Molly Young, “is a book critic for The New York Times, a contributing writer to The Times Magazine and the author of the newsletter Read Like the Wind. She was previously the book critic for New York magazine.” Unquestionably a hard-working journalist, by my reckoning. I’ve read her book reviews in the past and have had no quibbles with them – but I do with her latest, Julian Barnes’ new novel, Elizabeth Finch.
Ms. Young takes upon herself the onerous task of describing how she would rewrite aspects of Mr. latest Barnes’ novel. By her own admission, he has now written twenty-five books, many of which I myself have read with delight, including Flaubert’s Parrot. Were I Mr. Barnes, I would take extreme umbrage at anyone, incluidng this young writer, telling me or readers of her book review, how my novel ought to be rewritten:
“Elizabeth must be brought low so that Neil can conceive of her as a martyr. (Elizabeth the Apostate.) But it would have been cannier of Barnes to make her a genuinely convincing provocateur. He might have selected any option from the banquet of contemporary pieties and shown Finch stomping it with her sensible brogues. Doing so would have added a nasty edge to his glossy prose while also revealing the scope of Neil’s idolatry.”
The (eponomously) young whipsmart New York literary ingenue seems to presume her own contemporary experiences and sensibilities apply to an historical character and time when she writes:
“For some reason it was covered by the media (unlikely) and went viral (highly unlikely). Unflattering paparazzi photos of Elizabeth appeared in newspapers. (Almost impossible to imagine.) Even if you grant that this took place during the world’s slowest news week, nothing about the teacher’s persona or lecture could plausibly stoke a mob into merciless censure.”
I’ve no problem with expressing opinions about a work. I do it all the time when I write reviews here on JackBoston’s The Saturday Review. But I draw the line for myself and any other reviewer at suggesting how the author’s work ought to have been written. I’m relatively certain the author knew exactly what they wanted to say and how they intended to say it. I’m relatively certain the author spent much more time coming to the literary conclusions and means of expression than the reviewer. IMO (indeed) I think it’s quite presumptuous for a reviewer to tell the author it “would have been cannier” and conclude their suggested rewrite “would have added a nastier edge.” After having written over two dozen books and worked with a professional editor or two, I’m pretty sure Julian Barnes was quite clear in choosing how to write his book.