Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Attack of the Killer Critics |
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Attack of the Killer Critics

The recently published ninth edition of the excellent Chambers Dictionary, which has always prided itself on keeping up with new words, gives only one meaning for the noun ‘snark’. It’s ‘an imaginary animal created by Lewis Carroll’. The tenth edition might well carry a second meaning: ‘an adverse book review written with malice aforethought’. If the dictionary were compiled on historical principles, like the OED, it might mention that the word ‘snark’ was first used in this sense by Heidi Julavits in a long and fascinating article about book-reviewing which she published in The Believer. Elsewhere in the literary forest, Dale Peck, writing in The New Republic, had attempted to bury Rick Moody’s novel The Black Veil under an avalanche of abuse. Generating a small but widely reported kerfuffle, this event was one of the stimuli for Julavits’s contention that the killingly personal review might be reaching such epidemic proportions that it needed its own monosyllabic name, like plague.

Plausibly claiming to have identified an industry-wide rise in the prevalence of a snide tone, she called such a review a ‘snark’. Since the noun derives from the accepted slang adjective ‘snarky’, one would have thought it a rather understated label for an attack whose intent is often not merely snide but outright murderous. Better acquainted with the concept of gangsterism in public life, the Germans call a killer review a rip-up and the Italians a tear-to-pieces. But this new, English word — English tempered by an American determination to believe that serious people can lapse from high standards only in a temporary fit of civic irresponsibility — is probably violent enough, and it certainly captures the essential element of personally cherished malice.

The desire to do someone down, or indeed in, is the defining feature. Adverse book reviews there have always been, and probably always should be. At their best, they are written in defence of a value, and in the tacit hope that the author, having had his transgressions pointed out, might secretly agree that his book is indeed lousy. All they attack, or seem to attack, is the book. But a snark blatantly attacks the author. It isn’t just meant to retard the author’s career, it is meant to advance the reviewer’s, either by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor. Since a good book can certainly be injured by a bad notice, especially if the critic is in a key position, the distinction between the snark and the legitimately destructive review is well worth having.

But there’s a catch. Over the course of literary history some of the legitimately destructive reviews have been altogether too enjoyable for both writer and reader. Attacking bad books, they were useful acts in defence of civilization. They also left the authors of the books in the position of prisoners buried to the neck in a Roman arena as the champion charioteer, with swords mounted on his hubcaps, demonstrated his mastery of the giant slalom. How civilized is it to tee off on the exposed ineptitude of the helpless?

Back in the early nineteenth century, the great historian and mighty reviewer Lord Macaulay might have said that the ineptitude of the poet Robert Montgomery had not yet been exposed. And indeed the dim but industrious Montgomery had grown dangerously used to extravagant praise, until a new book of his poems was given for review to Macaulay. The results set all England laughing and Montgomery on the road to oblivion, where he still is, his fate at Macaulay’s hands being his only remaining claim to fame. Montgomery’s high style was asking to be brought low and Macaulay no doubt told himself that he was only doing his duty by putting in the boot. But Macaulay must also have given thanks that it asked quite so blatantly. Montgomery had a line about a river meandering level with its fount. Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount wouldn’t even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay made it funny, but from Montgomery’s viewpoint funny would surely have meant worse. He had been exposed for all to see as a writer who couldn’t see what was in front of him.

Across the pond, Mark Twain later did the same to James Fenimore Cooper. Making hilarious game of the improbabilities in Cooper’s tales of arcane woodcraft, Twain’s essays about Cooper have been American classics ever since. So have Cooper’s tales, but only in the category of enjoyable hokum. After Twain got through with him, Cooper’s literary prestige was gone. Reading the reviews that did him in, it is impossible to avoid the impression that Twain would have enjoyed himself less if Cooper had been less of a klutz. Like Macaulay, Twain used someone else’s mediocrity as an opportunity to be outstanding. This is getting pretty close to malice, for all its glittering disguise as selfless duty.

The same applied in the twentieth century to Dwight Macdonald’s attack on By Love Possessed, a novel by James Gould Cozzens that was not only a bestseller but had a huge critical success. Think of the reception for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, switch it back to 1957, and you get the scale. Cozzens had his face on the cover of Time. Macdonald thought the face needed a custard pie, and wrote a review that convincingly exposed Cozzens’s masterpiece as portentously arranged junk. Macdonald usefully did the same for the clumsy prose style of the New English Bible, but there he was attacking a committee. In the case of By Love Possessed he was attacking a man. When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have hurt him. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. When Dr Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn’t allowed to hit him with an axe. Civilization tames human passions, but it can’t eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere.

New York Times, 10 September 2003


Living in a brand-name economy, Americans like to see things clearly labelled even when it comes to matters of the mind. A literary controversy has to be marked CONTROVERSY so that the readers can prepare themselves for the unusual spectacle of people disagreeing with one another in print over a question that really has no simple answer. In America there must always be an answer or else there is something wrong with the question. Written at the kind invitation of the New York Times — whose cultural section has lately entered on a welcome new phase of encouraging the unclassifiable voice — the above piece will probably seem elementary to a British or Australian reader, but I reprint it here as an example of what can look like boldness in a context where consensus is held to be the norm, rather than the aberration. Had I been bolder still, I could have pointed out that the star critics of a dominant media outlet — the New York Times for example — have far too much power, because any common opinion on a given topic in the field of the arts is largely imposed by them. Snarky reviews in minor publications do little damage. They can easily be put down to personal ambition. But the ponderously delivered verdict of a tenured critic in one of the major publications can kill a play or a book overnight. The verdict doesn’t have to be hostile, merely ‘negative’, a word meaning anything less than ecstatic. How these concentrations of influence emerged in a democracy is no great mystery: Tocqueville foresaw just such an outcome. The mystery is why so many intelligent people should accept the resulting mediocrity of opinion as a fact of life. It was, however, an American financial mogul who told me that he thought that the literary culture of London left the New York equivalent looking comatose. He told me this at a book-launch held in his own apartment, where the crowd was dotted with extremely beautiful women. When I confessed to one of them that I had found Moby Dick a hard read, she reacted as if I had just revealed that I earned my living as a roach exterminator. Perhaps I had egg on my tie.