25 Women to Read Before You Die

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to PowellsBooks.news
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
No. 17:  

A Smart Bomb Sampler

A Mencken Chrestomathy
A Mencken Chrestomathy
by H. L. Mencken

Your Price $19.00
(New - Trade Paper)
to Cart
More about this book/
check for other copies
In Fact
In Fact
by Thomas Mallon
The Portable Dorothy Parker
The Portable Dorothy Parker
by Dorothy Parker

Your Price $14.95
(New - Trade Paper)
Add to
More about this book/
check for other copies

The War Against Cliche


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

John 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) David 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 guy."

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 example:

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 the Poles.

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 Dorothy 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:

On The 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 a man."

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 Tunnel:

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 writing.

Then again, Gass, who claims to write "because I hate. A lot. Hard," just may have sent Mr. Alter a thank you.


  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.