Sunday, February 16, 2014

Who Reviews The Reviewers? Me. Sometimes. . .AA Gill's Attack On Morrissey's Autobiography

I'm still not convinced by the cream denim jacket
There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written. Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness. Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim

The above is a portion of AA Gill's review of Morrissey's memoir Autobiography which was published in The Sunday Times. Gill's review has just been awarded The Hatchet Job Of The Year, a British journalism prize for the best bit of negative criticism in a British newspaper. The prize got front page coverage on the Guardian and the New York Times blog and has been lauded by cultural critics such as Andrew Sullivan as an example of the best of British journalism. Who doesn't love it when someone takes down a self important pop star a peg or two? To make it easier for everyone Morrissey really had it coming in Autobiography because he certainly dishes it out to his enemies and his perceived enemies (boy does he ever) and if you dish it out you should be able to take too.
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But if you read all of Gill's review you start to get a queasy feeling that Morrissey's real crime isn't his literary pretensions or his style, but the fact that he grew up poor and Irish and came from Manchester. How dare an oik, a pop star no less, sully the good name of Penguin Classics which publishes Virgil and Aristotle by talking about his own grubby little provincial life. Morrissey's Autobiography is no unvarnished masterpiece but the first 100 pages about his schooling in Manchester is utterly brilliant. A devastating and funny indictment of lazy and cruel teachers and a wrenching portrait of northern England in the 1960's. Only Morrissey could singularly fail to mention England winning the 1966 World Cup but remember who won every Miss World contest. Morrissey's streets are haunted by the Moors murderers and bewitched by the genius of George Best (when he sees Best in real life he faints, much to the mortification of his father). Its wonderful stuff: caustic and self mocking and funny. Gill's attack is so off base and bizarre it reminded me of those nineteenth century Times cartoons about the stupid Irish or Punch's hilarious 'things the servants say' columns. The idea of all those clubby London literary types slapping AA Gill on the back for a job well done putting a working class upstart in his place doesn't really sit that well in the age of Cameron & Johnson. Perhaps if Gill had been raised in the north of England and been a social class or two lower he would have appreciated Morrissey's book a little more, as Terry Eagleton did in the Guardian. Eagleton loved Morrissey's first 100 pages too and any British kid of that era who didn't grow up posh, like Gill, will be able to identify with Morrissey's childhood. 
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I am not attacking The Sunday Times (over the years The Sunday Times has had nothing but kind words for me and my work) nor am I attacking "literary London" ad hominem, but I am attacking AA Gill's motivations and sincerity. He found nothing worthy in Morrissey's entire book? On my blog I cut and pasted Morrissey's incredible 1 page review of the TV show Lost in Space. As a TV critic I would have thought Adrian Gill would have at least appreciated that little piece of genius.
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Perhaps I'm overreacting - when members of Britain's posh boarding school educated ruling elite go after working class writers it gets my back up - you can read his full review here and if I'm wrong let me know and I'll get down off my high horse and admit it.  But I don't think I am wrong. Morrissey and Adrian Gill have both written memoirs about their childhood, 1 of them is self serving, spoiled and tedious and surprisingly that one aint by Moz. And anyway the real reason to be angry with Penguin Books is not for publishing Morrissey but for pulping a book on Hinduism because it offended some Hindu nationalists in India.  Not cool. 

42 comments:

Sheiler said...

Yes to everything but I hate reading Andrew Sullivan anyway.

An American friend of mine who might have still been at Naropa when you taught there (did you teach Jonathan Mack?) - has been to India as frequently as I have to Vermont - he just LOVES it. He's been singing (typing enthusiastically online) the praises of the WD book and says he's gotten threats and cyber attacks on various online accounts. I won't put her name here since I don't want to attract marauders here.

Alan said...

Adrian ,This "posh elite" reminds me much of Francis Urquhart".In America its plutocracy, in Britain it's a decaying aristocracy mixed with jumped up "public school old boys".Your well written broadside against these guardians of "The Good And The Great" is almost as refreshing a Duffy chase.Season Two of House Of Cards has started again,riveting but it unfortunately might well create more voter cynicism.Just finishing your colleague Mcllvanney's father's Laidlaw Trilogy. What poetry mixed with a great story line.This man can not abide British class prejudice and values.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

The amazon reviews are particularly venomous. I dont know why Penguin would pulp it. It brings shame on a great and respected name in publishing.

I do remember a Jonathan from my teaching days at Naropa but I bet its not the same one.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

They still bloody run the country in the UK - the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London all went to Eton. The new Superman went to Stowe and Sherlock went to Harrow...

I saw S2E1 of House of Cards last night, knew the incident was coming because of the BBC series but I still quite liked it.

seana graham said...

It was interesting that Doniger herself did not blame Penguin India, but the fact that Indian law treats its publication in the criminal rather than civil court. Still, they ARE Penguin.

I don't know why every protester in the world doesn't understand that trying to suppress something only sparks people's interest in it. I might read Hindus now myself. It's easily available in the U.S.

I noticed that Morrisey piece in the listings for the Hatchet Job award or whatever it's called, and wondered if you'd see it. I suppose some things do need such a prize, but in general it seems like a bad idea.

I bought the Morrisey on your rec, but haven't gotten to it yet. It does look good, though

Mark English said...

"After 100 pages, he’s still at the school gate kicking dead teachers."

Gill's review is very well written in my opinion. I had never heard of Morrissey, to be honest, until I read your review of his book.

I think it's fair to say that the Penguin Classics thing is a silly gimmick at best, designed to provoke, etc.

Not having read the book, I can't be sure, but I suspect perhaps you are overreacting, and overvaluing an author on personal-pop-culture (and maybe political or class or tribal, etc.) grounds.

I'm not saying the man doesn't have literary gifts, or that one shouldn't value critiques of forgotten TV shows or whatever. But an autobiography is about a man or a woman, and stands or falls on judgements about the person.

Gill is right about particular styles of popular music and musicians being overpraised by people who happen to grow up with them. They don't mean anything and never will to people who did not grow up with them. Whereas real art (I hate the word but you know what I mean) is accessible to a much wider audience.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Penguin India caved but as far as I can see its still available as a Penguin on Amazon, with a lot of really really angry 1 star reviews attached. It actually makes me curious to read it too.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

Oh its a well written review, very polished and funny but it's not an accurate assessment of the book. Its blinded by prejudice against someone who - horror of horrors - is a pop singer and, gasp, dared to write a book about his proletarian life. And the fact that Morrissey's memoir is much more interesting, funnier and readable than Gill's is bound to stick in his upper class craw.

seana graham said...

I was intrigued about the Morrissey book because of your review, but I actually bought it because of that little excerpt about Lost in Space. From that it seemed to me that he was genuinely a writer of some gift, whether or not the whole book holds up to that level.

Macca said...

Those cream denim jackets were quite the thing in country NSW (where I grew up) in about 1982.

I once read an essay by Stephen Fry in which he said that his general attitude to professional critics could be summed up in one three word phrase - "How dare they?"

That's pretty much my attitude. A fellow like AA Gill makes his living by availing himself of the fruits of the labour of creative people, for free, and finding fault with them. It is an entirely parasitical trade. Movie wonks/blowhards like Scott Murray in The Age or David Stratton on tv have the hide to front up in public and tell a Martin Scorcese that his movie had pacing problems in the second act, or to tear strips off a Daniel Day-Lewis for hamming it up in the milkshake scene. How dare they? They wouldn't have the first idea of how to go about writing, directing or acting in a movie.

I exclude practitioner-critics from this generalisation.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Whenever I see a preponderance of one-star reviews, I assume an organized campaign against a book. In this case, the juxtaposition of the meager two-plus-star average review with the words "Number One Bestseller--religion and history" says all that needs saying about the campaign.

The controversy naturally got me curious enough to read the section available for browsing, and it's very easy to see why conservatives would object. Her title uses the word "alternative," and her introductory pages mentions misogyny. Those same pages seem to anticipate the sort of criticism Doniger receives.

If they have not done so already, her critics, being marginally more sophisticated at manipulating Western public opinion than their predecessors, will likely invoke the canard that a Western scholar is in no position to judge an Eastern belief system. Reactionaries using tools of progressives. Fun!

If I were a character in a book, I would smile sadly. This week I read Marwan Muasher's plea for pluralism in the Arab world. Yesterday I started reading a book on Maimonedes' life and thought that emphasizes his religious and legal innovations. Such openness not universal, at least not in the world's largest democracy.

Peter Rozovsky said...

And hell, once we're barring non-novelists from criticizing novels and non-moviemakers from criticizing movies, let's bar non generals from writing critical military history and non-politicians from criticizing the president.

That many critics are idiots means only that idiots should be barred from criticism, not that non-practitioners of the art should be barred.

Macca said...

Who's barring anyone from doing anything?

My attitude to critics is my attitude to critics. It ain't a piece of legislation.

If you want to pay money to read Joe Soap's opinion on The Big Lebowski, then pay money to read Joe Soap's opinion on The Big Lebowski. I'd rather watch the movie and make up my own mind. Especially if Joe Soap is just some bloke who watches a lot of movies.

seana graham said...

Macca, Peter speaks from the non-novelist critic's side of the divide, but as he is always both generous and thoughtful in his reviews, perhaps you will excuse him too.

Peter Rozovsky said...

"How dare they?" No, that ain't a piece of legislation, but it's a nice floor speech in support of a strong House resolution.

I suspect you and I would agree on the merits (or lack thereof) of most critics. But I don't draw your unbridgeable divide between reading someone's assessment and intelligent analysis (for that's what a good critic offers, not mere opinion) on the one hand and making up my own mind on the other.

I like to read criticism with which I can engage. I do more than buy an opinion, in other words. Same in the opposite direction when I write about a book. I want to engage with a book and with other readers, not just avail myself of the fruits of others' labor, for free, and find fault with it.

Peter Rozovsky said...

But that's just my opinion, man.

adrian mckinty said...

Macca

I think the question you have to ask yourself of a critic is: is their heart in the right place. I disagreed frequently with Roger Ebert (especially over Blade Runner) but his heart was definitely in the right place. And if you pick a random Ebert review out of the thousands online I'll bet you find it intelligent, fair and probably pretty funny too.

With Gill I think his prejudices have slipped through. He's not critiquing Morrissey, he's showing off for his mates...

I also wonder how much of it is class driven: it seems that in Australia and the UK a lot of those of critic jobs go to people who went to the right school....

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Those 1 star reviews of that Hindu book are pretty transparent. If I was the author I'd still be pretty fucking ticked off though at Penguin and those reviews.

I can't recall an occasion when you've been unfair to an author. Wait did you ever review Dan Brown?

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I noticed that some reviews of "The Hindus" appear in identical form for some of Doniger's other books. That an organized campaign is at work seems obvious. The principal allegation against Doniger seems to be that she hates Brahmins.

Penguin apparently capitulated after a three-year legal fight. Perhaps Doniger's declaration that she is angry at the relevant Indian law rather than at Penguin is genuine. I knew Doniger's name and I have to say after reading her introduction to "The Hindus" that I know of few scholars who are as forthright about the viewpoints, prejudices, and knowledge they bring to their work.

I'm not a practitioner-critic so my opinion may be worth zilch, but if I did review Dan Brown, I'd be fair to the condescending jerk.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Speaking of Blade Runner, did I mention that this past Halloween, a "barrista" at ny local cafe dressed as Rachael the Replicant? it was the most stunning Halloween costume I have ever seen. I recognized instantly who she was supposed to be. She had the face, the hair, the dress. Everything

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Did you take a pic of her? I would love to have seen that. And I would have tipped that day.

beth@miaowthecat.com said...

I finished the Moz autobiography last night and this morning read reviews in the New York Times (reasonable) and Guardian (good) - I haven't read the A. A. Gill review apart from the paragraph you quoted - and thus feel no need to read it. He sounds like an oik. With the Moz book so fresh in my mind such a review sounds merely predictable and pedestrian (yes, I like my alliteration also... ...) - it is by no means high end literature, and I felt he could have spent many of those MANY court case fixated pages discussing and demystifying the Morrissey/Marr song-writing methods - which were never mentioned. Just my two cents. - your post was so timely for me.

beth said...

whoops - and I meant to add that I read somewhere that the US copies were edited to exclude 'homosexual elements' - maybe the one I read was a yank copy because I didn't consider there WERE any...

adrian mckinty said...

Beth

That court case section was ridiculous. The editor at Penguin (if indeed there was such an individual) must have been asleep at the wheel.

But to say that the book was "worthless"? Nonsense. In fact as Jeremy Bentham would say "nonsense upon stilts".

I dont remember a lot of Moz's love life in the British edition either.

I'm glad the editor (again if such a person ever existed) didnt cut the ghost story though - that was nuts.

Anne said...

Great discussion going on here.
Critics should be prepared to take it as well as dish it out. The famously acerbic critic of the modern novel, James Wood, was rounded on by reviewers over his one and only foray into writing fiction- The Book Against God. He has not written another novel since!

I did however like one of the other inclusions in the Hatchet Job list - the Luminaries review by David Sexton, because I had exactly the same reaction (basically life's too short) but also because it was good-humoured and balanced by giving credit where due.

Brian McNally said...

Thanks Adrian. Wouldn't have thought to buy Moz's book, but after reading your take on it and Gil's self-indulgent attsck, I'm going straight to Jefferson State Bookstore and order my copy.
I don't know, something about all publicity being good, especially when you consider the source.
Later,

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I did not take a picture that day. But she's here now, though wearing civilian clothes, and pleased by our compliments. She says she'll consider wearing the same costume this year if her hair is right at the time.

Unknown said...

Well Peter, something to mark in your calendar.

Sheiler said...

Sorry, Peter, I was the one to make that last drive-by comment.

Sheiler said...

I am dismayed about the lack of talk of songwriting process between the Moz and Marr. I haven't read his book yet. I shall. But I love the talk about how they did X by any musician.

Dave Stewart from Eurythmics had a brief podcast (I think there were 6 total) where he talked about song writing and being in music. For instance, Sweet Dreams includes the sounds of milk bottles being tonged. I think he said that Annie came up with it. And now whenever I hear the song, I Pavlovingly say, Milk Bottles!

There's also a podcast discussion between Johnny Marr and Jeff Beck. I listened to it while doing something else - maybe walking the dog? Their accents were really tough for me, so I planned on sitting down to give it a serious re-listen because it was really funny and moving. They talked about certain moments on certain albums that they loved growing up.

Sheiler said...

Adrian,

Maybe not the same student. But here he is.

http://guttersnipedas.blogspot.com/

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

If she dresses as Rachael again this Halloween, I'll try to remember to ask her if she's a human, or a replicant version of the human who wore the costume last Halloween.

adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

You are going to be VERY disappointed by Autobiography in that department. He's not interested in talking about that in the least which I agree is a crying shame.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

She must be very pretty. Not everyone can pull off the Rachael look which is why you hardly ever see it at Comicon.

Peter Rozovsky said...

She is a nice-looking woman who wears black well and obviously has an eye for clothes. She's petite, so the big shoulders and the gathered waist on the dress are shown off to good advantage.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Alan, it was nice to see a thumbs-up for McIlvanney and Laidlaw. They deserve them.

Mark English said...

It's kind of amusing. I've been doing a bit homework on all this popular culture and indie rock and so on that I somehow missed out on. The closest I had come to this sort of thing in the past was occasionally listening to John Peel on the radio because a girl I knew liked him so I thought he must be pretty cool.

But can't we have the cool, I wished, without having to listen to the music?

(Or the politics. Sorry!)

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Alan also liked Liam McIlvanney's All The Colours of the Town as did I.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

I'm increasingly at odds with the division between pop culture and culture, lowbrow and highbrow (a horrible term) etc. For me good art/bad art is more interesting. There's good pop music and bad pop music. John Peel played a lot of terrible pop music on his show but he did also play Teenage Kicks twice on one programme.

seana graham said...

Highbrow/lowbrow distinctions came up for me a lot in the book biz, especially as it related to genre.

Sheiler said...

Regarding highbrow/lowbrow/unibrow: I had the occasion to share my maison with an in-law for a bit too long this past year. She is a painter who is pretty high up on the food chain of high art. Not top top, but famous people collect her, and her shows in tony towns/countries have sold out consistently. She's been featured in art mags around the world. OK.

Her approach is the exact same as writing a script, a story, a song, singing, producing. The questions are the same. The exploration is the same. The unknowingness/getting-to-know is the same. And the answers to the question everyone should ask of their art of "Does this work?" is the same.

The difference is technique and media/source material.

Also, when the art market took a huge crash, and certain painters were out on their arses, that's when highbrow kicked in and (they) almost starved.

It's a visceral thing to me, hearing or reading that term. Obviously. Wait, I hear milk bottles.