After writing for the Sydney Morning Herald for almost 30 years, author, journalist and TV presenter Peter FitzSimons might have expected a friendlier review of his latest work from the paper.
But instead of bouquets, he got brickbats. And then some.
Noting that Victory at Villers-Bretonneux completed Mr FitzSimons’ trilogy on World War I, historian and critic Professor Peter Stanley could only manage: “Thank goodness”.
But if you think that was unkind, there was worse to come in his SMH review.
“FitzSimons’ style is that of a graphic novel without the pictures,” wrote Prof Stanley, adding: “(It’s) cartoon history by the kilogram.” Ouch.
And he still wasn’t done with Mr FitzSimons, author of 27 books and more than once the biggest-selling non-fiction author of the year in this country.
Prof Stanley, who the SMH called one of Australia’s foremost authorities on the Great War, was singularly unimpressed with the red-bandanaed author’s sales success, even comparing him to … Donald Trump.
“His [Mr FitzSimons’] popularity stems partly from the promotional advantages he enjoys with media outlets in all forms, but also because he is a sort of historical Trump – he understands and expresses [and probably shares] a simple patriotism that transcends the complexity of real life, and tells a good story regardless.”
Later, Prof Stanley observes: “He enjoys his status as Australia’s highest-earning non-fiction writer [though many passages are actually imagined] and historians who see the past less simplistically are left looking like sour-pusses. But as Fitzy writes: ‘Bingo. Done. Move on.'”
‘Trump and FitzSimons have very simplistic views’
The New Daily attempted to contact Mr FitzSimons via his publisher, Penguin Books, which said it did not comment on book reviews.
Contacted in his Canberra office, Prof Stanley had no such reservations however, standing by his opinion.
“I wasn’t reading so much a formal history book as a book that had been written in a series of vignettes,” he told The New Daily.
Prof Stanley, who said he previously declined to review the book, acknowledged Mr FitzSimons’ skill for storytelling, but said his story was too simplistic.
“The story of Villers-Bretonneux doesn’t deserve 700 pages and I don’t think it should be told in the way he tells it,” he said.
“The fact that he writes about a group of men in a lorry, he goes, ‘they bumped down the cobblestones of France, bumpity bumpity bump’, to me that’s just ridiculously simplistic.
“And that partly explains his success because people relate to him as a story teller, they’re not particularly interested in the detail, they don’t really care where he got it from, they don’t care he doesn’t do his own research and he relies heavily on a team of research assistants.”
Prof Stanley also had something to say on Mr FitzSimons’ view of World War I.
“I’m not criticising it because it’s not the book I would have written. I’m criticising it because I think writing about the First World War in that way is misleading,” he said.
“I really don’t think he gets the Great War was a global tragedy, I think he thinks of it as a national triumph for Australia. And that’s the way he presents it.”
— Bryn Hammond (@Brynley_H) November 14, 2016
Peter Stanley reviews three WWI histories, including FitzSimons' latest – and leaves no prisoners of war. https://t.co/dxGOwVoTJS
— Stephen Murray (@smurray38) November 13, 2016
And in relation to his Trump comparison, Prof Stanley said: “Trump has a very simplistic view of good and bad, right and left, good and evil, and a very simplistic view of history, and I think Peter FitzSimons has got the same.
“He writes from a very, frankly, patriotic viewpoint and that patriotism was also evoked by Donald Trump. It struck me as a very apposite comparison.”