Speyer’s Guide to Reading Your Own Reviews

‘I never read my reviews. I re-read them, over and over: the good, the bad and the simply devastating. In fact, I read little else but my own reviews. They are just about the most fascinating documents I know of. They mess up my mind like no other thing. They knock me flat. They push me down. They stamp on my confidence like sugar-stoked toddlers on shallow puddles. They break me into small sharp pieces. They suck the life out of me. I love them.’ (Johannes Speyer)

It was true. Never has a review been as closely analysed as those of Speyer’s work. He wasn’t satisfied until he’d uncovered the background, context and probable motives of every critic. ‘The reviews of my books,’ he wrote elsewhere: ‘are my books’. He went on: ‘People say I am the author of my books. Not true. I write a text, people write about my text: that is the book. That’s where the book is born.’

Another interesting observation to be made about the quotation above lies in Speyer’s choice of simile. They stamp on my confidence like sugar-stoked toddlers on shallow puddles. Those with more than a passing knowledge of the late great writer will know of his fondness for surfing metaphors. Barely a page goes by in his books without Speyer making an allusion to the sand, the sea and the surf. Here, however, we find him riding on another wave entirely. It happened. The odd puddle-stamping toddler broke through the net every now and again.

Still, that’s not why I flagged this simile up. What struck me, in fact, was its similarity to the sort of turns of phrase used by yours truly. Again: not at all that surprising. I have never hid the fact that I owe a debt to Speyer. And yet I have noted, at several junctures, the ambiguity – the danger, even – of that debt. Which is to say (again) that Speyer, wonderful as he was, was far from a model critic.

Obscure similes and metaphors have been hanging around me for a while, rather like an old neighbourhood cat who refuses to die. And god knows I’m not about to kick that cat off my frontstep. Not whilst I’m so amused by its mews. Nevertheless, I accept that one has to be aware of the perils inherent in this practice. Take yesterday’s post, for instance. There I was, merrily musing over the ‘forests’ of my mind, only to find myself in a dark jungle of debate (see comments), revolving around complex metaphorical concepts such as this: ‘You can not make a cheese sandwich into a ploughman’s just by licking it, you know what I’m saying?’

Truth be told, I’m not sure I do know what this person is saying. But I fancy that this is not entirely their fault. After all, I’ve served up my fair share of weird analogies in my time and shouldn’t be picky (or is it picki?) when faced with the same. Once upon a time I used to tease Speyer for over-complicating matters with reference to a yet another surfing metaphor. I should hate to find myself standing on the same board.

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4 thoughts on “Speyer’s Guide to Reading Your Own Reviews

  1. Stop feeling so sorry for yourself. It does not suit you. Just as writing things down doesn’t suit me. I am here to make you feel great about your abilities to juggle words beautifully. You just need to look back on my pathetic attempts to play with language.. it has always been this way, but I’m not wasting time holding back and being all self critical. Other people do that for me too.

    You think you have it bad – blimey, try being one of your critics. It is a tough gig, but some creative genius has to write your books for you.

    Excuse me for not introducing myself before – I am Elis, Hi.
    I feel I know about you, having read some of your work. It has been many years that I have given up on reading; it was a good friend recommended I look here on your sight. She said you are her “Great Muse”!! I can see why.
    Your talent grabbed my interest all on its own, though I’ll admit my original motives were of a jealous nature (checking out this muse)..

    She is going to think me a total twat when she reads you getting all stale over the sandwich thing. She was saying to me just the other day – “A careless talker destroys themselves, Elis”. Very true that may be, but I can not help doing what comes naturally, even when I am all too aware of the results working against my favour.

    You ever get that? No, probably not.

  2. If you have read me well, you may have noticed that feeling sorry for myself (or appearing to, at least) is one of my undoubted talents, if not an indulgence – though I have no desire to tumble into the pyscho-analytical field: here or anywhere. Indeed, my self-criticism above was merely employed to bring attention to other, more interesting things: i.e. Speyer’s way with words.

    Meanwhile, I thank you for the copious praise. And your friend. We are all careless talkers, every once in a while, and our fate is not worth imagining. Continue to write what you like.

  3. “To those who say that there are artists, called realists,
    who produce work which is neither ugly nor dull nor painful, any man
    who has walked down a commonplace city street at twilight, just as the
    lamps are lit, can reply that such artists are not realists, but the
    most courageous of idealists, for they exalt the sordid to a vision of
    magic, and create pure beauty out of plaster and vile dust.”

    I am sure you are already familiar with Raymond Chandler.
    I was reading his essay on Realism and Fairylands; following yesterday’s discussions, really taken my interest in that direction (a line of thought I can apply in my everyday profession).

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