There is an assumption that endorsements are a good thing. From the reader’s point of view it may help them to decide what to read next: from the writer’s point of view that they will help move copies of their books. Both of these assumptions may well be true. Going by the space devoted to endorsements in books these days, I have to assume that publishers are sitting on evidence that they are effective.
Critical acclaim can come from several different sources. One is newspapers and magazines, and we will form a view over time of their reviewers, as Gore Vidal did concerning the New York Times. Another source is online reviews from sites such as Amazon or Goodreads (now a branch of Amazon). And the third is critical acclaim from fellow authors.
Online reviews can be dreadful, but they can also be excellent, so those who read them must judge for themselves. But they can’t in those cases where a review is written by the author under an assumed name – either to praise himself or do down a competitor. There have been several high-profile cases of this and no one can be sure how pervasive it might be.
The area which interests me most is where authors are endorsed by other authors. This might happen for several reasons. The first is that one author genuinely admires the work of another. If they do, and they say so, that is surely a good thing. But what if two authors share the same publisher? It must have occurred to the marketing department that their authors might usefully endorse each other. And even where this is not the case, there is always the possibility that mutual back-scratching is taking place.
The first time I considered this subject was when I bought a copy of Underworld, by Don Delilo. I have since given this book away, but it contained several pages of praise from various sources. I made two attempts to read it, giving up both times.
I recently read The Blue Book, by A L Kennedy. On the back cover was a quotation from Richard Ford. Since I have given this book away too I am going by memory here, but I believe it said, ‘This woman is a profound writer.’ And those were the only words on the back cover.
My first assumption is that Richard Ford meant what he said. But was he right and, if so, why? It has been suggested to me that he must be right because 1) he was a novelist himself and 2) he was such an accomplished novelist that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. I have problems with this, none of them having to do with Richard Ford or the quality of his work.
Do we have to be a writer to evaluate the work of a writer? Plainly not. But perhaps being a writer gives us added insights we can bring to bear in our review? That’s obviously possible, but with at least one caveat: a writer will have certain working prejudices (a good thing) lighting his way along the path as he works. But these may, on occasion, skew his reaction to the work of others. Tolstoy was a writer but had a low opinion of Shakespeare. Do we accept his unusual point of view because he wrote Anna Karenina?
Is there any way through all this? Yes. The conclusion alone it is not enough. To enable us to test it, we need to know how it was arrived at. I have no doubt that Richard Ford, if asked, would tell us exactly why he thinks A L Kennedy is a profound writer. But this information was denied us. So the prospective purchaser of The Blue Book was left with a back cover occupied by a mere assertion in solitary splendour.
Even if this assertion had been made by a literary Pope speaking ex cathedra (or possibly ex libris) we should not accept it. We must insist on our right to think for ourselves.