Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star
“The writing is overstuffed and leaks sawdust.” So writes Michael Hofmann of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books. The novel’s many admirers, like the tourists recently observed by Hofman throwing themselves out of the path of a monumental granite ball that turned out to be fake, have been “hoaxed by polystyrene”.
Hofman is not the only dissenter. In the TLS, Craig Raine described the novel as “saturated, not always judiciously, in poetry,” poetry, for Flanagan, meaning “exaggerated imagery, an uncertain, elevated tone, and generous rights on repetition”.
This is the same book that was praised by Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph for its “grace and unfathomability” and whose war scenes were described by Leyla Sanai in the Guardian as “devastating”.
The Man Booker judges sided with the novel’s admirers and gave Flanagan the prize. They took a different view of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. With the competition open for the first time to American authors, expectations were high for Tartt’s third novel, which had already won her a Pulitzer, and when the judges announced their longlist in July, its absence was, for some reporters, the big story.
Early reviews had been mainly positive, some verging on the ecstatic. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it a “glorious Dickensian novel… that pulls all [Tartt’s] remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole”. Kamila Shamsie wrote in the Guardian that to say too much about the events “would be to deprive a reader of the great joy of being swept up by the plot.” The Telegraph’s Catherine Taylor found the grief of the young hero for his mother “so tangible the pages appear tear-sodden”.
But there was a growing band of sceptics. In the Guardian, Julie Myerson described it as a “mystifying mess”, wondering why a writer of Tartt’s talent was wasting her time on this over-long and slackly written “Harry Potter homage”. In the New Yorker, James Wood agreed that “its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature”.
What are we to make of these starkly diverging opinions? Is there something about these books in particular that scrambles reader’s critical faculties, inciting them to hyperbolic gushing or sneering put-downs? Or are they just the extreme cases, reminding us that all literary opinions are utterly subjective and any attempt to judge artistic merit is futile? Should we perhaps question the motives of the writers, suspecting the favourable reviewers of sycophancy, the detractors of envy?
I resist all these conclusions. As a novelist I find I’m attached to the notion that there are worse ways of writing and better ways, even if only in some Platonic sense. Why else is it so hard to get it right? And it’s good that people care enough to argue fiercely about what those ways are. I find their arguments, and my responses to them, sharpen my own sense of what fiction is for and inform the choices I make in my work.