Book review bingo: ‘Accomplished’ debuts and ‘searingly honest’ biogs
Reviewers forever reach for superlatives and cliches. That’s why hatchet jobs are so vital
Dorothy Parker sharpening her hatchet. Photograph: New York Times/Getty
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-tiddely-pom”), 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.
Must a book be ‘necessary and timely’ if its subject is topical, ‘unflinching’ if it is modestly controversial, or ‘searingly honest’ if drugs were involved?
“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 were 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.
“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?
Few of us can rise to Dorothy Parker’s level, but we can try, at least, to keep the Tonstant Weader from fwowing up
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 to 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.
Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands, to be reviewed next week. Read his review of A Keeper by Graham Norton here