Cut the cliche

Why the world needs lit­er­ary hatchet jobs

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - PARAIC O’DON­NELL ■ Paraic O’Don­nell is the au­thor of TheMakerof Swans&TheHouseonVes­perSands, which will be re­viewed in next week’s Ticket

Re­view­ing AA Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner for the New Yorker, Dorothy Parker be­gins by quot­ing from one of Pooh’s whim­si­cal songs, in­clud­ing not just a cou­plet or two, but sev­eral verses. For all their gauzy fa­mil­iar­ity (“The more it SNOWS-tid­de­ly­pom”), we scan these lines with gath­er­ing un­ease. This is Dorothy Parker, af­ter all, one of the most cel­e­brated and caus­tic wits of the 20th cen­tury. And there are tid­dely-poms.

Sure enough, when Pooh ex­plains to Piglet that he put the “pom” in to make it more “hummy”, the axe falls. Parker ren­ders her ver­dict in four words: “Ton­stant Weader fwowed up.”

I was re­minded of Parker’s re­view re­cently when I went vi­ral on Twit­ter by mis­take. (In case you’ve formed a dif­fer­ent im­pres­sion, go­ing vi­ral isn’t fun. It’s a bit like work­ing nights in a dead-end ad­min job.)

I had been scan­ning the books pages in that week­end’s pa­pers and had no­ticed two things. First, al­most all the re­views said nice things. (Which is fine, ob­vi­ously, in the way that drink­ing vir­gin mo­ji­tos all night is fine.) More strik­ing, though, were the ways in which these nice things were said. There were, to say the least, some com­mon re­frains. Anx­ious to ap­proach this sub­ject with jour­nal­is­tic rigour, I spent al­most 20 min­utes cre­at­ing an in­for­ma­tive graphic. A bit longer, if you count adding Wingdings.

“I made a book re­view bingo card,” I tweeted in ex­cite­ment. “Crit­ics are hail­ing it as a ‘re­mark­able achieve­ment’.”

The bingo card, fea­tur­ing such time­less hits as “a con­sum­mate stylist” and “a pro­found med­i­ta­tion on grief and loss”, has been retweeted more than 7,000 times at the time of writ­ing. I have no idea how many replies there were, be­cause I stopped check­ing. Many of those I did read were en­ter­tain­ing, even if they did quib­ble with my choices. (Twit­ter is like Skynet, but for point­less ar­gu­ments.) But there was an­other re­cur­ring theme, and one that struck me as re­veal­ing.

“When,” peo­ple wanted to know, “are you go­ing to do a bingo card for bad re­views?” The an­swer is that I’m not, and for rea­sons that may be worth ex­plor­ing.

Parker is a use­ful ex­am­ple to start with. She is of­ten cited, along­side the likes of Mark Twain and Tru­man Capote, in dis­cus­sions of the lit­er­ary hatchet job and the lu­mi­nar­ies of that genre. These cel­e­brated put­downs are re­garded by some not just as an art form in them­selves but as a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive to the worst ten­den­cies of the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment.

The now-de­funct Hatchet Job of the Year prize was last awarded to the late AA Gill for his re­view of Mor­ris­sey’s Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy (he de­scribed it as “a fire­lighter of van­ity, self-pity and lo­g­or­rhoeic dull­ness”), and was con­ceived as “a cru­sade against dull­ness, def­er­ence and lazy think­ing”.

This is a high-minded ar­gu­ment, cer­tainly, if not al­to­gether wa­ter­tight. Af­ter all, de­ri­sive re­views can be lazy too. And surely, at least in the­ory, a favourable re­view can be stim­u­lat­ing.

Why is it, then, that we find them so monotonously fa­mil­iar? Why, for in­stance, are so many de­but nov­els con­sid­ered “ac­com­plished”? If the au­thor is, say, a his­to­rian and hap­pens to be male (to pick a gen­der at ran­dom), has he in­evitably pro­duced “a mag­is­te­rial study”? Must a book be “nec­es­sary and timely” (if its sub­ject is top­i­cal), “un­flinch­ing” (if it is mod­estly con­tro­ver­sial) or “sear­ingly hon­est” (if drugs are in­volved)?

These ex­am­ples, ob­vi­ously, are drawn from what we think of as good re­views, and point­ing them out may seem a lit­tle spite­ful. As both a nov­el­ist and an oc­ca­sional critic, my sym­pa­thies in this mat­ter are oddly di­vided. I know, of course, that praise of this kind is well-in­tended, and that au­thors ac­cept it without ask­ing too many ques­tions. Pub­lish­ers, for their part, tend to put stock de­scrip­tions like “haunt­ing and lyrical” straight onto their cov­ers, which re­in­forces their fa­mil­iar­ity even as it drains them of what lit­tle force they still pos­sess. The re­sult is a pos­i­tive feed­back loop of, well, pos­i­tive feed­back, and it’s not en­tirely clear that it’s a good thing.

Too nice

“Hap­pi­ness,” the French nov­el­ist Henry de Mon­ther­lant ob­served, “writes in white ink on a white page.” No one wants to read about con­tented peo­ple lead­ing un­trou­bled lives. Char­ac­ters in nov­els must want some­thing if they are to hold our in­ter­est, and they mustn’t get it without a fight. Con­tent­ment, in fic­tion, is al­most al­ways bor­ing. But does this law ex­tend be­yond fic­tion it­self? Does it en­com­pass not just the fates of char­ac­ters but those of books them­selves? Is it pos­si­ble, in other words, for a critic to say nice things in ways that don’t make you want to gnaw through your own wrists?

Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s star film critic dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s, is an in­ter­est­ing case in point. Cel­e­brated as much for the fe­roc­ity of her con­vic­tions as the fi­delity of her ob­ser­va­tions, she wrote of Dirty Harry that “the ac­tion genre has al­ways had a fas­cist po­ten­tial, and it sur­faces in this movie”. The charge – coolly in­flam­ma­tory, yet im­me­di­ately per­sua­sive – was typ­i­cal of her style, but Kael’s true gift was to be as mem­o­rable in praise as she was in con­dem­na­tion. Con­sider her sum­ma­tion of The Grad­u­ate, in which she re­marked that its tri­umph was to have “do­mes­ti­cated alien­ation”. That’s a lot of shrewd in­sight to squeeze into two words.

And no, the com­par­i­son isn’t en­tirely fair. Kael was a staff writer with space to burn. Few book re­views these days are longer than a thou­sand words, and most are writ­ten by job­bing midlis­ters for the price of a no-frills hair ap­point­ment. And what’s wrong with the words “lu­mi­nous” or “en­thralling”? They’re nice words, aren’t they? Why shouldn’t a book be praised as “dar­ingly orig­i­nal”?

Well, that’s where things get tricky. The phrase “dar­ingly orig­i­nal”, to be­gin with, first came into vogue in the 1840s, and what lit­tle nov­elty it once pos­sessed has long since been scuffed away. Its stal­e­ness mightn’t mat­ter so much in a re­view of, say, a dog show, but words are what books are made of. And dust­ing off a mid-Vic­to­rian plat­i­tude to con­vince read­ers of a novel’s orig­i­nal­ity is, well, some­what prob­lem­atic. Al­though best known as a nov­el­ist, Martin Amis has been at both ends of the hatchet in his time, and as a critic he has been more pre­oc­cu­pied than most with lan­guage and its for­mal ef­fects. In the in­tro­duc­tion to his col­lected crit­i­cism – en­ti­tled, ap­pro­pri­ately enough, The War Against Cliché – he sets out a man­i­festo of sorts. “When I dis­praise, I am usu­ally quot­ing clichés. When I praise, I am usu­ally quot­ing the op­posed qual­i­ties of fresh­ness, en­ergy and re­ver­ber­a­tion of voice.”

AA Milne may not have de­served his fate, but he had the small hon­our of be­ing sav­aged by the best in the busi­ness. As crit­ics, few of us can rise to Dorothy Parker’s level, but we can try, at least, to keep the Ton­stant Weader from fwow­ing up.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NEW YORK TIMES/GETTY IM­AGES

Poet, writer, critic and satirist Dorothy Parker sharp­en­ing her hatchet.

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