Peter Kemp Literary Fiction Masterclass

by rebeccaswirsky

“Bitched, botched, batched, butchered,” were Peter Kemp’s opening words. “Some say there are just four ways to write a review.” Clearly, Kemp’s Reviewing Literary Fiction Masterclass was going to be entertaining as well as informative, a point confirmed when he spoke of reviewers being perceived as “eunachs in a harem”.

            It was a sunny Saturday morning, and I was gathered with a group of eleven other participants in Somerset House’s airy West Meeting Room to learn, as Kemp put it, how to add our voices “to the ongoing conversation about a book”. Being selected by ballot to attend Kemp’s Masterclass in April felt like I was being given an early birthday present, as I was already an admirer. Writing reviews while finalising a short-fiction collection, I was on both sides of the fence. Attending a Peter Kemp Masterclass would help me sharpen my focus while offering critical insight into reviewing as a discipline.

            Yet while I was familiar with his craft with words, I didn’t anticipate Kemp’s lucid and absorbing teaching style. Fresh notebooks and an order-of-the-day were provided, and each point brought up for discussion was complemented by an anecdote seductively inviting us into the world of literary criticism. One participant, Flora Neville, felt Kemp’s taking receipt of an advanced copy of J.K. Rowling’s highly anticipated Casual Vacancy had made reviewing sound “like spy work with espionage”.

            The RSL’s wide demographic was reflected by the attendance. Neville, a student, won her place through an RSL competition held at King’s College university, while participant Piers Russell-Cobbs owns a literary agency. Russell-Cobbs was effusive in his praise: “Peter Kemp was fabulously unpatronising. For somebody with his experience, he spoke on completely the right level, and he was democratic and friendly. He was very good at explaining what literary reviewers needed to do in order to secure commissions.”

            The highlights of the Masterclass were Kemp’s mini-tutorials: he generously alloted time with each individual to discuss the reviews they had been invited to send in prior to the day. “I was expecting ‘good try, could do better next time’,” said 16-year-old participant Katie Manning, “but Peter said I’d hit the nail on the head with my review of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and that it was clear it was my favourite book.” The fact that the Masterclass involved group discussion rather than Kemp just lecturing also held value. “If a question was asked that I was already thinking,” continued Katie, “I’d know I was on the right lines. Hearing everyone’s backgrounds was really interesting.”

            Judging the objective craft of a book while asserting one’s own personal taste is a responsibility. Margaret Atwood has likened the literary critic to a town crier. Flora Neville felt this responsibility appealed because it made “reviewing seem like it had a social outreach dynamic. You’re working in the general community of literature.”

            Kemp was clear that literary reviewing was the most difficult form of reviewing. This was, he said, because the literary review had exceptionally high demands, often within a very short space of time. He warned that punctuation must earn its keep, and that simili, adverb or metaphors should always be relied on over quotations when word count was tight. Despite these potential difficulties from the outset, some participants have already been inspired by what they’ve learnt in the Masterclass. Anna Myburgh has begun a book-related blog to hone reviewing skills and build up a body of work, in the hope that “it will be a good calling card when I approach literary editors”. Flora Neville has reviewed in her King’s College student paper “a poetry event, a film and book event, and the whole idea of reviewing has been more forefront in my mind.”

            As I’ve written more reviews, I’ve realised that it’s harder to write a negative review. W.B. Yeats wrote, ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’ (Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’). I hesitate in damning an author’s work or project purely because of an awareness of the sheer effort poured into its creation. Yet, as Kemp has noted, the reviewer’s responsibility lies with the public, and with offering an honest, fair opinion. And of course, there is a difference between an incisive, intellectual cutting review and a sneery one. To help, Kemp advises asking three overall questions. What is the author trying to do? How well have they done it? Was it worth doing?

            It strikes me that instead of being set apart in their aims, critic and author alike are grappling to find new ways of expressing themselves. “The book you’re reviewing is a work of art,” said Peter, “and your review is a work of art, which should be worth reading in its own right.” Whether intending to pursue a career in literary criticism or not, participants of Kemp’s Masterclass were undoubtedly left richer for spending time in his company, and aware of the real value (and discipline) of literary reviewing as a profession.

Rebecca Swirsky is a London-based critic and short-fiction writer

This review was first published in March 2014 in the Royal Society of Literature Review.