.  It shows up most other stories, all these trade stories that fill the booksellers’ shops, for the clockwork beasts they are.’

12 thoughts on “‘Modern Reviewing’ by H.G. Wells

    • November 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm
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      It's great, isn't it? I must read more of Wells' journalism…

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  • October 12, 2012 at 7:31 am
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    'In the newspapers we ought to have more news about books and less hasty essay writing by way of reviewing.' Absolutely! London Review of Books, I'm just waiting for my subscription to run out so I don't have to read your pompous show-off me-me-me essays in lieu of book reviews ever again … (Jenny Diski's writing excepted).

    'It shows up most other stories, all these trade stories that fill the booksellers' shops, for the clockwork beasts they are.' Double absolutely! If I'm offered a book for review that tries to entice me with the phrase 'thought she had it all', or 'family relationships unravelling' I delete the email. It's a rare day when originality comes our way.

    Kate at Vulpes Libris

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    • November 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm
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      I uniformly loathe the 'blurbs' publicists give to modern novels! But I suppose it's tricky to write them…

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  • October 12, 2012 at 8:20 am
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    Very interesting; some of his complaints remind me of what people say of today's newspapers, with their shrinking literary and book review sections: everything passes unnoticed save for a few titles, and then it's just a couple of lines, and no one hears about the book anymore.

    Thankfully there are us bloggers :)

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    • November 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm
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      Thankfully indeed! I don't read any newspapers regularly, but when I do see my parents' Times and its odd and staid book review pages, I am grateful for bloggers!

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  • October 12, 2012 at 9:06 am
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    "It is like a small, queer, furry animal I admit, but as alive, as whimsically inevitable as a very healthy kitten."

    Love it. Just goes to show plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose…

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  • October 12, 2012 at 10:50 am
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    What a lovely piece! And this is why I rely on book blogs for what I want to find out about books, and not professional reviewers.

    And how weird that I've just bought a copy of Futility…..!

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    • November 2, 2012 at 1:02 pm
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      Also – can you imagine a newspaper quoting substantially from an HG Wells piece about Lady into Fox? Bloggers are certainly different!

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  • October 13, 2012 at 4:27 am
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    "I accept a book like this; I don't criticise it. I have nothing to say about how it is done, because I think it is perfectly done and could not have been done in any other way." Wow, perfect. Thanks for posting that, Simon.

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