Sara Maitland on Reviews of Dan Pearson’s garden at The Maggie Centre

April 4, 2009

in Articles, General Interest

Dear thinkinGardens,

I have been reading and thinking about these [review and comments on the Dan Pearson’s Maggie’s Centre Garden] with an increasing sense of bafflement and frustration.  May I make some comments not on the garden (which I have not seen) but on the reviews of it.

As a working artist in a different form (I am a writer), I am very conscious of the value of reviews, both in raising the game and in attracting people to think about and look at the work in question. For this to happen there has to be a certain robustness in the reviewing process. My most recent book (A Book of Silence [Granta 2009]) has, I am glad to say, been extensively reviewed. Lots of people like it and have said favourable things about it; however it has also been called “self-indulgent”, “wilfully inaccessible” “mimsy” and “mind-numbingly tedious” (N.B.: it has been called these things – I have not) and there have been a number of reviews more intellectually and artistically critical. However none of the reviews, I am glad to say, said “we must be nice about this book because Sara had a limited budget”; “or “because it might be a comfort to sad, lonely people.”

For me such reviews have been helpful in thinking about how I might balance my next book and, moreover, I strongly suspect that the book’s excellent sales are partly down to the polarity of the reviews; challenged by diverse opinions, people want to read it and makeup their own minds.

So I read Bridget’s review with interest. It seems to me to be a good review: she told us enough about her personal contact with the garden to provide a context; she described the garden in some detail; she said why she did not like it; and she raised several interesting questions – how should a garden relate to a building (should it “stand alone” or should the two be integrated)? Should a garden be judged by its intention/purpose or only by its results – interestingly a classic debate in literature, music and the visual arts? Do straight lines and hard colours convey consolation, good cheer, or inappropriate harshness; does green represent and/or inspire hope (how do we draw meaning from a garden)?

From the rest of the reviews I do not learn why the people who like it like it. I do learn a lot about the interior of the building (which seems irrelevant here, unless the writers want to address her first question directly.) What I mainly learn is that people are not at all certain whether she is “allowed” to have or express these feelings at all – that she is somehow being “mean minded” or ungenerous.  I think it is always generous to take people’s work seriously and honestly. It is generous to the art form (gardening) itself; it is generous towards other people who may want to look and learn; and ultimately it is generous to the artist/ gardener.

Thank you for running Bridget’s review – can we have lots more on the site, both positive and negative, so that gardening can grow up, rejoin the other arts in both “seriousness” and Arts Council funding and we can all have more fun.

Sara Maitland

Sara Maitland’s website and review of “A Book of Silence“, Granta £8.99

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