Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Yesterday, while writing about the pitfalls of quotation in book reviews, I mentioned the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris. When I went back to look up the lines I wanted to quote, I found myself reading the whole thing over again, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great critical slams of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this kind of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing a few hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewers them systematically. He comes at the novel, significantly, from a position of real respect: Amis calls himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from these previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Reading the review again, I realized that it falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that begins with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned to them in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it really is one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing we have, and I revisit it every couple of years. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of his target’s puffier critical encomiums: “The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (In response, Twain proposes the following rule: “That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, and it made me reflect on the bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory long after the book in question has been forgotten? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a potential competitor, which is a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace wrote on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, like a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

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