ohn O'Hara once called book reviewers "little old ladies of both
sexes." It's hard to argue. Most critics are about as exciting
as tea towels and cataracts. But the listless majority shouldn't
color the entire field gray. As H.
L. Mencken argued in 1921:
"The motive of the critic who is really worth reading
the only critic of whom, indeed, it may be said truthfully
that it is at all possible to read him, save as an act of mental
penitence....is not the motive of the pedagogue, but the motive
of the artist."
In other words, a dry critic is like a wet blanket. Mencken further
implies that the real reason so many writers revile critics
is that, as fellow artists, they represent competition.
Good. Competition is, after all, the lifeblood of our society.
We're all for it, right? Our most recently made literati, Jonathan
Franzen, acknowledged as much when he admitted that the enormous
ambition of The
Corrections was inspired by a rivalry with (friend)
Foster Wallace: "Infinite
Jest came along, and here's my brother Dave, and it's like,
Fuck, I better get off my ass because I know that I can beat this
Even more effective for getting a writer off his ass, though,
is to line their chair with razors. And who better for the job
than a critic with a talent for cutting and an appetite for blood?
It makes sense, then, that Mencken, who was as sharp as they come,
would consider "one of the most hopeful signs in the Republic...the
revival of acrimony in criticism," for "[l]iterature
always thrives best...in an atmosphere of hearty strife."
Rebecca West was even less coy: "...our first duty is to
establish [an] abusive school of criticism."
And few have ever been as abusive as Mencken. Thomas
Mallon described H. L. M. as "a literary machine, self-designed
and chiefly for killing." Though ruthless, he was not indiscriminate.
He could and did opine on nearly every topic. For
On history: "The Greeks of the palmy days remain
the most overestimated people in all history....The plain facts
are that Greek science, even at its best, would be hard to distinguish
from the science prevailing among the Hottentots, Haitians and
Mississippi Baptists today..."
On philosophy: "If you want to find out how a philosopher
feels when he is engaged in the practice of his profession,
go to the nearest zoo and watch a chimpanzee at the wearying
and hopeless job of chasing fleas. Both suffer damnably, and
neither can win."
On pulp writers: "...there is the bad author who
defends his manufacture of magazine serials and movie scenarios
on the ground that he has a wife, and is in honor bound to support
her. I have seen a few such wives. I dispute the obligation."
Whatever his subject, Mencken was brilliant, indelicate, entertaining,
and formidable as a papal bull. He was also full of bull. Though
arguably the most powerful critic of the early twentieth century,
he may yet have overestimated his powers. In an infamous 1920
essay entitled "The Sahara of the Bozart," he argued
that the entire American South was "almost as sterile, artistically,
intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert."
The picture gives one the creeps. It is as if the Civil War
stamped out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a
mob of peasants on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned
to Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to
Mencken admitted later that this piece "dates sadly."
After broadly denouncing "that gargantuan paradise of the
fourth-rate" he fumbles to explain the South's cultural decline
with bizarre theories involving "mulattos" and "Celts."
He nonetheless claimed that "there is some reason to believe
that my attack had something to do with that revival of Southern
letters which followed in the middle 1920s." It may be fatuous
of Mencken to claim even partial responsibility for the remarkable
cultural flowering that began just four years later with the publication
of young Faulkner's first book, but Mencken's gauntlet-to-the-floor
certainly startled Southerners out of their complacency and challenged
them to prove him a liar.
Today, some of Mencken's work does date sadly (which is a nice
way of saying that at times he comes off an elitist bigot), but
he is still very much worth reading for his intelligence, wit,
and roughrider prose. Mallon agrees, more or less: "On balance,
if we look at his work by his own lights, we should probably be
for Mencken but also not unrelieved to board the train
out of Baltimore and get the hell away."
David Guterson, author of the award-winning blockbuster Snow
Falling on Cedars, might find Thomas Mallon equally repellent.
In an essay entitled "Snow Falling on Readers" Mallon
questioned publicly what many wondered in private: "I must
confess that the real mystery to me is not what happened to Carl
Heine aboard his fishing boat but just what on earth the PEN/Faulkner
jurors were thinking..."
Sour grapes? Perhaps. Though Mallon has written five critically
acclaimed novels, he has never received a PEN/Faulkner or dominated
a single bestseller list. But Mallon's criticism (for which he
has won a National Book Critics Circle Award) is just as often
generous as biting. When the mood strikes, though, he bites with
the best of them. Here's a piece of Sinclair Lewis:
"Their life," [Lewis] writes of some minor married
characters, "was dominated by suburban bacchanalia of alcohol,
nicotine, gasoline, and kisses." These are the kind of
things that a half-century or so later would make John Updike's
Harry Angstrom feel that "All in all this is the happiest
fucking country the world has ever seen." But Lewis approaches
them with all the affection of Savonarola. He was a one-man
cultural elite who, by the end of the decade, had produced his
five-part symphony of sourness..."
Thomas Mallon is a marvelous writer. As far as critics go, he
is one of the most intelligent and entertaining working today.
Still, at the risk of sounding like a fogey, writers today just
don't have the teeth they used to. Here is delightfully depressed
Parker, who could draw blood with the gentlest of kisses,
on the same author:
I have never heard Mr. Sinclair Lewis recite the monologues
which make up his new book, The Man Who Knew Coolidge.
I know that he performs this feat, for Dr. Henry Seidel Canby
says so in his review of the book, and Dr. Canby would be the
last one to tease a person. But for me, thus far, Mr. Lewis's
monologues exist only on the printed page. And that way lies
the silver lining. It is no breach of manners to close a book
before its end is reached.
She was even more dangerous, though, when she bared her teeth,
if only slightly:
So there you are, or, rather, there I am, in regard to Dodsworth.
May Heaven help you, as it assisted me, through the travelogues,
the debates, and the grotesquely over-drawn figures that clutter
it....But there is the last part, to make up for the rest. You
really can't know, until you have managed the first two-thirds,
how high that goes in praise.
If a great reviewer is measured by how successfully they entertain,
Ms. Parker was the Michael Jordan of critics though august
Theodore Dreiser might take exception:
The reading of [Dreiser's] Dawn is a strain upon many
parts, but the worst wear and tear fall on the forearms. After
holding the massive volume for the half-day necessary to its
perusal (well, look at that, would you? "massive volume"
and "perusal," one right after the other! You see
how contagious Mr. D.'s manner is?), my arms ached with a slow,
mean persistence beyond the services of aspirin or of liniment....And
I can't truly feel that Dawn was worth it. If I must
have aches, I had rather gain them in the first tennis of the
season, and get my back into it.
Dorothy Parker is one of the few Americans who could out-wit
the Brits. But if it's wit you want, the surest bet is to head
across the Atlantic. And good timing. Martin Amis, the "bad
boy" son of the initial "angry boy," has recently
released a magnificent collection of essays and criticism spanning
the past twenty-five years. Adrienne
Miller called them "astringent, punkily contemptuous,
name-calling, reductive, pissy, prissy, preening." This is
true, but one wonders if she actually read the whole book, or
just skimmed for the nasty bits. Amis's reviews are just as often
laudatory and passionate as they are acidic...though ask any chemist,
a little acid goes a long way. And in places, Amis's prose could
melt a spoon.
If Dorothy Parker prefers the elegance of the rapier (we're switching
metaphors, by the way), Amis prefers the efficiency of the machete.
He likes to see heads roll. Amis decapitates Dreiser in one sentence:
"...the novels of Theodore Dreiser, sometimes feel like a
long succession of job interviews." His most devastating
wounds, though, are reserved for writers of nonfiction:
Iron Lady by Hugo Young: "Mrs. Thatcher is the
only interesting thing about British power politics; and the
only interesting thing about Mrs. Thatcher is that she isn't
On Elvis, We Love You Tender by Dee Presley, et al. as told
to Martin Torgoff: "'Elvis was an enigma,' writes Torgoff,
'a walking, breathing paradox.' Oh no he wasn't. Indeed, in
the circumstances it is hard to imagine a character of more
supercharged banality. Elvis was a talented hick destroyed by
success: What else is new?"
On Hillary Clinton: "It
Takes a Village looks like a book and feels like a book
but in important respects it isn't a book. It is a re-election
pamphlet or a stump speech; it is a 300-page press release."
This smart bomb sampler could go on, but you get the idea.
÷ ÷ ÷
Winston Churchill once quipped about a former Prime Minister:
"They told me that Gladstone read Homer for fun, which I
thought served him right." I hate to think what he would
make of my fondness for good book reviews. But the best criticism
is entertaining and necessary. Critics are like
medieval doctors; they let blood to stimulate the system. The
virtues of book reviewers may be lost, though, on William Gass,
who received the following from Robert Alter after the release
of his masterwork, The
Some may seize on [this novel] as a postmodern masterpiece,
but it is a bloated monster of a book....The bloat is a consequence
of sheer adipose verbosity and an unremitting condition of moral
and intellectual flatulence....Gass's real achievement is to
have produced a complete compendium of the vices of postmodern
Then again, Gass, who claims to write "because I hate. A
lot. Hard," just may have sent Mr. Alter a thank you.