Feature

United Kingdom: Who cares what the Yanks think?

It’s time to invoke Evelyn Waugh, who dismissed American critics with the cutting line: “I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest,” said Philip Hensher in The Daily Telegraph.

Philip HensherThe Daily Telegraph

American reviewers have a nasty tendency to savage British novels, said Philip Hensher. The new Martin Amis book, The Pregnant Widow, for example, got raves here in London, where one reviewer pronounced it “close to a masterpiece.” Yet across the pond, the über-powerful New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani called it a “remarkably tedious” tale of “a bunch of spoiled, self-absorbed twits, who natter on endlessly about their desires and resentments and body parts.” In a similar vein, Times reviewer Walter Kirn pronounced the new Ian McEwan novel, Solar—a best-seller here—to be “an exquisite bore.” Alas, authors can’t simply shrug off these slams, because in the U.S., a single bad review can kill potential sales.

Truth be told, Americans tend to slavishly follow the dictates of such cultural arbiters as Oprah or the Times. Britain, by contrast, has “a pluralist, multiple, and fundamentally disrespectful culture,” so we “feel perfectly at ease in ignoring what critics say.” The era in which we assume that literary success requires acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic may be over. It’s time to invoke Evelyn Waugh, who dismissed American critics with the cutting line: “I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest.”

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