On being Harvey Porlock

It is, I am depressed to discover, Harvey Porlock’s birthday. For ten years now, Harvey has looked at the week’s book pages, reporting, sometimes in a bolshy, opinionated fashion, on the efforts of reviewers, a small-time whistle-blower within the literary establishment. He has changed over the years and has become less even-handed, more crotchety and paranoiac. As fictional characters are supposed to do, he has taken on a life of his own.

Harvey, c’est moi. Every week, under his name, I write the Sunday Times ‘Critical List’ column, offering a snapshot of the literary cavalcade as it passes by. Conceived and named by John Walsh, then literary editor, Harvey Porlock was originally to be have been inhabited by three writers, taking turns to consider the week’s reviews. It’s a fiddly, time-consuming job, involving many trips to the newsagent, much tearing out and scrutinising of book-related items, selection of the most interesting reviewed titles (usually those that have divided critical opinion) and, at the end of it all, it does not even offer the writer his own bye-line. Very soon, I found that I was the only Porlock.

Personally, I was never too happy about writing under a pseudonym. The main reason for secrecy was that, since the person writing the ‘Critical List’ column was not infrequently taking critics to task, it was unwise to give them the chance to exact revenge when he or she published a book, but it has always seemed to me that to dish out criticism from behind the parapet of anonymity was a touch undignified.

The Sunday Times always insisted that the column should be pseudonymous and now I suppose I have to concede that they may have been right. It is an odd and embarrassing fact that, just as wearing a traffic-warden’s uniform can transform the wimp into a tyrant, so writing as Harvey Porlock has furnished me with a new, authoritative personality. Harvey is plump, wears tweed suits, possibly smokes a pipe. Very much a literary man, he is given to pomposity and the chippiness of one who finds himself mysteriously excluded from the inner circle of the critical establishment – all of which, as my friends will testify, makes him entirely dissimilar to me.

Who does Harvey write for? His column was originally intended to be a guide for readers and potential book-buyers through the fog of compromise that shrouds the books pages, and I believe that, in this, it stills serves a useful purpose. The ways in which critics avoid doing the job they are being paid to do – that of providing an honest, personal perspective on new work – are, as we all know, many and various. A few puff the work of their friends, their reviews being little less than sustained public ‘Coooeee!’ to fellow writers. Those considering works of non-fiction often like to show off their own apparent knowledge of the subject, delivering snotty little essays in which the work under review is hardly mentioned. Fiction reviewers offer grand, over-arching opinions on the state of the novel, shoe-horning their victim into a particular category in order to score a specious debating point. It is fashionable, among some critics, to play the man rather the ball, harping on an author’s private life, public image, the amount he is being paid or how he is being published.

A whiff of careerism, of would-be writers in their late twenties or early thirties on the make, hangs over many a review. These notices tend to be either intemperately enthusiastic (ensuring the affection of the author’s connections and that all-important name-check beneath a quote on the back of the paperback) or wittily venomous (ensuring controversy and suggesting the critic’s own incipient superiority as a writer over more established writers). To judge from the letters that Harvey receives, a column that exists to point up a few of these games is appreciated by readers.

But quite soon after starting the job, I realised that I was also writing on behalf of the reviewed writers – writers who are experienced enough to know that, unless some particularly gross distortion has been perpetrated, a letter of protest from themselves invariably has a boomerang effect, presenting the author as a whinger and a loser. Now and then, Harvey Porlock is able to cry ‘foul’ when a critic has been particularly unfair or mean-spirited.

As for the critics themselves, most of them regard an unfavourable notice in Porlock as part of the hurly-burly of literary life, but a few are peculiarly sensitive. A reviewer who will not hesitate to trash the work of two of three years in a witty, acerbic little 800-worder tossed off after a good lunch will occasionally be outraged when he or she is taken to task.

As for the job itself, I never imagined it would last this long. My space in the newspaper over the past decade has varied from 1000 to 350 words (it is currently at 650) and, like any freelance, I live from week to week. One day, presumably, the Sunday Times will decide that they would like a new Porlock, or maybe no Porlock at all. Over the past ten years, I have been genuinely lucky with the literary editors with whom I have worked – John Walsh, Harry Ritchie, Geordie Greig and now Caroline Gascoigne. Each of them has stood by me at times of difficulty – grandees are not above exerting discreet pressure on literary editors, one discovers – and has not attempted to impose any kind of party line on the column, which is more unusual and honourable than one might think.

I rather like being Harvey. A writer considering the work of writers who are considering the work of other writers might seem to many about as marginal a job as is available in the world of letters, but it suits me fine. Once a week, I watch the carnival race past, take a note of the garish side-shows that are currently and briefly in vogue. Then I return, with a certain sense of relief, to being myself.

Winter 1999