Hatchet jobs and the art of the good bad review


An award was given in the UK this week for the book-review hatchet job of the year. It was for Camilla Long’s demolition, in the Sunday Times, of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. Want to read some of it? Of course you do.

It is a book “crammed with mad, flowery metaphors and hifalutin creative-writing experiments”. Long complains: “We have acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains.”

She asks, “Can a tray of vol-au-vents really be ‘steeped in rejection’? In Cusk’s world, even the canapes are victims.”

And on it goes in that vein, repeatedly thrilling with its cuts and thrusts. Yet to feed off the choice cuts from that review does it a disservice, because, as with the other shortlisted book reviews, the exercise (apart from earning publicity for a particular website) was to highlight strong critical writing. It was a reminder that it is all too easy to write a bad review. To write a good bad review is another task altogether.

For entertaining examples, Anthony Lane’s collection of New Yorker pieces, Nobody’s Perfect, or the volumes of Clive James’s TV reviews are sure-fire winners. James’s particular achievement was to take culture’s most disposable creations – 1970s and 1980s TV shows – and give them immortality through his writing. He could take apart a show with delicacy, humour, context and compassion.

Then again, James and Lane earned their names through writing about TV and film, mediums that revel in the trash almost as much as the triumphs. Indeed, the former often gets the higher billing.

Critical blades

Book reviews are another matter, because a bad review has the potential to be far more adversarial: one writer spending years on a book, one reviewer spending days reading it, and a lasting relationship being created between the two in print. Or, perhaps, a history between the two that lends the review a particular piquancy.

When writers fall out over a review, the results can last for decades, their war carried out across festivals and interviews until, usually, age and exhaustion grind them down.

Towards the end of last year, there was some discussion in the US about the place of critics – and the place of bad reviews – especially at a time when they are increasingly circumvented by social media.

Twitter, in particular, has been identified as a softening agent, dulling the critical blades an artist might face.

It is especially busy with writers and musicians who, through sharing, oversharing and detailing hourly the labour of love that is writing their novel or making their album, encourage the kind of tweetlove that is more a trait of social media than commentary generally acknowledges.

Such groundwork may not always pre-emptively deflect potential blows from a bad review, but it certainly allows any bruises to be soothed by sympathetic followers. In some cases, those followers might be critics.

The way Twitter shrinks the world makes it, in a fashion, a little more like Ireland. Here, there has long been the sense that smallness dulls criticism. Smallness of country. Smallness of artistic scene. Smallness of the genre within that scene. Smallness of size of the pool of reviewers.

It can be difficult to identify a suitable reviewer, because of the fear of breaking a certain collegiality among artists, or because of the rule that you should never review a friend – or even an enemy.

If you work in theatre criticism, for instance, you are seeing the people who have staged the play several times a year. Sometimes returning to their work. Sometimes sharing a lobby with them on an opening night.

This is not a uniquely Irish challenge. In New York, London, Dublin and Galway, critics must – and do – put this social familiarity aside when they pick up their pens.

In a country in which arts criticism has all but disappeared from much of the Irish media, in many genres a critic’s opinion can hold exceptional weight – not for the audiences, but for the artists.

As Arts Editor of this newspaper, I have lost count of the number of times a press officer has pleaded for a review on the basis that “it would be really important to the artist/musician/director”.

The possibility of being excoriated is preferable to the horror of being ignored.*


*This article was modified on February 18th 2013

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