On the butcher's block
When it comes to book reviews, nasty is entertaining. But in Canada, you need to know where to look to escape meek and milktoast criticism
National Post | January 3, 2004 | Ryan Bigge
George Orwell, in his 1946 essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," describes lit hacks as malnourished and poor; varicose vein sufferers who endure low pay and a surfeit of bad books they must say something good about. "The prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job," he concluded. Fifty-odd years later, this Orwellian nightmare has not substantially altered, save perhaps for the varicose veins.
Not that literary hacks have ceased complaining. Every few years, a plea for improved rigour of craft (and more money) emerges. Andrew Pyper, writing in book industry broadsheet Quill & Quire in December, 1997, argued, "If we want Canadian literature to be taken seriously, we must take Canadian criticism seriously along with it." Sadly, such noble intentions normally melt into the background hum, but lately, literary chatter about weak-kneed book reviews has become unshushable.
Talk began in March of last year when the anti-Snark campaign was launched, courtesy of The Believer, a new San Francisco mag from the McSweeney's literary factory. To summarize co-editor Heidi Julavits's overlong, over-discussed essay: Snark is bad. (See www.believermag.com for the full text.) Clive James eventually rebutted in September in The New York Times, arguing that Snark (i.e. a "killingly negative review" meant to advance the career of the reviewer at the expense of the author) can be good. Laura Miller soon tried to split the difference in the New York Times Book Review and on and on ... the literary equivalent of the old woman who swallowed the fly.
Meanwhile, professional Snarkers like Dale Peck (a target of the Julavits essay) and Tibor Fischer continued to accrue notoriety for suggesting Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation and Martin Amis is a wanker, respectively. (Peck, an author of four novels no one has read, has made a mini-career of Snark, and Hatchet Jobs, an anthology of his book review bile will be published this spring.)
As a reviewer myself, I think this sustained public debate is easily the most exciting thing to happen to our metier since the London Review of Books started accepting personal ads. (From the November issue: "The greatest bliss a couple can enjoy is to jointly urinate on public displays of poetry.") And by no means is the topic exhausted. Witness Carolyne Van Der Meer's recent essay "What's Wrong with Book Reviewing in Canada?" published in subTerrain, a scrappy lit-mag out of Vancouver. Van Der Meer wants to see harsher criticism of books, but describes well the Catch-22 facing many would-be Snarkers: irritating an influential author can be a terrible career decision, but a dishonest reviewer who waffles or avoids truth telling will also suffer from a lack of respect. Van Der Meer concludes that book reviewers have a moral responsibility to say what they think, or suffer their tortured conscience.
And then there is The Malahat Review, a University of Victoria literary journal whose newest issue is devoted entirely to debating book reviews, functioning as a de facto Royal Commission on the topic. Sadly, The Malahat Review, given a circulation of 1,000, is akin to samizdat -- although this implies illegal political content it does not possess; indeed, it receives grant money from both the Canada and British Columbia Arts Councils. The Malahat might be whispering into the wind, but its lack of profile does not diminish the relevance of the issues raised. The alarmist cover story of the December, 2003 Quill & Quire discusses "aliterates" -- young, intelligent Canadians who are able to read books but choose not to do so, preferring instead the instant gratification of DVDs, Friendster or video games. Such conscientious objectors comprise 40% of the population, and unless this literary allergy is cured quickly, the already woebegone book industry in this country will face further peril.
If book reviews are the lighthouse of literary culture, then it stands to reason they must be entertaining, provocative and accurate. But lodged inside the Canadian debate about tougher reviews is a generational battle being waged over urban versus rural fiction. This skirmish is best described in The Malahat in an e-mail exchange between reviewers Bert Archer and Zsuzsi Gartner, as the latter describes her frustration with well-written but unenjoyable "Canadian horsehair-shirt books, or cod-liver oil books -- both you and the characters suffer and suffer and become better human beings for the experience, or die trying (or of boredom)."
As Archer notes, negative reviews provide an opportunity to discuss what is missing in the CanLit ecosystem: "Calling attention to a book's faults should not be considered courageous; it should be considered the job description." Gartner, meanwhile, believes that "often the best response to a lame book is a murderous silence." Reading these comments, along with the thoughts from the 20 or so other contributors to the issue, it becomes clear that not all Canadian reviewers adhere to our stereotypical meek and milquetoast demeanor. In fact, a few even Snark, if you know where to look. For example:
- "I suspect Mavis Gallant's grocery lists are more elegant than anything Atwood has written."
- "In fairness, Miss Wyoming is often funny. But it would be better -- and funnier -- if the characters didn't melt so quickly when left out in the sun."
- "This is the sort of paragraph that creative writing profs pass over because it would be too damaging to the student writer's ego to point out everything wrong with it."
The final comment, by the way, refers to The Ash Garden, by Dennis Bock, not some turgid Harlequin. All are courtesy of Canadian Notes and Queries (CN&Q), a literary magazine printed twice a year by thePorcupine's Quill (the press responsible for When Words Deny the World, a collection of rabble-rousing essays by Stephen Henighan published last spring which attempted to explain everything that is wrong with CanLit). Unfortunately, if The Malahat Review is samizdat, then CN&Q, with its circulation of 400, represents a particularly well-edited church newsletter.
And not to suggest that Snark fixes everything. Nasty is entertaining (thus solving one problem with many book reviews) and ensures you never look at that book the same way again. But like cinematic violence, it desensitizes. A collection of Dale Peck's eviscerations will no doubt resemble a rote horror film -- we know those nubile teenagers trapped in the woods are going to die, the only question is: pitchfork, chainsaw or scythe?
Girding the Snark debate in Canada is an unspoken lack of confidence about our literary traditions. Rick Moody has not retired, nor will Martin Amis or Margaret Atwood pawn their keyboards because of a few sharp words. We need to learn to utter unpopular opinions more often, otherwise, as Carolyne Van Der Meer argues in subTerrain, "Too many pedestrian books will continue to get published and find their way into literary culture, ultimately muddying the distinction between banal writing and first-rate literature."
According to the Orwell confession, "The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews -- 1,000 words is a bare minimum -- to the few that seem to matter." Given evaporating attention spans, lengthier reviews might sound like a suggestion smuggled out of the sanitarium, but multiple pages are usually necessary to prove the worth (or guilt) of a particular book. Peck spent nearly 6,000 words destroying Rick Moody's memoir The Black Veil and Canadian Notes & Queries offers reviewers 2,000 words-plus to thoroughly castigate (or celebrate) their victim.
Obviously, it is better to give than receive in such circumstances, but for those on the butcher's block, it's worth remembering that in 1886, Edmund Gosse's book From Shakespeare to Pope received a 41-page dismantling in the Quarterly Review courtesy of John Churton Collins, an Oxford-educated critic who spent four months preparing the review-cum-eulogy. Miraculously, Gosse and his reputation survived the Snark, and he continued to publish -- his A Short History of Modern English Literature was reprinted 10 times. Similar success eluded Collins, and he died unhappy, although, one assumes, with a clear conscience.
Some writers have never been afraid to utter an unpopular opinon. Here are a few samples of some of the most venomous, excerpted from Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever!:
As a piece of good taste [his essay on George Sterlin] ranks with that statuette of the Milo Venus with the clock in her stomach.
-- Dorothy Parker on Upton Sinclair in The New Yorker, December, 1927
One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.
-- Oscar Wilde on Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop
Indeed the whole of Milton's poem, Paradise Lost, is such barbarous trash, so outrageously offensive to reason and to common sense that one is naturally led to wonder how it can have been tolerated by a people, amongst whom astronomy, navigation, and chemistry are understood.
-- William Cobbett on Paradise Lost, in A Year's Residence in the U.S., 1800
The monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind -- tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.
-- William Makepeace Thackeray on Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels
This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
-- Dorothy Parker
No one has written worse English than Mr. Hardy in some of his novels -- cumbrous, stilted, ugly, and inexpressive -- yes.
-- Virginia Woolf on Thomas Hardy, The Moment, 1947
Monsieur Zola is determined to show that if he has not genius he can at least be dull.
-- Oscar Wilde on the French novelist Emile Zola
It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness, and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario.
-- Dorothy Parker on evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's autobiography, In the Service of the King, in The New Yorker, February, 1928
If the author's object was to realize an American bore so perfectly that most of his readers would feel as if they were suffering from the man himself, he may be congratulated on a masterly performance.
-- The English Review, July, 1928, on The Man Who Knew Coolidge, by Sinclair Lewis
Here is Miss Seward with six tomes of the most disgusting trash, sailing over the Styx with Foolscap over her periwig as complacent as can be -- Of all Bitches dead or alive a scribbling woman is the most canine.
-- Lord Byron on Anna Seward
From Bad Press, by Laura Ward (Copyright) 2002, Baron's