Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Fenimore Cooper

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling 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 the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[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.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began 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 in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] 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.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “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, as I have with other 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 for longer than the book it describes? 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 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 delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, 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, in 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.

A visit to the chainmaker

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In the landmark study The Symbolist Movement in Literature by the critic Arthur Symons, there’s a short chapter titled “A Note on Zola’s Method.” Even if you’ve never gotten around to reading Émile Zola—and I confess that I haven’t—it’s an essay that every writer should take to heart. After describing the research that Zola devoted to his novel L’Assommoir, Symons launches a brutal attack on the value of this kind of work:

[Zola] observes with immense persistence, but his observation, after all, is only that of the man in the street; it is simply carried into detail, deliberately…And so much of it all is purely unnecessary, has no interest in itself and no connection with the story: the precise details of Lorilleux’s chainmaking, bristling with technical terms…Goujet’s forge, and the machinery in the shed next door; and just how you cut out zinc with a large pair of scissors.

We’ve all read stories in which the writer feels obliged to include every last bit of research, and Symons’s judgment of this impulse is deservedly harsh:

To find out in a slang dictionary that a filthy idea can be expressed by an ingeniously filthy phrase…is not a great feat, or, on purely artistic grounds, altogether desirable. To go to a chainmaker and learn the trade name of the various kinds of chain which he manufactures, and of the instruments with which he manufactures them, is not an elaborate process, or one which can be said to pay you for the little trouble which it no doubt takes. And it is not well to be too certain after all that Zola is always perfectly accurate in his use of all this manifold knowledge.

And the most punishing comparison is yet to come: “My main contention is that Zola’s general use of words is, to be quite frank, somewhat ineffectual. He tries to do what Flaubert did, without Flaubert’s tools, and without the craftsman’s hand at the back of the tools. His fingers are too thick; they leave a blurred line. If you want merely weight, a certain kind of force, you get it; but no more.” It’s the difference, Symons observes, between the tedious accumulation of detail, in hopes that its sheer weight will somehow make the scene real, and the one perfect image that will ignite a reader’s imagination:

[Zola] cannot leave well alone; he cannot omit; he will not take the most obvious fact for granted…He tells us particularly that a room is composed of four walls, that a table stands on its four legs. And he does not appear to see the difference between doing that and doing as Flaubert does, namely, selecting precisely the detail out of all others which renders or consorts with the scene in hand, and giving that detail with an ingenious exactness.

By way of illustration, Symons quotes the moment in Madame Bovary in which Charles turns away at the exact moment that his first wife dies, which, he notes, “indicates to us, at the very opening of the book, just the character of the man about whom we are to read so much.” And he finishes with a devastating remark that deserves to be ranked alongside Mark Twain’s classic demolition of James Fenimore Cooper: “Zola would have taken at least two pages to say that, and, after all, he would not have said it.”

Flaubert, of course, is usually seen as the one shining example of a writer whose love of research enhanced his artistry, rather than diminishing it. In his takedown of a very different book, Allan Folsom’s thriller The Day After Tomorrow, the critic Anthony Lane cites one typical sentence—“Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt”—and adds:

When Flaubert studied ancient Carthage for Salammbô, or the particulars of medieval falconry for “The Legend of St. Julien Hospitalier,” he was furnishing and feathering a world that had already taken shape within his mind; when Allan Folsom looks at bus timetables, his book just gets a little longer.

Even Flaubert’s apparent mistakes, on closer examination, turn out to be controlled by an almost inhuman attentiveness. In his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes quotes a line from the literary critic Enid Starkie: “Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes; on another deep black eyes; and on another blue eyes.” When the narrator, who shouldn’t be confused with Barnes himself, goes back to the text, he finds that Flaubert, in fact, describes Emma’s eyes with meticulous precision. In their first appearance, he writes: “In so far as she was beautiful, this beauty lay in her eyes: although they were brown, they would appear black because of her lashes.” A little later on: “They were black when she was in shadow and dark blue in full daylight.” And just after her seduction, as Emma looks in the mirror: “Her eyes had never been so large, so black, nor contained such depth.” Barnes’s narrator concludes: “It would be interesting to compare the time spent by Flaubert making sure that his heroine had the rare and difficult eyes of a tragic adulteress with the time spent by Dr. Starkie in carelessly selling him short.”

This level of diligent observation is a universe apart from the mechanical gathering of detail, and there’s no question that writers should aim for one, not the other. But to some extent, we all pay visits to the chainmaker—that is, we conduct research aimed at furnishing our stories with material that we can’t get from personal experience. Sometimes we even get this information from books. (Tolstoy seems to have derived all of the information about the Freemasons in War and Peace from his reading, which scandalizes some critics, as if they’ve caught him in an embarrassing breach of etiquette.) If an author’s personality is strong enough, it can transmute it into something more. John Updike turned this into a calling card, moving methodically through a series of adulterous white male protagonists who were distinguished mostly by their different jobs. In U and I, Nicholson Baker tries to call this a flaw: “He gives each of his male characters a profession, and then he has him think in metaphors drawn from that profession. That’s not right.” But after approvingly quoting one of the metaphors that emerge from the process, Baker changes his mind:

Without Updike’s determination to get some measure of control over his constant instinct to fling outward with a simile by filtering his correspondences through the characters’ offstage fictional professions, he would probably not have come up with this nice little thing, dropped as it is into the middle of a paragraph.

I like that phrase “measure of control,” which gets at the real point of research. It isn’t to pad out the story, but to channel it along lines that wouldn’t have occurred to the author otherwise. Research can turn into a set of chains in itself. But after all the work is done, the writer should be able to say, like Dylan Thomas in “Fern Hill”: “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

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.

From Walter White to Castle Black

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Stephen Dillane on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones.

Two years ago, after the stunning Breaking Bad episode “Ozymandias” first aired, George R.R. Martin wrote the following on his blog:

Amazing series. Amazing episode last night. Talk about a gut punch.
Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.
(I need to do something about that.)

Ever since, Martin and the showrunners of Game of Thrones have been as good as their word, moving past the material in the original books to treat us to moments of violence and cruelty, sexual and otherwise, designed to deliver the kind of gut punch that Breaking Bad did so well. It all culminated, for now, in the most recent episode, in which Stannis—who wasn’t exactly a fan favorite, but at least ranked among the show’s more intriguing characters—burned his own adorable daughter alive. (Now that I’ve taken an extended break from the series, there’s something oddly liberating about reading about the high points the next day, instead of sitting through yet another hour of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes.)

I’m no longer a Game of Thrones fan, but I’ll give the show partial credit for setting itself an enormous technical challenge. It tells a complicated story with at least three major factions competing to rule the Seven Kingdoms, but it seems determined to make it impossible for us to root for anyone with a legitimate shot at the throne. This has always been a series devoted to undermining our usual reasons for enjoying fantasy fiction, and giving us a conventional hero to follow might have obscured its larger point—that Westeros is a deeply messed up world with a system designed to spark endless cycles of bloodshed, no matter who wears the crown at any given moment. In the abstract, this is one hell of an ambitious goal, and I’m the last person, or almost the last, to argue that a show has any obligation to make its protagonists likable. Yet I still feel that it has an obligation to make them interesting, and this is where the series falters, at least for me. When I look at the show’s current lineup of characters, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain once wrote about the novels of James Fenimore Cooper: “The reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.”

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

In fact, in the absence of other satisfactions, Game of Thrones sometimes feels like an object lesson in the foolishness of becoming attached to anybody. It’s so singleminded about setting up and knocking down our hopes that it seems to be implicitly asking why we bother latching onto anyone at all. To which I’m tempted to respond with the words of Krusty the Clown: “Because I’m an idiot. Happy?” But the show either isn’t satisfied or no longer seems capable of doing anything else. At times, it resembles none of its characters so much as the loathsome Ramsay Bolton, with his systematic breakdown of Theon’s last shreds of humanity. Bolton, at least, is an unrepentant sadist, while the show hedges its cruelties with the implication that this is all somehow good for us. By alienating us from everyone, though, it’s taking the easy way out. We’ve known from the start that there can only be one winner here, at most, and if the show had managed to engage us with every side, the idea that most of these people won’t survive might have seemed genuinely tragic. Instead, I no longer particularly care who ends up on the Iron Throne. And by frustrating us so diligently in the short term, the show has denied itself an endgame that might actually have meant something.

A few seasons back, I might have defended Game of Thrones as a show that used dubious tactics for the sake of a larger strategy, but now I no longer believe in the strategy, either. (This lack of trust, more than any one scene, is the real reason I’ve stopped watching.) And I keep coming back to Martin’s comparison to Breaking Bad. Part of me likes to think that Martin merely mistyped: Walter White may not be a bigger monster than anyone on this show, but he’s certainly a better one. And the difference between him and his counterparts in Westeros—as well as the difference between a series that kept me hooked to the end, despite its occasional missteps, and one that I’ve more or less abandoned—lies in the queasy identification that Walt inspired in the audience. We may not have wanted Walt to “win,” but we loved watching him along the way, because he was endlessly interesting. And Breaking Bad earned its big, heartbreaking moments, as Hannibal has done more recently. But that kind of emotional immersion requires countless small, nearly invisible judgment calls and smart choices of the kind that Game of Thrones rarely seems capable of making. I don’t need to like Stannis, any more than I needed to like Walt. But I wish I liked the show around him.

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2015 at 10:06 am

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