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Poison Review

I had been looking forward to reading Colum McCann’s Transatlantic since I first saw notice of its publication. His earlier Let the Great World Spin, which won a National Book Award, and Zoli I had found remarkable works. Transatlantic appeared last week in the New Books section of our library, but before I began to read it I came upon a particularly critical review in the London Review of Books, a condescending attack upon McCann first of all as a hyperbolic writer of blurbs for other people’s novels.

The guilt by association was clear: anyone who writes such wildly inflated comments as a critic cannot be expected to write a novel worth reading. The review went on to establish just that: McCann can’t write – except in so far as he associates himself with those he admires – Frederic Douglass and Senator Joseph Mitchell (of the Irish Good Friday Agreements), two characters who appear in the novel.  Presumably this is so because he needs the bolstering of those relationships. Be near the great and some will rub off.

The effect of such a review is poison. The temptation is to agree and, from the critical heights of high art, find that the sycophantic efforts of the novelist are worthy of only a polysyllabic sneer. On the other hand, to start with a defensive, “I won’t let myself be influenced” is to surrender something before reading the first word –innocent expectation. The damage was done, and I found myself skimming the text, expressing surprise begrudgingly at particularly good metaphors or sections of dialogue, and yet inevitably leaving the burden of proof – that the novel was worth reading – to what I saw as an unsatisfactory conclusion. I did not enjoy the book.

I have always regarded the act of reading as contractual relationship, an agreement with the writer either in terms of the genre of the piece or the narrative stance or the structure or the setting, whatever forms the artistic whole. We agree to allow the fictional construct to work its way. If the novelist fails in the imagined contract: if the novel simply confounds its premise and seems dishonest, then the contract is violated. We stop reading with no regret. 

The review I read defeated the free entering of the contract. I found myself unwilling to accept what had been so bludgeoned by the reviewer. Had I read the book and then the review, I could have judged the judgment. Alas, I had the jaundiced reading, the subliminal and then the overt sense that the narrative failed – particularly in the section set at the time of the Good Friday Agreements.

Perhaps time will offer a way to re-approach the book. I take some solace that the terribly negative tone of the review was noticed even in the TLS in a reference to the writing of blurbs. Perhaps there is an underlying literary battle going on and, at least in part, the attack upon McCann has another more personal source. What did Byron say about Keats being destroyed by the critics of the Edinburgh Review? Literary reputations are not the only casualties of the too trenchant word.

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Well, a few weeks later, Mccann got props from Sting in the NYT book section, and look what Sting did for Nabokov! Mccann will survive.

 

That said, the premise for a book review shouldn't be stuff that, you know, is extraneous to the book under discussion. All the same, it's tough to fault Gordon too heavily for finding a hook and just going with it--and Mccann is a blurb factory. Perhaps for the sake of propriety, Gordon should have sprung the blurb attack in the middle, instead of making it the premise for the review-- just to put an already securely placed hatchet just a few inches deeper into Mccann's guts.

A couple of months ago, the Journal of Theological Studies retracted an earlier review by a maven of long-standing, because of the personal nature of his attack. Last week, Stephen King slammed The Hunger Games, but more than a few people noted that he blurbed it a few years ago!

 

For some writers, the "too trenchant word" can halt production.

In America's 1999 obituary for J. F. Powers, Jon Hassler said:

After Wheat was published in 1988, I saw him in the library day after day searching for reviews. There were many, and all were favorable, for critics were treating him like a long-forgotten artifact. Some admitted they thought he was dead. Twenty years earlier he had been deeply wounded by Roger Sale’s review of Look How the Fish Live, his third story collection. The review began, "The heart of J. F. Powers, never large, seems to have shrunk," prompting Powers to remark, "Once you get knocked out of the ring it takes courage to climb back in." 

 

http://americamagazine.org/issue/100/j-f-powers-rip

As a reader and watcher, I ally myself both with certain writers whose previous works I've admired, and certain critics whose opinions I've found trustworthy over time.  I can't possibly consume every book, film, play or television show that is produced, so I rely on critics to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We all need some sort of basis for selecting; and in fact, reading an author because we've enjoyed her previous works is one of those bases - one that is often but not always trustworthy.  

My own experience is that I'll dislike virtually everything that reliable critics dislike, so I take a pass on almost everything that "my" critics pan.  I willingly allow their judgment to influence my decisions.  Possibly I have a "contract" with reliable critics?

I've also found that there is a certain subset of things that "my" critics admire that don't really work for me.  This new film "Gravity" may turn out to me one such; the glowing review I read in yesterday's morning paper spent the first few paragraphs on the amazing special effects before moving on to such incidentals as plot, character and performance, and special effects don't really do much for me.  This is another instance in which the reviewer's opinion is setting up an expectation on my part - in this case, a suspicious one :-)

I guess my overall point of view is that the author of this post is right regarding the "contract" between author and reader, but that the critic horns in on the agreement, and I, as one of the parties to the agreement, welcome the input.  This, in turn, places a burden of responsibility (a "contractual" responsibility) on the critic.  I agree with Abe that the critic who uses a review as an occasion to pursue an essentially-unrelated vendetta is failing her critical responsibility.  

FWIW, the Pixar film "Ratatouille" explores the relationship between artist, critic and consumer.  This happens to be another film that the critics loved more than I did.  Critics may adore the film because of its attention to this dynamic.

 

There are reviews, and there is criticism. Reviewers help you answer your question, "Do I want to read/see this?" You should be able to read them safely in advance. Critics huff and puff to tell you why you should have liked or hated what you read or saw. They should never be written before you have formed your own opinion and are so in a position to argue with the critic.

I've reviewed several hundred of books and 903 plays and musicals and only wrote criticism once. (It was a disaster.) None of those reviews are worth reading today. Criticism lasts longer and can stand alone from whatever originally caused it. I don't think a writer's blurbing habits are fair game for a critic, but maybe I'm wrong. I know a reviewer should never go there.

I guess British reviewers are a little bit more critical than American ones -- a different etiquette -- I just love Michael Tanner's opera reviews in The Spectator because he tells you exactly what he thinks -- whereas I am quite unable to read American reviews in theological or literary journals -- it is too obvious that they are well-trained not to give offense.

Two little remarks about reviews

 

"The purpose of a review is to kill the book."

"You can do lots of things with a book other than read it. You can make it a parlor ornament, or prop up an unsteady table with it, or weigh potatoes with it in a scales, or -- review it.", 

"Abuse from those who occasionally praise is considered to be personally offensive, and they who give personal offense will sometimes make the world too hot to hold them. But censure from those who are always finding fault is regarded so much as a matter of course that it ceases to be objectionable... Mr Alf never made enemies, for he praised no one" (Trollope, The Way We Live Now). 

Senator Joseph Mitchell or Senator George Mitchell?  I am confused!

Sorry, George Mitchell indeed. Thank you for the caution.

ETWhe

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About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.