Daisy Jones & The Six – Work With Others And Be Yourself

Daisy Jones & The Six is the story of a 1970s rock band who, amidst major relationship dramas and substance abuse, make Aurora, one of the decade’s greatest albums. After starting the book, I was soon thinking of parallels with Fleetwood Mac, who like Daisy Jones & The Six had lead singer and writing responsibilities shared between a man and two women in fraught relationships. Both fictional and real bands had famously solid rhythm sections, and a talented, down to Earth female keyboard player, in a difficult romantic entanglement with another band member. And of course Fleetwood Mac suffered, fought, partied, drank, snorted, and wrote their way to the Rumours album of 1977. A quick check on the internet revealed interviews with author Taylor Jenkins Reid which confirmed the link.

The book is an interesting reconstruction of a band making a successful album, the story told from the varied points of view of musicians, technicians, managers, wives, children, photographers, accountants and rock journalists. Creating a massively successful album involves a lot of people. Does it happen because one person imposes his or her creative vision; or because others are allowed to shine, bringing many talents into play? Both alternatives seem to happen at the same time, in a way that cannot be planned for. The book’s fictional Aurora album is something that people strive to achieve, but which happens almost by accident. And even if a turbulent group of people make an album that they are pleased with, is the audience going to like it? Musical preference is highly subjective. By bringing all these factors together via many voices, Daisy Jones & The Six does catch the spirit of an intense collaborative effort where an evanescent chain of events leads to something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the book is very good in its exploration of the nature of a complex creative endeavour, if I was to quibble I might suggest that the fictional project itself is perhaps a weaker aspect. Compare for example the name of the album Aurora with the name of the real album Rumours. The title of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album is deceptively simple, introducing its collection of songs in terms of the kind of hearsay which by its very nature is enigmatic, and which invites people to read their own concerns into them. Rumours circulate in times of trouble, and you never know where you are with them. Aurora by contrast is the sort of title which sounds impressive, but which is kind of straining for significance. And the fictional band name, The Six, does not compare well with Fleetwood Mac. The name of the real band is less literal, and has a pleasing rhythm to it. Now, I accept that no author would be able to recreate a hit album in book form, but it might have been better to leave the Aurora album more impressionistic.

Apart from that, I enjoyed Daisy Jones And The Six, a perceptive study of what it’s like to try and create something great in partnership with other people.

Zuleika Dobson And The Populism Of Book Reviewing

Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson, is the story of a beautiful woman who makes Oxford’s entire male undergraduate population want to die for her. Now I know this sounds like an unlikely scenario, and many reviews focus on this. Even the story’s narrator seems to suffer a crisis of confidence when faced with the logical conclusion of his tale. So what does he do? Naturally, he takes advantage of Oxford’s links with the study of classical antiquity, and does a deal with a couple of Greek gods. Stay with me here – he talks Zeus and Clio into upgrading his investigative abilities. They confer upon him the ability to swoop about the place, seeing a story from every angle, like a kind of mythical drone camera.

Still with me? If you are, I think this piece of classical whimsy actually has a serious point. It is, in fact, a way of bringing our attention to the way we happily accept bizarre conventions, like that of an omniscient narrator who, aside from an ability to travel anywhere, also has access into people’s thoughts. Never mind about the practicalities and privacy issues, readers just accept this curious arrangement.

Acceptance of things because (a) lots of people do them, (b) glamorous individuals are seen doing them, and (c) they have been done for a long time, is a major feature of Zuleika Dobson. Oxford is a good place to set a story exploring this aspect of human nature, because it’s a university town with celebrities, lots of traditions where things are done a certain way because they have been done that way for a long time, and a population of young people looking for a lead. All these factors conspire to make Oxford’s undergraduates plan to do something very stupid for very stupid reasons. The ensuing events might seem farcical, but they serve to demonstrate an important reality. Zuleika Dobson was published in 1911. Within three years, millions of young men from Britain and Europe would allow themselves to be led into a terrible war.

That is really the end of my review. Zuleika Dobson was an interesting book, elegantly written, making interesting points about the malign power of crowds. But the second part of this article, if you wish to read on, is my thoughts on whether you should be taking any notice of my views in the first place. Zuleika Dobson makes the point that people can make bad decisions when part of big groups, and that individuals make wiser choices. But in recent times, the celebration of the individual viewpoint has become problematic. After all, we are now in an age of populism.

Populism puts too great a value on individual opinion. If you happen to think 5G masts spread viruses then you can broadcast that message. In the age of the internet, anyone has a platform to say what they think. The idea of worthy individuals standing against the crowd has taken on a different feel, after being hijacked by populist politicians. Donald Trump, for example, even as president, presents himself as the individual voice of truth standing against the dark apparatus of state. Maybe today the value that we place on the individual voice has itself become degraded, a habit, which we parrot unthinkingly, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

So where does that leave us? As far as book reviews are concerned, I would say that a truly personal reaction to a book is always worthwhile no matter who you are. I don’t think it is the case that literary education, or a gift of insight from the gods is needed to be a book reviewer. It’s great to have everyone contributing their thoughts on Amazon and Goodreads – much better than relying on the literary critic of The Times. But the thing is, a good review will have an aspect of challenge to yourself, making you look carefully at your own assumptions. Some learning will take place, even if it doesn’t look like learning in an academic sense. The fact that the review is your individual opinion is not enough by itself. For example, I wrote an initial version of this review where I said that Zuleika Dobson was insightful in the way it portrayed the value of not following the crowd. But there was something in me that wasn’t entirely happy with that, some niggle that wouldn’t leave me alone. So, dammit, I took the review down and wrote it again, to try and explore my misgivings. That’s what I think you have to do with a book review. You have to be true to yourself in a disciplined way. Populism is not like that, because it’s lazy. Many populist positions are emotional reactions rather than thought-out conclusions. And it’s this thoughtless emotionalism, disguised as brave individualism, which could very easily lead to a lot of people doing something very stupid for very stupid reasons.

That’s me doing my very best to be true to my feelings about Zuleika Dobson.