Sunday, September 07, 2003

September 7, 2003
The Good of a Bad Review

LONDON — For the last year, the literary world has been in a mild uproar over the supposedly vexed question of harsh reviewing. The ruckus started when the novelist Dale Peck tried to bury his fellow novelist Rick Moody's memoir, "The Black Veil," under an avalanche of abuse in The New Republic. ("Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation," the review began; after that it got rough.) The ensuing kerfuffle culminated in a long essay by Heidi Julavits arguing that the killingly negative review had become epidemic and was in need of its own monosyllabic name, like plague. "I call it snark," she wrote in The Believer, apparently unaware that Lewis Carroll had used the same word for something far harder to find.

Hers is a rather understated label (derived from the colloquial "snarky") for an attack whose intent is often not merely snide but outright murderous. Better acquainted with the concept of gangsterism in public life, the Germans call a killer review a "rip up" and the Italians a "tear to pieces." But this new, English word — English tempered by an American determination to believe that serious people can lapse from high standards only in a temporary fit of civic irresponsibility — is probably violent enough, and it certainly captures the essential element of personally cherished malice. The desire to do someone down, or indeed in, is the defining feature.

Adverse book reviews there have always been, and always should be, lest a tide of good intentions rise to drown us all in worthy sludge. At their best, they are written in defense of a value, and in the tacit hope that the author, having had his transgressions pointed out, might secretly agree that his book is indeed lousy. All they attack, or seem to attack, is the book. But a snark blatantly attacks the author — not simply to retard his career but to advance the reviewer's, either by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor. Since a good book can certainly be injured by a bad review, especially if the critic is in a position of influence, the distinction between the snark and the legitimately destructive review is well worth having.

In my own experience, dishing out grief has been a lot more fun than taking it. As a trainee critic, I was sometimes careless of the personal feelings of authors whose books I reviewed, and I simultaneously found, when I myself published a book, that my adverse reviewers were invariably careless of mine. Though I never grew thick skin (thin skin, after all, is what a writer is in business to have), I gradually got better at taking punishment. By no coincidence, I also grew more reluctant to inflict it. Anyway, personal attacks rarely work. They tend to arouse sympathy for the victim, and might even help sell the book. Legitimately destructive reviews, however, I both continued to write and grew resigned to receiving. They are part of the game.

But there's a catch. Over the course of literary history some legitimately destructive reviews have been altogether too enjoyable for both writer and reader. Attacking bad books, these reviews were useful acts in defense of civilization. They also left the authors of the books in the position of prisoners buried to the neck in a Roman arena as the champion charioteer, with swords mounted on his hubcaps, demonstrated his mastery of the giant slalom. How civilized is it to tee off on the exposed ineptitude of the helpless?

Back in the early 19th century, the dim but industrious poet Robert Montgomery had grown dangerously used to extravagant praise, until a new book of his poems was given to the great historian and mighty reviewer Lord Macaulay. The results set all England laughing and Montgomery on the road to oblivion, where he still is, his fate at Macaulay's hands being his only remaining claim to fame. Montgomery's high style was asking to be brought low and Macaulay no doubt told himself that he was only doing his duty by putting in the boot. Montgomery had a line about a river meandering level with its fount. Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount wouldn't even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay made it funny; he had exposed Montgomery as a writer who couldn't see what was in front of him.

Across the pond, Mark Twain later did the same to James Fenimore Cooper. Making hilarious game of the improbabilities in Cooper's tales of arcane woodcraft, Twain's essays about Cooper have been American classics ever since. So have Cooper's tales, but only in the category of enjoyable hokum. After Twain got through with him, Cooper's prestige was gone. Reading the reviews that did him in, one cannot avoid the impression that Twain would have enjoyed himself less if Cooper had been less of a klutz. Like Macaulay, Twain used someone else's mediocrity as an opportunity to be outstanding. This is getting pretty close to malice, for all its glittering disguise as selfless duty.

The same applied to Dwight Macdonald's attack on "By Love Possessed," a novel by James Gould Cozzens that was a best seller and a huge critical success in the late 1950's. Cozzens had his face on the cover of Time magazine. Macdonald thought the face needed a custard pie, and wrote a review that convincingly exposed Cozzens's masterpiece as portentously arranged junk. Macdonald usefully did the same for the clumsy prose style of the New English Bible, but there he was attacking a committee. In the case of "By Love Possessed" he was attacking a man.

When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn't allowed to hit him with an ax. Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere.

Clive James is author, most recently, of ``As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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