Literary Bloodsport Part 2: The Lure of the Hatchet Job
Earlier 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?