While reading a borrowed copy of ‘Private Eye’, I was somewhat surprised to read a very hostile review of the latest novel by Colm Tóibín. Firstly, it complained about the fact that it was a historical work. Secondly, it moaned about the fact that other Irish writers had focused on history. Thirdly, it argued that the book wasn’t a legitimate novel at all. This latter contention stressed the autobiographical element of ‘Nora Webster.’
Even if I had not enjoyed the book immensely, I would have been a little troubled by the review. It sought to draw narrow lines about what is acceptable as art. It aspired to dismiss a work in part because of its origin. It failed to appreciate positive aspects of a work which the reviewer found uncongenial overall.
While freedom of speech is really important, a reviewer has some limited responsibility to be fair to literature in the broadest sense. This is because the reviewer can come between a text and a public. It is a privilege to review a book. Being so arbitrary as to dismiss entire genres as outside the boundaries of the novel is a colossal failure of the imagination.