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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sour Grapes

Dan Rhodes

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To purchase Sour Grapes

Title: Sour Grapes
Author: Dan Rhodes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 383 pages
Availability: Sour Grapes - US
Sour Grapes - UK
Sour Grapes - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Lightning Books

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Our Assessment:

B- : some fun along the way, but very uneven

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail A 4/11/2021 Sara Lawrence
The Guardian C 12/11/2021 Adam Roberts
The Herald B 15/11/2021 Rosemary Goring
New Statesman . 5/1/2022 Lola Seaton
The Spectator . 11/12/2021 D.J.Taylor
The Sunday Times . 23/10/2021 David Sexton
The Times . 13/11/2021 John Self

  From the Reviews:
  • "His latest is a take-down of the entire publishing industry -- from authors to agents, editors to reviewers, no one escapes a brutal, hilarious skewering. (...) I loved it." - Sara Lawrence, Daily Mail

  • "Some of the barbs here, about publishing’s exploitation of young workers and the inertial classism, hit home. But the actual story, concerning a literary festival in a picturesque English village, feels like something out of the 1950s. (...) Not all the characters are grotesques. (...) Some of the bizarre episodes and moments leverage a smile, if not a guffaw (.....) But the focus of the book is so overwhelmingly on Selfram it unbalances the whole. The sheer intensity of the animus here is baffling. (...) Raising ferocity is one thing. Raising a laugh is another." - Adam Roberts, The Guardian

  • "This satirical broadside is not the finest of his novels but it is the most visceral. Rhodes nurses grudges as if they were eggs in an incubator. (...) Nobody could accuse him of pulling his punches. Where Spark’s weapon of choice was the scalpel, Rhodes’s is a wrecking ball. (...) By turns slapstick, juvenile, grotesque and funny, Sour Grapes revels in its silliness. Yet, while cartoonish, it nails many pretensions, not least the literati’s overblown sense of self-importance. On one level, none of it can be taken at face value; on another, it is profoundly serious. This is a ferocious lambasting of the power publishers wield, which authors are almost powerless to question." - Rosemary Goring, The Herald

  • "(A) deeply silly, frequently juvenile satire about the setting up of a literary festival in a village called Green Bottom." - Lola Seaton, New Statesman

  • "Sour Grapes turns out to be more of a book trade romp than a no-holds-barred demolition of the citadels of modern day literary power. There has been talk of libel writs, but it would take an exceptionally sensitive plant to be offended by some of the exposés of authorial vanity on display in this account of the ‘sleepy English village’ of Green Bottom’s attempt to stage a book festival. (...) But the novel’s main drawback is quite how off the pace it feels as a survey of the modern literary scene." - D.J.Taylor, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sour Grapes comes with a Preamble, in which author Dan Rhodes recounts an episode from when he won a literary prize (it was the Clare Maclean Prize for Scottish Fiction, in 2008, for Gold), where he noticed, when he picked up the prize, a: "mid-profile restaurant critic, radio essayist and occasional novelist" sitting stone-faced at a table in front of the lectern -- and:

     After the event, the mid-profile restaurant critic, Evening Standard columnist and occasional novelist had gone on the Internet and written up his impressions of the evening. All he had to say about it was that while note had been made of my having been the youngest author on the shortlist, my hair was starting to turn grey. 'Hmmm,' he cattily concluded. Quite what his point was I couldn't work out, and still can't.
       The observer in question was Will Self, the exact words from his piece were: "The youngest writer, Dan Rhodes, had greying hair. Hmmm."
       Rhodes notes that he wasn't aware of this mention until a week or two later -- too late for an immediate response -- but:
One thing was clear -- I would be letting my ancestors down if I didn't get my revenge.
     Many years later, here it is.
       Readers may be forgiven for wondering: what ? revenge ? for what ? But apparently even the slightest slight -- and I'm still unclear whether the slight was the (accusation of ?) greying hair or the "Hmmm" (or the combination thereof ?) -- is considered beyond the pale in the literary world, and festers on until appropriate revenge can be had -- here, well more than a decade (!) on, in the form of a novel.
       For Sour Grapes is, indeed, a work of revenge, with the character of 'Wilberforce Selfram' -- see what he did there ? -- at its heart. (The suspicion that Rhodes is taking the piss here, and that he and Self are actually mates who regularly share a pint at the local pub and that he wrote the book because they had some sort of friendly wager going, with the loser having to write a book featuring the winner or something like that is hard to shake.)
       Selfram is the central figure, but fortunately Rhodes does lash (if mostly rather softly) out further, too: Sour Grapes is mostly set around a small-town literary festival, and also paints a picture of the major (UK) publishers as a near-demonic cabal. (Rhodes has it out not just for Self but also for UK corporate publishing, noting the issues he's had with his longtime former publisher, Canongate (where his gripe, being about money, is at least somewhat more relatable than that regarding Self) -- though the actual Canongate-specific bashing is kept to a minimum here: little beyond him referring to its a: "a miserable little bindery north of the border"; Sour Grapes itself is published by an independent publisher whose 'co-publishing' business model is apparently one where: "the author and publisher share the cost of publishing and the profits from book sales are shared")
       A fairly amusing bit of the novel has the cabal of UK publishers following the writing of this novel, as Rhodes makes himself and his novel (a small) part of the story as well -- in real-time, at first, but then also imagining it published, savaged by the reviewers ("The Times' correspondent had concluded that the titular sour grapes were the author's own, and that at many points he was so intent on settling scores that he seemed to forget that he had a story to tell") but a popular success ("Even Rhodes' complete lack of interest in promotional activities hadn't stood in its way as it charged to the top of the bestseller lists"), as the reading public ignored what the reviewers had to say: "and, as if in defiance, the book had been widely enjoyed".
       The story is framed around the area around the small town of Green Bottom hosting a literary festival -- following the helpful advice of an organization called The Literary Festival People, who also help arrange a sponsor, Happy Smile Energy. As Rhodes hints at from early on, 'The Literary Festival People' isn't quite the organization its name suggests, and indeed the reasons they push a literary festival on The Bottoms (as the area is known as) isn't a very literary one (and, yes, as one local eventually sadly notes after they realize they've been hoodwinked : "Happy Smile ... It sounds so ... nice" ...).
       Rhodes has some fun with the contemporary literary festival-concept -- beginning with the organizers' realization as they prepare the Big Bottoms Book Festival that while they have gotten a lot of people with books to their name to sign up, "none of them are really, you know ... authors". It's pointed out that:
As this is a literary festival, I thought it might be an idea to fill the last few slots with people who aren't so much celebrities-with-books-out, as just, well, writers.
       This is how they get Selfram -- who turns out to be a very colorful character. Known mainly for his use of long and complicated words -- in speech as well as in his writing, something Rhodes keeps reminding us of -- and his catchphrase complaint about the prevailing: "broad cultural malaise", his books don't sell very well, but he is a bona fide 'author'. He is presented as a contrarian figure -- making his way to the festival on foot, for example, and revealing himself as an eater of both slugs and thesauri. An assistant from his publisher -- a token BAME hire who had quickly learnt that publishing wasn't nearly the kind of business she had hoped it would be --, providing logistical support, follows him to the festival -- and gets involved in quite a bit of the action as well.
       Selfram has several events, which go over varyingly well -- having him appear at the local school doesn't seem a great idea, but that more or less works out; his leading a writers' workshop arguably less so. But ultimately it also turns out there's rather more to his presence here -- indeed, to his whole career -- than he or the reader might have guessed, with a shadowy government agency -- M17 -- rather more controlling of British cultural life than the public realizes.
       The inbred UK commercial publishing world, where everyone hires everyone else's relatives -- ensuring also that the industry remains a preserve of the elite -- is skewered amusingly enough, with Rhodes also getting in one, last nice hit at it, alluding to his own experience with Canongate, as the cabal decides about the fictional Rhodes in the book:
'We're still going to have him killed, though,' he explained. 'We can't have our writers finding out how our finances really work, and this one has got too close for comfort.'
       (There are some fatalities in the novel as well, but author Rhodes survived it.)
       Two authors do get in-person cameos in Sour Grapes, under their own names -- Salman Rushdie and J.K.Rowling. The "Harry Potter lady" is presented as rather excessively defensive of her intellectual property rights (but also fantastically capable, whether in telling a story or fixing a helicopter), and while here and almost everywhere else Rhodes' humor tends to the overly broad he does neatly poke fun at her stand on sex/gender issues in the novel's cleverest little exchange. It's an example of Rhodes' humor adeptly turned -- showing that he can, on occasion, do it; for the most part, however, he lays it on way, way too broad and thick. Yes, there are some genuinely funny bits in Sour Grapes, but far, far too often, Rhodes tries to wring too much out of them -- most obviously in having Selfram literally consume a thesaurus; that's an amusing enough idea, but unfortunately its consequences are played out very poorly (and at far too great a length).
       Sour Grapes is wildly uneven. The satire isn't bitter; indeed, the novel is surprisingly genial in tone -- and even Selfram is given a happy end of sorts -- and part of the novel's appeal is that affable attitude throughout. For better and worse, this isn't particularly biting satire either, but rather mostly tame. Much of the would-be comic excess is simply excessive -- and rarely very funny -- and much is too predictable (Selfram riding in the local taxi, with a driver named Dave whom he recounts his own book about a taxi driver named Dave (Self's The Book of Dave) to), and there's just too much focus on Selfram. At least other parts of the novel -- even the progress-reports on the novel in progress -- make for a more interesting (and amusing) story; the variety does save the book from getting completely mired in the two-dimensional. Even so, it is all rather oddly leveled out -- there are high stake things going on in the background of this otherwise so very low-stakes seeming story -- and Rhodes could have made more of much of it (rather than harping so on Selfram).
       It all makes, especially in the earlier parts of the novel, for a somewhat frustrating read; ultimately, there is (just) enough to make for an entertaining enough story but, too often forced, it's still more near (and not so near) miss, left and right, than satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 February 2022

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Sour Grapes: Reviews: Dan Rhodes: Other books by Dan Rhodes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Dan Rhodes was born in 1972.

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© 2022 the complete review

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