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Posts tagged ‘Literary Criticism’

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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Ron Charles on book reviewing

The Washington Post’s Short Stack blog alerted me to this footage of Ron Charles accepting the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Book Reviewing at the National Book Critics’ Circle Awards earlier this month. Aside from serving as a textbook example of how to accept an award, Charles has some salutary things to say about the changing role of the critic in an age of ubiquitous opinion.

More information on Charles and the Nona Balakian Citation is available on Critical Mass, and the Washington Post’s Book World helpfully provides a digest of his reviews and articles for those interested in exploring his writing. And if you want a reason beyond his speech to warm to him, there’s always this wonderful piece about why Pottermania isn’t necessarily a sign of the health of our literary culture.

And then there’s the video:

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James Wood on The Book Show

James Wood

James Wood

Further to my post earlier this week about James Wood, the ABC’s Book Show ran this interview with him this morning. In it Wood talks about How Fiction Works (often sticking pretty closely to the text of the book itself) but that’s not so much a problem as a reason for listening, since in so doing he offers a reminder of exactly the breadth and attentiveness that so distinguish his writing.

Anyone after more information about Wood could do worse than checking out the links on his Wikipedia page.

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Felling James Wood

41r46nfjbdl_ss500_There’s no question that, for good or ill, James Wood has reigned supreme amongst literary critics for more than a decade. At least in part this state of affairs is a reflection of Wood’s missionary fervour, his sense that literature – and the novel in particular – must fill the gap left by the death of religion. But it is also testament to the thrilling force and acuity of his writing. Certainly I remember the excitement of encountering his first book, The Broken Estate, and the chastening realization that the person speaking with such eloquence and ferocity was only a year or so older than myself.

Yet for all his brilliance Wood is an oddly blinkered reader (and to some extent, writer). This is especially apparent in his recent How Fiction Works, a Ruskinesque disquisition on the rights and wrongs of fiction, which manages, by virtue of its narrowness of focus and its curious lack of interest in examining its own intellectual underpinnings, to lay bare something unsettlingly reactionary at the heart of Wood’s thinking.

It’s difficult not to contrast its fusty fury with the increasingly expansive and nuanced work of one of Wood’s first scalps, Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth Wood famously dismissed as “hysterical realism”. In a series of essays in The New York Review of Books (in particular, her review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, ‘Two paths for the novel?’) Smith has sought to tease out both the crisis afflicting the novel and – whether successfully or not – to make sense of what a new mode of fiction might look like.

I’m not the only one made increasingly uncomfortable by Wood’s certitudes. John Banville wrote a typically slippery but sceptical review of How Fiction Works in The New York Review of Books (sadly not online) and here in Australia both Delia Falconer and James Ley articulated similar reservations in a pair of stringently argued reviews (Delia’s is especially worth reading).

There’s also Edmond Caldwell’s Contra James Wood, a gloriously obsessive but brilliant blog devoted to picking Wood and his pronouncements apart (although like any such endeavour, Caldwell’s relentless shadowing of his quarry is itself a sort of tribute) and now Daniel Miller has published an excellent piece in Prospect attempting to draw together the various strands of the growing resistance to Wood’s reign.

Miller’s piece is well worth a read, as is Contra James Wood, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether the pre-eminence of Wood isn’t itself a symptom of precisely the exhaustion of the novel, and in particular the realist novel Zadie Smith explores in her piece for The New York Review of Books. I wouldn’t for a moment want to diminish Wood’s very real achievements as a critic, or the capacity of the force of his conviction about literature’s necessity to remind us why novels matter, but the ease with which it is possible to caricature him as a glittering ultra deploying his rhetoric to rally the forces of the past against the inexorable logic of the future should give us pause, if nothing else. And, as Miller points out, in many ways Wood’s thundering only underlines how isolated he has become, and how much more attuned to our cultural moment critics (and indeed novelists) such as Smith, Benjamin Kunkel and others like them are.

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