The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

It’s unfortunate that some have found it necessary to deal harshly with this book, though one understands why.

The big commercial publishers have a new game to play whereby they carefully manipulate the media into a foregone conclusion that this writer is the one we have all been waiting for. In Australia the notable example is Hannah Kent and her debut novel Burial Rites.

Ben Etherington describes the process in his article The Real Deal . He points out that Kent received a SEVEN figure advance – I jest not – and goes on to say:

Stuart Glover has written an illuminating essay in the Sydney Review of Books on Kent and three other just-published first-time Australian novelists. He focuses on the interplay between publishers and university creative writing programs, whose job it is to elicit a certain base-level competence from students; or, as he puts it, ‘a lack of incompetence’. Increasingly, the acquisition of institutional credentials, recognition and advances is the platform on which new writers enter the commercial sphere. This creates the strange scenario in which there can be incentive for publishers to increase advances in order to create a first wave of publicity.

It is a fascinating, if disquieting, article and please do read it.

It seems to me that The Yellow Birds suffers similarly. First novel by a writer as utterly inexperienced as Kent, the two of them fresh out of some sort of creative writing uni course. Equally put through the marketing mill. This seems to have provoked a sort of backlash in some critical circles; the idea that Powers is sold as a vet rather than as a writer, that by not having to stand up to normal critical standards he gets away with inferior writing overwhelmingly hyped by the machine, has led to harsh appraisal here and there.

Well, so it seems to me. In particular one might point to Salon‘s review by Michael Larson. It is possible that Larson has a personal grudge to bear, being a vet himself who has not written the greatest war novel ever, or anything similar if it comes to that. But he quotes others, including Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

I liked this book enough to recommend it. It lyrically represents the chaos of the situation. If it has stereo-types, why wouldn’t it? Of course war is about stereo-types. If it is slightly confused in parts, why wouldn’t it be? A young man struggling with the nightmare he entered.

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