Polari Reviews Hollinghurst: The Exponential Penetration of Towering Canons

The thing is odd, I will admit, but I’ve gone and reviewed a book review.

I had no choice really. First, because I’m just sick up to here with the dogged refusal of gay magazines to find, cultivate, and publish decent writers, and the review in question demonstrates that the relatively new Polari Magazine is no exception.

Yes, I know. The only purpose that writing has historically served in gay publications is to frame the, um, art work. By which I mean pictures of three-quarters-naked men, sprinkled across the pages like sunflower seeds on an everything bagel. But those policies were largely dictated by the quest for advertising revenue, an issue that online mags and ‘zines like Polari do not face. They don’t have to seek advertising from Delbert Botts, DDS, and they don’t have to print his display ad featuring Jeff Stryker wearing porcelain veneers and nothing else.

I deduce, however, that Polari still does have the issue of not paying its writers a pfennig, a winsome and nostalgic throwback to the early days of gay publishing that is unarguably related to the question of quality. But that’s a polemic for another day.

And second: I had no choice because the book review in question is a fawning tribute to Alan Hollinghurst’s newest novel, The Stranger’s Child.  To be clear, I have no problem with anyone’s fawning over Hollinghurst. I have a problem with someone fawning over Hollinghurst and failing to mention that the man desperately needs some new material.

After The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star, The Spell, and The Line of Beauty, I’d have been tempted to say that Hollinghurst’s treatment of homosex and the British class system was fairly complete. Not to say to encyclopedic.

On this point, of course, reasonable minds may differ. But reviewers like Tim Bennett-Goodman cannot escape unscathed. At least not on my watch.

Herewith, then, my review of Polaris review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, which is more apostrophes than any single sentence has a right to possess.


In all honesty, I cannot tell whether I might be interested in Mr. Hollinghurst’s new novel because I am too vexed by the irritating style of the reviewer to care about much else. In Tim Bennett-Goodman, Polari has found a writer who does not merely subordinate clauses, he chains them together ankle to ankle and sends them on a forced march through the killing fields. He has never met a pronoun antecedent he couldn’t render impenetrable or a modifier he couldn’t muddle.

Let us begin with the opening lines: “Just when one might have thought it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Alan Hollinghurst to top his existing magnificent literary offerings, along comes a monumental new novel which proves one wrong by easily matching, if not exceeding, everything he has offered previously.”

First of all, I wonder whether it is possible to “top” an “offering.” Perhaps it is, assuming the offering is versatile.

Second, might one possibly write, if not pen, a sentence that was a bit more straightforward, if not clearer, to one who is reading, if not following, this tortured syntax?

Third, how about a nice, simple “Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel is a monumental addition to his previous body of fiction.” Because I’ll just be honest: I have not been pondering, not even for a single second, Alan Hollinghurst’s potential difficulties in “matching, topping, or exceeding” his previous “magnificent literary offerings.” Call me provincial, but I always seem to have other things on my mind.

Moving on: “There are some excruciating moments during dinner parties for this dazzling guest, who has landed in the midst of a quiet, respectable suburban middle-class family setting unused to such excitements.” Wait. What or who is unused to excitements? The guest? The suburban family? The setting? And what excitements is the reviewer talking about, since none is mentioned?

And then there is this sentence: “However that may be, this formidable work enhances his already towering canon, and his literary reputation, exponentially.” Why use a specific and well-defined concept from mathematics when the reviewer does not literally mean that Hollinghurst’s “towering canon” will increase by an exponential factor but simply that it will grow? Or think of it this way: If Hollinghurst has written 10 novels, he’d need to write 100 in order for his output to increase “exponentially” by the lowest meaningful factor (10 to the zero power is one; 10 to the first power is 10). Moreover, if Hollinghurst publishes so much as a letter to the editor, his “canon” necessarily increases just by the logic of the thing. So perhaps we could just say that, eh?

As a syntactical matter, meanwhile, does no one worry about the mental state of that poor adverb, moored miles from the verb it intends to modify?

One final comment: I fervently pray that Tim Bennett-Goodman will learn to murder his “its.”


  • “Are they drinking to forget? Almost certainly, but whether the past or the present IT is difficult to tell, although IT is in all probability both.”
  • “In the opening section of The Stranger’s Child there are many similarities with other literature of the same period, which is not to say that IT is in any sense derivative….. Hollinghurst’s mordant ‘take’ on IT is fresh, original and incredibly penetrating.”
  • “Whereas in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited … the issue of homosexuality is compounded by class differences, even in Hartley’s The Go-Between, where the love is  heterosexual, IT is still forbidden on account of the class divide.

In all cases, the question is the same: it WHAT, darling?

Well, all right. There is another question. How does a take (the scare quotes are optional here, truly they are) manage to be “incredibly” penetrating? In other words, is the reviewer attempting to communicate that the penetration elicited disbelief? Now, trust me, I am not trying to bring us back ’round to Jeff Stryker, but that is what “incredible” means: that which beggars (mind the vowels) belief, that which cannot be taken for truth. So what is the reviewer saying?

Here’s some homework for Tim Bennett-Goodman: Declarative sentences and lots of them. Screw your courage to the sticking place and write real, unqualified affirmations; and no turning back to insert parenthetical comments just because you’ve lost your nerve. No ifs, ands, or buts—and I mean that literally. And for God’s sake, stop trying to sound like Tennyson. It’s only a novel, for crying out loud. Off you go, then. There’s a good lad.


Posted on 18 July 2012, in Book Reviews & Literaria, English Scorned, Betrayed, and Abused. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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