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Literary Bloodsport Part 2: The Lure of the Hatchet Job

hatchetEarlier today I linked to Louis Nowra’s devastating and very funny review of Bob Ellis’ And So It Went: Night Thoughts In A Year Of Change. As my post probably made clear, I’m no fan of Ellis myself, so Nowra was really preaching to the converted, but it got me wondering what other people think about this sort of literary bloodsport. As spectator sports go literary hatchet jobs are up there with cage-fighting, but are they actually a good thing?

For what it’s worth, I think the brutal review is usually a young person’s vice. In my early days as a reviewer I wrote more than one review I still wake in the night feeling sick about (Victor Kelleher and Justin D’Ath, wherever you are, I’m sorry). And I’m not alone in this view. Martin Amis, who in his early years as a writer carved out a career as one of the most terrifying literary hitmen of all time, has observed, “[e]njoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember”.

I’m aware, as I write this, that this question blurs into a related one, about what constitutes good reviewing, and what exactly constitutes the right balance between emphasizing the positive and pointing out the faults in a given book, but I don’t think that’s quite what I’m talking about here. There’s a difference between stringent criticism and even a really bad review, and the deliberate attempt to destroy a book or a reputation people such as Dale Peck have made into an art form. And I think there’s also a difference between the deliberately mean-spirited criticism of someone like Lionel Shriver and the energy and excitement that makes a really good hatchet job sing.

My own feelings on the matter are complicated. If nothing else the world is a livelier and more exciting place for a bit of biff. And like any writer I’ve got a few contemporaries I think are frauds or shits (not many, I hasten to say, but definitely a few) and seeing them get a dose always gives me a nasty little thrill. And a really considered hatchet job, like Nowra’s of Ellis, Brian Dillon’s of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, or John Banville’s of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (or indeed almost anything by Dale Peck) is a thing of beauty in its own right. But as a writer I’m also aware of just how awful it is to be on the receiving end of bad reviews (or indeed really nasty blog comments), and not just because I know how hard it is to write any book, good or bad, but because I know how incredibly exposed and vulnerable you make yourself by putting yourself and your work out in the world, and how hard it is for those who don’t do it to relate to that vulnerability.

Perhaps in this context it’s worth returning to Amis. His line about how hard people try and how long they remember is justly famous, but what’s less well-known is what comes after it. “Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age,” he says, before going on to ask why this spectacle seems so undignified, and answering his own question with the observation that it’s because it’s mutton dressed as lamb. But it’s what he says next that’s really important, when he says that looking back, “I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Mailer, Roth, Ballard”.

What Amis is really talking about is the essentially Oedipal anxiety of influence every writer feels. But he is also drawing our attention to the need for the new to make space for itself. And as he rightly discerns, much of his brilliant, incendiary early criticism (and indeed that of Julian Barnes) was about killing the old lions so they could take over the pride.

I think it’s fair to say that slightly uneasy need to make space for oneself is what drives a lot of really brutal reviewing, especially by younger critics. Certainly one detects more than a touch of the disillusioned disciple in James Wood’s attacks upon the late John Updike. But unlike really brutal reviews of younger writers, which can destroy careers (or even, I suspect, lives) these sorts of reviews serve an important function. There’s a real tendency for established writers to become unassailable, their books lauded no matter what their flaws. One example might be the rise and rise of Peter Carey’s international reputation since the publication of True History of the Kelly Gang, a rise which seems to have been in inverse proportion to the rapidly declining quality of the books themselves. But it’s even more pronounced in the case of writers such as Delillo, who occupy the literary stratosphere. In their case it can be difficult to find ways of saying their new work is not up to scratch, and not just because of the weight of their reputation. Instead a sort of feedback loop begins to exist, a circular argument which declares that the new Delillo (for instance) must be good because Delillo has become one of our models of great writing, and his writing is, therefore, necessarily, great writing.

In this context the hatchet job is important because it helps break that loop, and demand we step back, look again, and ask ourselves what we’re really seeing. And that process isn’t always destructive, not just because the body of work behind such writers is usually robust enough to withstand that sort of assessment, but because a more nuanced eye is likely to reveal things our earlier assumptions were obscuring.

But enough about me. What do others out there think?

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  1. James,

    Many thanks for mentioning Louis Nowra’s piece on Bob Ellis in the ALR. Your readers may be interested to know that I’ve just put a long reply by Ellis on our website. They can find it at:

    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25542115-25132,00.html

    Clive James once wrote a piece about being the victim of hatchet jobs. He had a memorable line (Clive always does) about one particular reviewer who made him (Clive) feel like he was a war criminal.

    As for Peck, there’s a good piece on him here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/26/magazine/the-takedown-artist.html?pagewanted=all

    Am enjoying city of tongues very much.

    June 4, 2009
  2. Geordie #

    Vonnegut reckoned that any reviewer who expressed rage and loathing for a novel was preposterous, ‘like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.’

    He’s right, I think. But then again I’m a critic and not a creator – I wouldn’t be in this game if I didn’t have a quasi-religious rverence for people actually capable of making stuff up.

    James, you’re right about the occasional necessity of the circuit-breaking hatchet – but the pathology of the psycho who wields it is not necessarily connected to the work under attack. And that is poor form, ever and always.

    June 4, 2009
    • James thanks for this insightful article. Much that you say rings true to me. Yet I’m more interested in challenging ideas than this kind of controversy. Australian culture does not easily deal with disagreement , yet it is essential . Old feuds ,literary blood sport , personal vendettas ,that’s something else again. Ellis can be infuriating, ok he very often is.
      Yet how much of Nowra’s article is about the writing? Can nothing of value be found in the old barnacle’s words? The Dismissal Ellis finest work in my view get’s not a mention here. Personally if I can learn something from a review of my work, I value that – if someone sees something I have not or causing me to consider further, that’s welcome. Rare too. Is constructive criticism too much to ask for here – there may just be too many body blows in this histiore.

      June 5, 2009
  3. I suspect Dale Peck’s head is not a nice place to live. And I’ll have to get you to show me some of that quasi-religious reverence next time I see you.

    But do you really think criticism is a place for good form and bad form? Isn’t it like books, which as Oscar Wilde quipped, are neither moral nor immoral, but well or badly written? Though even as I write that I find myself disagreeing with myself, and thinking there most definitely is ethical and unethical criticism. But if we assume, pace Wilde, art is neither moral nor immoral, does that mean criticism isn’t art? Or that art really can be moral or immoral? I know this is all a bit simplistic, but there’s a serious question somewhere in there.

    June 4, 2009
  4. Delia #

    Without wanting to issue an open invitation to hostile reviewers, I would have to say, on balance, that I probably prefer a spirited bad review (which at least means someone engaged with the book) to a wishy-washy one that says nothing (and unfortunately, being such a small literary community means we produce quite a few of the latter). Peter Craven’s crash tackle of Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, for example, probably stirred up more sympathy and publicity than it scared off readers, much less damaging than Richard King’s review a few weeks ago in the Oz of Emily Ballou’s Darwin Poems, which gave no sense of the content of the book, or even whether it liked or disliked it in the end…

    I think that spirit of engagement is what defines a good hatchet job over a bad one. A hatchet job that’s more about the reviewer than the book, or which chastises a book for not being the type of book the reviewer likes, or which is snide without being informed or being able to place the writer’s work is bad thing. An engaged hatchet job, or passionate disavowal, can actually come out of a sense that a writer can do better, that they have disappointed an eager fan…

    June 4, 2009
  5. Delia – I completely agree with you about the need for engagement, and about the way the small size of the Australian pond encourages wishy-washiness in reviewing (that said, I’d have to say the Americans and the English, who swim in much larger ponds, seem to do wishy-washy, soft reviewing pretty well also, particularly when it comes to their respective home-grown products). And I definitely share your dislike of reviews that are “more about the reviewer than the book, or which chastises a book for not being the type of book the reviewer likes, or which is snide without being informed or being able to place the writer’s work”.

    But I’m not sure I agree about the notion of the disappointed fan. We’re not dealing with the most exact terminology here, but I do think there’s a difference between the engaged and sympathetic but bad (or very bad) review, and what I’d call a hatchet job. A review like Louis’ is engaged, but it’s certainly not sympathetic. Indeed it – and indeed Craven’s review of Gould’s Book of Fish, or Eliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (surely the worst title ever) – is actually calculated to do damage by systematically dismantling the book and the writer. And precisely because of that desire to wound, it’s almost always as much about the critic as the author under review, because they are asserting their own will and authority over that over the subject of the review.

    This leads, I suspect, into my rather flip reply to Geordie (sorry – I was racing out the door to pick up the child). On the whole ethics question, I think that criticism does have an ethical dimension, and there is good and bad form, a dimension which distinguishes it, at least in degree from capital “A” Art or capital “L” literature. The difference, crudely, is that art exists in and of itself. It may make use of real events or people in ways we find uncomfortable, or unsettling, but calling it moral or immoral, or ethical or unethical, is – in general – to miss the point. It owes nothing to anybody except itself.

    Criticism, by contrast, has somebody, or something in its sights, and needs, as a result, to behave in an ethical manner towards that subject. It can’t misrepresent, or lie, and the critic exists in a complex web of responsibilities to reader, subject etc. As a result it’s almost impossible for a critic to do their job if they’re not sympathetic to the work, but by the same token that sympathy doesn’t preclude taking violent exception to a writer and their work, or doing a bit of reputational toe-cutting if they feel it’s necessary.

    All of which looks surprisingly banal and uncritical now I write it down, but anyway . . .

    June 4, 2009
  6. I think it was Vaughan Williams who once made remarks to the effect that the hardest sort of music to write was music that expressed joy.

    A similar dictum could surely apply to the question of good/bad book reviews: it is much, much easier to write an angry review of a bad book than it is to write a joyous review of a good book.

    I’ve read plenty of hilarious hatchet jobs, but it’s much rarer to encounter a review that is both amusing and joyous (ie, the reviewer taking joy in what the book has to offer.) Partly I guess this is because reviews are by their very nature judgmental and distancing, and the humourous tools available to reviewers are satirical.

    Conversation overheard last night:
    “Have you read the Da Vinci code?”
    “Yes, it’s a really good book, I really enjoyed it.”
    “I didn’t like it.”
    “Really?”
    “Well, it was good – *for what it was*.”
    Now there, I thought, there’s a potted book review right there.

    June 4, 2009
  7. Tim – you’re exactly right about how rare that sense of urgent engagement and play is in criticism, and how wonderful it is when one finds it. James Wood has it, and so do a few others, but it’s rare. Perhaps it is, partly, because as every reviewer learns very quickly, explaining why you love something is much harder than explaining why you hate it. But I suspect it’s more about the sort of gift that makes truly great critics great (what was I just saying about explaining why you love things?).

    June 4, 2009
  8. Wow, what a post, what company. Beautiful stuff.

    Auden said in A Company Of Readers, a book of uncollected writings (there collected) for which he, Barzun and Trilling, were the resident critics, that reviewing ‘is not really a respectable occupation.’

    I have the passage in question printed out and stuck to the side of my refrigerator. I mean, you never know when you might need reminding:

    ‘To write about a poet for others who have not yet read him is not criticism but reviewing, and reviewing is not really a respectable occupation. When a critic examines the work of a well-known poet, he may, if he is lucky, succeed in revealing something about it which readers had failed to see for themselves: if on the other hand what he says is commonplace or false or half-true, readers have only themselves to blame if they allow themselves to be led astray, since they know the text he is talking about. But a reviewer is responsible for any harm he does, and he can do quite a lot.

    A “good” review urges the public to buy a book, a “bad” one tells them that it is not worth reading. It does not matter very much if a reviewer praises a bad book – time will correct him – but if he condemns a good one the effect may be serious, for the public can discover his mistake only by reading it and that is precisely what his review has prevented them from doing.’

    Interesting that he does not even consider a ‘wishy-washy’ one. Are they a modern phenomenon? or simply beneath his notice?

    June 4, 2009
  9. Thanks Gen – that’s really kind of you. And as for the wishy-washy review, I don’t think it’s a new thing. Indeed I suspect laments about the decline of rigorous criticism are (like laments about the decline of the novel) almost as old as the form itself. Take for instance Rebecca West’s magnificent essay, ‘The Duty of Harsh Criticism’, which was published in The New Republic in 1914, and is reproduced in full at http://www.lacunae.com/archives/2003/03/saucy_rapture_duty.html

    June 4, 2009
  10. While tracking down the text of the West essay I also came across this excellent review of Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self by Andy Lamey in Walrus Magazine, which is grappling with many of the same questions I was in my original post (though with rather more panache):

    http://www.walrusmagazine.com/print/2004.07-books-book-critic/

    June 4, 2009
  11. I’m a bit puzzled about what exactly people mean here by ‘wishy-washy’ — does this simply mean not giving a strong opinion about whether the book is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or something more complex? I dunno about the rest of you but I think there’s far too much goddam opinion floating around, on and offline, as it is. But there seems to be an unspoken assumption throughout the discussion so far that the basis of a review is whether the reviewer ‘liked’ it or not. As I get older I find myself increasingly more interested as a reviewer in analysis than I am in value judgement, and that’s where TimT’s comment seems to me highly pertinent, though possibly not quite in the way he meant it — whether a book is ‘good for what it is’ is exactly what most readers want to know. One of my main criteria for reviewing is how well I think the book has performed the task it appeared to be setting itself.

    If memory serves, it’s been said that the difference between Cezanne and Van Gogh was that Van Gogh painted ‘I love this’ and Cezanne painted ‘Here it is.’ Both in my own reviewing practice and in everybody else’s, I’m liking ‘Here it is’ more and more. But I’d hope that wouldn’t be dismissed as wishy-washy.

    June 4, 2009
    • sarah #

      Oh I’m so totally in agreement with that. Way too much opinion and far too little analysis.

      June 30, 2009
  12. Zoe #

    Really should be working but this is an interesting post. Some books seem to invite a hatchet job (or robust review) because they are full of intriguing questions. Saturday was a deliberately provocative book is lots of ways and so a spirited review was surely inevitable. Add to that the fact that reviewers are – usually – talented with words and you have the ingredients for a scorcher. Surely McEwan can live with that. He’s done pretty well for himself, after all.

    I do sometimes wonder, though, about books that get uniformly glowing reviews. It’s a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes. I’ve got one on my bedside table that has been widely praised and awarded but leaves me cold. I could easily go onto Amazon (everyone’s a reviewer now, after all) and slate it but it feels like a waste of time. I just won’t read that author’s work again. Probably won’t even finish the book.

    It would be interesting to know, though, how much reviews actually influence sales. I rarely buy books based on reviews, going more on word of mouth and reputation, keeping up with favourite authors and trying to work my way through the classics – there’s a lifetime of reading right there – and most people I know are the same. So unless a hatchet job is brilliantly written and makes me want to read the work to find out just what has got the reviewer so worked up then… it’s just a hatchet job. Slightly unsatisfying. Yes, if someone has gone off the boil then it’s handy to know. But some writers seem to slag off their competitors for all kinds of personal reasons and as a reader I’m not that interested. I’d rather find out about a good book than read someone’s rant – there are so many books and life is short, after all.

    June 5, 2009
  13. Gary #

    Except the ‘here it is’ impulse in the case of modernism was often a kind of shocking slap in the face directed at inherited nineteenth century conventions.

    I understand James’s idea of the hatchet job being a kind of youthful vice I guess as a symptom of the ‘anxiety of influence’. But would also resist any implication that more mature writers/reviewers need to forgo the self-indulgence of the hatchet in order to meet ethical responsibilities to the work, the reader etc. Thanks for posting the West essay because it makes clear yet a further set of ethical responsibilities around combating conformity, deflating convention etc that sometimes require the hatchet as part of the critical arsenal. I’m reminded of Terry Eagleton’s dissection of Richard Dawkins in LRB several years ago which i think illustrates the power of satire in the hands of a mature and experienced writer. Although maybe there need to be some distinctions between reviewing artistic and non-artistic works (?)

    June 5, 2009
  14. Delia #

    Kerryn, my own definition of wishy-washy is when a critic sits on the fence and I can’t get a sense of whether they actually like a book, or, even worse, what it was about (case in point: the review of Em Ballou’s poems.) This is different to a knowledgablly neutral or reserved review that places a book in its field; often the wishy-washy review is a review that’s uncomfortable, that is trying to hide a lack of connection or knowledge. I do think a critic’s job is to be discriminating, though, and part of the thrill of both writing and reading a review can be its taking a punt on backing a book or not before opinion crystalises around it, which can be a scary thing to do (will I be the only person who loves or doesn’t get this book?). I certainly agree this is a much different thing to just giving an opinion without backing it up, which, you are right, there is way way too much of on the web. I want a good critic to hopefully place the book in a family of other books if they like it, so I can think if I liked X book I might like Y book; equally so if they hate it…

    On the subject of discrimination, the very best critics give me an added dimension in a review which is a sense of their tastes, perhaps they even problematise those tastes or show a certain humorous self-knowledge about what does and doesn’t rock their boat. This gives me a freedom to enjoy their work more, because I learn to see how they think, and there is something wonderful about watching an expert’s taste develop and sound out its own edges. I’ve always admired Adrian Martin’s film reviews for this reason. I don’t always agree with his reviews, and sometimes even find his particular enthusiasms eccentric, but I always thoroughly enjoy his reviews because of their depth of knowledge and their enthusiasm for the medium itself. (TimT, Adrian’s reviews can be very joyful in both their likes and dislikes, and I’m thinking here of his extraordinary love letter to Terence Malick which begins with a stunning evocation of one of his tracking shots, reprinted in an odd Best Australian Essays).

    A truly great review, I think — and this is certainly something Wood can do at his best — is almost a kind of act of translation, an invocation of the spirit of the work for the reader. I love a review that channels the feel of the work under review for me, gives me a sense of its energy, its charge, its family connections. I also most admire reviewers whose writing is always at the same time about a utopian sense of the medium they engage with, who look not only at the work under review but give a sense of the wider field and its possibilities.

    June 5, 2009
  15. Delia #

    That was an “old”, not “odd” Best Australian Essays.

    And the invocation of the spirit of a writer I’m thinking of as I write is James Wood’s superb “What Chekhov Meant by Llife”.

    June 5, 2009
  16. My own feeling is that there should probably be both reviews that acknowledge a work for ‘what it is’ and for ‘what it should be’ – reviews that describe, and reviews that judge. There are plenty of examples to be found of reviewers withholding their punches, for fear of offending a friend, or putting an editor offside, or appearing like too much of a bully. And often that restraint is laudable – but equally, there are times when authors and writers write badly, or act badly, and this badness is obvious and demonstrable, and ought to be pointed out.

    I was a bit pressed for time last night when I wrote that other comment, or I probably would have pointed out that I interpreted it, on the night, as a kind of social/class stereotyping – a putting in place of the enthusiastic Dan Brown reader by the other. (I think there is an interesting class dynamic when it comes to Dan Brown’s books, simply because they became so public, so suddenly, and therefore class judgment/stereotypes do enter into criticisms of his work.)

    I was also wondering about different categories of reviews, the expressive modes of the trenchant critic:

    – The biographical review, Nowra-style, pointing out the difference between the rhetoric of the author and their actual life.
    – A political/rhetorical review, taking issue with the arguments made by the writer, and not necessarily with the style. (In the political review often assumptions are made about the style of writing that follow on from the disagreement the reviewer has with the writer).
    – A review which wilfully misinterprets the book (in some way)- for instance, a reviewer points out the illogicality/hyperbole of the writer’s arguments or tone, and takes joy in it.
    – The reviewer treats the badness of the book itself as a kind of artistic technique or device – ‘for years I have been longing for badness of the purest form’. This usually involves the reviewer presenting a dramatic/fictional version of themselves as well, otherwise the joke probably wouldn’t work.

    Many other types of review, I’m sure.

    I’m interested no-one has mentioned that recent publication ‘Creme de la Phlegm’ yet, a collection of angry reviewers. A lot of others who read the book found themselves overwhelmed by the anger contained within, but something must have made everyone buy it. I quite enjoy it myself – the bad review really is a wonderful art-form in its own right.

    June 5, 2009
  17. Charlotte #

    What a refreshingly complex discussion; great post, James. I have little to add, except that so often it’s about TONE, don’t you think?

    I was once so enraged by the snide viciousness of an Australian review (of a novel by someone I didn’t know) that I registered a domain name – http://www.skewerareviewer.com – to set up a blog where such reviews could themselves be ‘reviewed’ using the same tone / techniques as the originals. But then straightaway I couldn’t be bothered, and went back to writing my own book.

    I agree with Delia about on-the-fence reviews (specially those filled with plot details and no discussion of technique or style or theme or or or…). Bravery and risk are required to write a good novel, but also to write a good review. Truthful bravery though; not swagger.

    John Updike apparently once said: ”Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing
    in the open sea.”

    June 5, 2009
  18. Yes – if a reviewer is going to make judgment about another person’s work, that’s the other element that comes in. What kind of character does the reviewer have? What is the literary persona that they present to their readers? I don’t think that a reviewer should necessarily be ‘better’ than the person they are reviewing – not morally better, certainly, and they don’t even have to be a good writer, outside of the refined world of literary reviews – but they do have to have certain qualities if they are to win over an audience:

    A sense of humour is good.

    An ability to speak ironically about a text while at the same time directly communicating to the audience certain facts about that text – the ability to simultaneously exaggerate, entertain, and edify – is important.

    And an honesty in how one approaches the whole task, that is crucial.

    June 5, 2009
  19. ‘John Updike apparently once said: ”Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing
    in the open sea.”’

    Given the dangers of the former, as mentioned by various commenters here, I’m not at all sure that this is true!

    TimT, I can assure you that there is very little about the world of literary reviews that is ‘refined’, at least not in Australia and at least not in the sense that I think you mean. The biffo leading to the current discussion is a case in point.

    June 5, 2009
  20. It’s interesting to hear the same names cropping up again and again in terms of good reviewing, James Wood, for example. There are few people writing about other people’s writing who so consistently inspire me to want to read the work under question. Another is Andrew O’Hagan – long before he became a novelist he was writing for the LRB and produced some extraordinary pieces, I remember in particular one on Norman Mailer from a decade or so ago (can’t seem to find the link, sorry). What reviewers like this do, though, is take the writer and the work under scrutiny as a starting point, rather like one composer producing a work based on the riff of another. The decision to do this is not, it seems to me, egotistical, but comes out of a respect for the original idea, much, I suppose, in the same way as this whole discussion came out of James’s original post questioning the validity of the hatchet job. These are the kinds of reviews I enjoy reading. Unfortunately we don’t have so many of them in Australia, and this could be because of a necessity towards profundity, a desperate need to prove oneself beyond the level of the ideas being discussed.

    June 6, 2009
  21. thanks for the link to the West article, James – that is a corker.

    June 8, 2009
  22. Thanks for the nice compilment, dear Delia !!

    August 14, 2009

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