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.

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