Tuesday, 14 September 2010


It was dispiriting to read in UK broadsheet The Observer last Sunday, in a generally negative review of Professor Sean Wilentz’s new book Bob Dylan In America by Geoff Dyer - here - that in “the chapter on Blind Willie McTell…Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer on whom Dylan based his greatest song of the past 30 years.”

In fact Wilentz’s book credits me quite properly (also citing Sam Charters’ The Country Blues, Paul Oliver’s Blues Fell This Morning, and John Lomax’s The Last Cavalier) and makes quite clear that he’s relying on the work of other writers and has done no research of his own on McTell.

But there’s novelist and reviewer Geoff Dyer effectively denying to the Observer's nation-wide readers the existence of my years of research and my resultant book Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes - despite its James Tait Black shortlisting just two years ago and its terrific reviews - because he hasn’t troubled to read any of Wilentz’s notes or acknowledgments.

Now this might just be too bad for me but an understandable carelessness on a reviewer’s part - except that when Geoff Dyer is the writer, he doesn’t find even small mistakes forgiveable at all.

When Peter Schjeldahl, art critic of the New Yorker, made an error in reviewing Dyer’s novel Jeff in Venice - Schjeldahl mistook 2005 for 2003 - Dyer published a whole screed of abusive protest on Saatchi Online Magazine. This is part of his diatribe:

“I thought I’d take the opportunity to respond to the remarkable ‘reading’ of the Venice part by Peter Schjeldahl ‘or (to quote Philip Larkin on Hugh MacDiarmid) however the cunt spells his name.’ … as I point out in the notes at the end of the book – ‘2003 was the scorcher.’ 2005 was actually quite mild; it even rained a bit. Now, obviously, what’s at stake at this point is not Schjeldahl’s opinion of the book but something far more elementary: his fitness to proceed, his mental health. If he can’t get a simple thing like that right how can we have confidence in anything else he says? Or to put it more simply, just how stupid can a fellow be?”



Geoff said...

That bit of the review originally read:
'Wilentz has found out everything you could want to know about the singer on whom Dylan based his greatest song of the last thirty years (needless to say, Michael Gray, the one-man Dylan encyclopaedia, found out even more).'
The bracket was cut by the Observer for reasons of space. Happy now?

Michael Gray said...

Your generosity of spirit is a lesson to us all.

Robert said...

Just started reading your book yesterday. I like it so far, but you seen to have a really condescending attitude toward the south. Is it, in your mind, really that bad a place? Certainly there's a past (and, admittedly, a present) history of suffering but there's beauty to be found here that can and often does outweigh that.

Maybe it's just the sting of reading harsh words about places that are important to me (I was born in Washington, my father in Thomson, my mother in Warrenton), and maybe if the personal connection with these places were removed it wouldn't seem so jarring, but I pick up a thread of condescension to the south and its people in your work. Whether my own prejudices and experience put that thread there is still an open question.

But the book as a history of the south seen through the lens of Blind Willie McTell is a valuable document, and I'm really enjoying it. Next time you're in North Georgia maybe I can show you what's good about these towns that are "waiting to die", peopled with "stage yokels".