Beware of ‘modern classics’ and good reviews

Basically rubbish, unfortunately
Basically rubbish, unfortunately

If you read the bad reviews on Amazon, they frequently end up with something along the lines of ‘ I gave up about halfway through’. The Knife is averse to doing that, but by my calculations – if I live long enough – I’ve got no more than 800-900 books left to me, and it’s a bit of a waste to spend time on something that’s going nowhere.

Which is how I felt for much of the time when battling through Saul Bellow‘s alleged masterpiece, Herzog.  It is emphatically no longer the great book that it might have seemed to be, when it was published in 1964.  This is Woody Allen without the jokes, a solipsistic ramble through an American Jewish man’s midlife crisis, and as such has spawned a whole genre of self indulgent novels about nothing in particular. Bellow has some neat turns of phrase, but they don’t balance out the sheer hard work of getting to the end of 346 pages. Compared to another American existentialist novel from the same era (1961), Walker Percy‘s very fine The Moviegoer, it’s night and day.

This recent experience made me reflect on just how often I’ve felt ambushed by believing good reviews, or more often, wild acclaim. It began in 1981 when I worked in a record shop. If you were at the till you got to choose what was played in the shop, so I put on U2’s Boy. About 10 minutes in I realised that it was basically shite (to use the local dialect), and that seems to fit with everything they’ve produced since, despite wild acclaim etc.  Another classic example would be the solo works of John Lennon (and most of his Beatles stuff too).

Similarly with films. After about 30 minutes of Reservoir Dogs it became obvious that the hype was just that. A terrible movie of actors enjoying playing, embarrassingly, with guns. I know that description might fit quite a few films, but everyone seemd to be raving about it. Nearly all of Tarantino’s stuff is just as bad. Or the worst film ever made (copyright The Knife), which by coincidence  is on tonight, Love Actually.

Classical music has a long list of overpraised bores: Sir Simon Rattle, Paul Lewis, Alfred Brendel, Evelyn Glennie, to name a few. You can waste a lot of money believing the kind of reviews that these people tend to get. A good clue is often yet another regurgitation of the standard repertoire – I think Brendel has recorded the Beethoven concerti about four times. Pointless.

There’s no easy answer to this, but in order to save any passing reader some money, and quite a few hours of their life, avoid all those mentioned above, and for extras, don’t bother with: any ‘serious’ book or film that claims to be about sex; any rock music recorded by someone over the age of 50, or possibly 40;  any film with Sean Penn in it; anything involving a British comedian (or more accurately, “comedian”); almost any stage play, unless you genuinely ‘get’ Shakespeare; any singer-songwriter since about 1990; anything at all that might have any connection with or endorsement by Stephen Fry. The list keeps growing.

Trust me.


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