On Reviewing and Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

There’s an on-going discussion in the blogosphere as to whether or not you should write negative reviews of books. Usually, I stay out of any discussion as to how blogs should be run/what they should contain but a combination of having read a book that I found annoying and recently reading Pretentiousness: Why it Matters by Dan Fox made me think there was room for an exploration of reviewing itself.

Everyone has their own approach to reviewing but I recall seeing John Self say something on Twitter along the lines of he thought a good review should allow someone who hadn’t read the book to decide whether they wanted to read it or not and give the person who had read it something extra to mull over, a new dimension to their view of it. My interpretation of this is that a good review is something that interrogates the text – its meaning, its structure, its language – and takes into account its style/genre: nothing’s written in a vacuum. Positive and negative reviews should be written with the same rigour and where relevant, I think, with a nod to your own interests/bias.

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Before Christmas, a publicist from Faber & Faber pitched Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral to me. It’s the story of two teenage sisters – one biological, Leah, one adopted, Su – who go on holiday to Magaluf. Su is filmed performing a sex act on a number of men in a nightclub. The video goes viral. The book then follows the after-effects for the sisters and their family. To make it more interesting, their mother is a Scottish Sheriff.

As someone who spends their days reading and writing about women’s bodies – how they’re portrayed, what society dictates about how they’re allowed to be used, what the consequences are for transgressing society’s rules – this book was catnip.

I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me do this. They might include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth-year biology teacher and my boyfriend of six weeks, James.

The video shows Su, drunk, being asked if she wants more alcohol followed by close ups of her sucking a range of penises. In the background, the crowd shout, ‘Go go go!’, a chant begun by her sister, and a man’s comments:

‘Fucking slag’ is the cameraman’s whispered commentary. He sounds as if he’s hard with hate. ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore. Take it all the way, dirty bitch.’

‘Prudish, virginal Su’ is hiding in a hotel room. Her sister and friends are on their way back to Scotland without her.

Buckle in, I thought, this is going to have interesting things to say around sexual consent and slut shaming.

In Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Fox argues:

You have your established schema for what a work of art should be, and then something alien arrives and throws that schema into doubt. A gap opens up between your expectations and what you’re presented with, leading you to question the legitimacy of the new thing that has arrived, to ask who gave this upstart the authority to exist in the first place. You are either ‘convinced’ by, because it agrees with the criteria familiar to you, or you call it pretentious.

With regards to Viral, my schema was established before I’d opened the book and my initial impression of the novel led me to believe it would be fulfilled.

Once Leah arrives home, her hatred of Su is revealed and Ruth, the girls’ mother, discovers that the law isn’t going to help her achieve justice for Su. As punishment for Leah, she sends her back to Magaluf to find her sister.

At this point, I thought the book included some interesting extra dimensions: Su’s ethnicity is obviously an issue for Leah; there’s something about peer pressure (Su was planning to lose her virginity in Magaluf, encouraged by her sister), and Leah’s clearly unlikeable but the idea that a mother would send one of her children to another country to look for the sister who’s damaged state she’d contributed to seemed like one to instigate serious debate about motherhood, if not outright horror.

Once Leah found Su and Ruth began to decide what she could do without the law, Viral took a turn I wasn’t expecting. Ideas about sexual consent are threaded throughout the book but where I was primed for Apple Tree Yard, I got Gone Girl.

Had I written this review prior to reading Pretentiousness, I would’ve told you that this book isn’t very good. But that isn’t true: if this book isn’t very good why did I start reading it at 6pm one evening and finish it at 10am the following morning? Why did I finish it at all?

The book fits neatly into the category Marian Keyes christened ‘grip-lit’. For 75% of the novel, I was desperate to know what was going to happen next. There was a specific point in the plot where I began to think it was becoming implausible and then I almost didn’t read the end because I feared it was going to be ridiculous – and it was, by which, I mean that I thought one of the characters behaved contrary to her personality and that one of the novel’s threads ended with a coincidence that was difficult to buy – but I still wanted to know what happened.

So, I wasn’t convinced by Viral, although I wouldn’t have accused it of pretentiousness, instead I would’ve been snobby about it.

Why didn’t I like it? Because I wanted it to be one kind of book and it turned out to be another. It’s well-plotted, the writing’s clear, the first-person voice of Su and the third-person subjective view of Ruth are well-rendered and distinguishable. My problem was with the treatment of the main theme and there’s the key, it’s my problem, not the book’s.

Does the book fulfil its (or Fitzgerald’s) intentions? There’s no doubt it’s a gripping page-turner which raises the issue of sexual consent and the different social norms which apply to males and females. Does it matter whether it’s ‘realistic’ or ‘plausible’? No, is the simple answer. Some of the books I read are highly stylised – Martin John by Anakana Schofield is a recent example – and I often praise the writers for the skill with which they render these stories. A book can only be fairly critiqued within the terms it sets out for itself (including the genre/lineage to which it assigns itself). Outside of this lies personal opinion/taste and while that’s inescapable within reviewing it’s not a substitute for it.

Should reviewers write negative reviews? Yes, with the proviso that they’re critical discussions within which the reviewer registers their own schema/bias, if necessary. I suspect if someone’s finished reading a book something’s compelled them to the end, in which case it’s unlikely to be completely without merit. A balanced discussion allows a potential reader to make their own decision, after all, their tastes might not align with the reviewers.

There are reviews of Viral by Anne at Random Things Through My Letterbox and Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books if you’d like some alternative views.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.