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.


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

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