In Praise of Dispraise

Invective is an art form like any other, but it has gone out of style

What is it about these exultant reviews that is so unsettling? They are at once ephemeral and emblematic of an American tradition. One can pick up a magazine or newspaper any day of the week and find the same words applied to some new book. Our reviewers love to praise; enthusiasm is a national trait. To weigh in with an unfavorable verdict is considered rude, unsporting, like not standing up for the national anthem. There is something truculent about the tributes to Cozzens; they have a patriot's bullying tone. "Critics and the kind of readers who start fashionable cults have been markedly cool toward him," insisted Brendan Gill; and John Fischer, in Harper's, castigated "the magisterial critics whose encyclicals appear in the literary quarterlies and academic journals" for their failure to appreciate By Love Possessed. The message was clear: Be a Booster.

It was just this sort of condescension toward intellectuals that Macdonald had inveighed against in his famous essay "Masscult & Midcult" and in his polemics against The Revised Standard Version of the Bible and Mortimer Adler's Great Books. Indeed, the leveling effect of our democratic culture, its obsequious regard for whatever appeals to the just-plain-folks mentality, has been Macdonald's great theme. The success of By Love Possessed happened to illustrate that theme, to concentrate its various elements—the contempt for culture, the philistinism of our society, the poverty of literary discourse—in one event. Thus emerged a great negative review, brought about by the convergence of a critic's obsession and a work that embodied it (though was it really necessary, as Macdonald confided he had done, when he reprinted the essay in Against the American Grain, to send Cozzens a copy of his review?).

Imbued with the righteous moral fervor of a revolutionary, the negativist—to introduce a new literary type—is more persuasive than the encomiast, who tends to resort to the bland, formulaic language of praise. There is an urgency about the eloquent negative review, a prosecutorial zeal. Thus Gore Vidal, in a famous essay in The New York Review of Books ("American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction," July 15, 1976), managed to devalue Donald Barthelme, William Gass, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon by means of his voice alone: clever, insouciant, yet charged with the vehemence of Baron Corvo boasting of one of his enemies that he would "flick that gentleman with my satire." Yet Vidal never fulminates; he goes about his work with supercilious ease. Over the years, he confides, he has been in the habit of ignoring Barthelme's stories in The New Yorker and looking for S. J. Perelman. "I was not aware that I was not reading one who is described as, 'according to Philip Stevick "the most imitated fictionist in the United States today."' " This is pretty dispiriting stuff (Vidal is quoting Joe David Bellamy in The New Fiction); it conveys that writing about Barthelme is a dreary business without quite coming out and saying so. Vidal is brusque, no-nonsense; let's get on with the chore, imply his brief, Barthelme-like sentences. Of the collection Sadness, he writes: "More stories. More graphics. The pictures are getting better all the time. There is a good one of a volcano in eruption."

What is so notable about Vidal's method is its apparent evenhandedness; he rarely employs a discouraging word ("somewhat plodding" is the most opprobrious reference I can find to Barthelme's style), preferring a flat, noncommittal manner that condemns by inference. "There are funny names and cute names," he writes of Barthelme's characters; but his bored adjectives warn us off finding them funny or cute. And he is a master at quoting Barthelme against himself. "I have trouble reading, in these days," Barthelme says to an interviewer. "I would rather drink, talk or listen to music . . . I now listen to rock constantly." To which Vidal appends a single laconic word: "Yes." Finally, there is the tactic of grudging praise, the tyrant's charitable gesture that reminds the populace of his essential humanity. "There is no doubt that beneath the mannerisms, the infantile chic, the ill-digested culture of an alien world, Barthelme does have a talent for, of all things in this era, writing. Shall I quote an example? I think not." So much for him.

When it comes to Barth and Pynchon, Vidal is more blunt. The Sotweed Factor, he announces, is "an astonishingly dull book" and V. is "pretty bad." It is the Jeffrey method: This will not do. Admitting that he literally couldn't finish the work under review, Vidal declares: "I stopped at page 412 with 407 pages yet to go." But the point here is that one needn't read such works all the way through; it is enough to get the hang of them, to quote a damning passage or two of eighteenth-century pastiche (" 'Tis not that which distresses me; 'tis Andrew's notion that I had vicious designs on the girl"), and to relegate The Sotweed Factor to some lowly category devised by the reviewer: Barth is an academic novelist, a Creative Writing writer. Here, then, is an efficient negative review; it manages to clear away a good deal of contemporary American literature with such resonant authority that we needn't feel troubled about not reading it.

Is it fair of Vidal to go about his work this way, dismissing authors without even bothering to say what their novels are about? Without even reading them? Hardly. But as President Kennedy reminded us, life is unfair. The most persuasive negative reviews are seldom sporting. I have read Edmund Wilson's curmudgeonly polemic against the Modern Language Association more often than my favorite novels; "The Fruits of the MLA" is an immensely satisfying work. (I'll bet even Stanley Edgar Hyman liked it.) I confess that it plays into the hands of my own prejudice against academics, but I suspect its appeal is the appeal of any vivid satire; the spectacle of professors entrapped in the web of their own ludicrous pedantry affords the reader that furtive satisfaction derived from the public embarrassment of others.

Wilson's assault on the editions of the American classics put out by the Modern Language Association was by no means disinterested, as he himself confessed; it was a vendetta provoked by his having been beaten to the punch in his own efforts to get such a project under way. Still, none of this invalidated his annoyance with "the ineptitude of its pretensions"—which he revealed by quoting from the heated correspondence his initial letter to The New York Review of Books had elicited and examining the texts issued under the MLA aegis. Here is one letter he paraphrases to great effect:

A long epistle from a "Center for Textual Studies" by a man whom I have never met and of whom I have never heard begins with what I suppose to be meant as a propitiatory paragraph, in which he professes to envy me my enjoyment of spring on Cape Cod—which is actually rather bleak—since the part of the Middle West to which he is at present condemned cannot be said to have a spring. The roses, he says, do not bloom out there nor have the lilies any fragrance. Yet his favorite locality, he says, is not Cape Cod but Plum Island off Newburyport.

In this way, through judicious quotation, is the man of whom Wilson has never heard discredited by his own fatuity. Another sly device of Wilson's was to give in full his correspondents' titles ("Mr. Richard M. Fletcher of the English Department of Edinboro State College, Pennsylvania") or to put them in quotations ("Mr. Ronald Gottesman of Indiana University, the 'Textual Editor' "), belittling their credentials in his fastidious attempts to get them right.

But of course none of these strategies of diminution would be effective were it not for Wilson's case against his scholarly foes. He had on his side the one component essential to the negativist: the facts. For all the MLA editors' nearly fetishistic obsession with how words should be hyphenated at the end of a line, their devotion to gratuitous textual emendations and Hinman collating machines, Wilson caught them out. He was "gratified to be able to note," he taunted the scrupulous but fallible editors, that "on page 202 'romatic' has been printed for 'romantic,' and that on page 339 'You're vain of it' has been printed "'You've vain of it.'" Few literary experiences are as gladdening as that sudden triumphant rush when a reviewer looking for trouble happens upon an error.

What is it about a verified error that pleases us? It is no longer in the realm of opinion but beyond debate, like a mathematical proof. When John Simon, reviewing George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy, points out that Schiller couldn't possibly have influenced the art historian Winckelmann, as Steiner claimed, because he was only nine years old when Winckelmann died, or that "Mr. Steiner refers throughout to one Macauley [sic]"-these aren't the rebukes of a notoriously intemperate critic but errors of fact, the sort one can never see corrected in print without imagining the author's wince.

Of course, there is something a little unseemly about this remorseless hunting down of others' mistakes, an aggressiveness that verges on antisocial behavior. When Simon notes that Steiner, in equating marshal with martial, "has hit upon a new discipline," he exceeds the bounds of literary etiquette. It is rude enough to correct another's error; to gloat over it is to violate unwritten rules of decorum. Yet it is that very willingness to go beyond what is acceptable, to behave in the literary equivalent of a boorish, pushing manner, that makes for the great negativist. I still read Macaulay's assault on Croker's edition of Boswell's life of Johnson every once in a while just to savor his magisterial disparagement of a work he judged "ill-compiled, ill-arranged, ill-expressed, and ill-printed"—a variant on the leg of mutton Dr. Johnson once pronounced "as bad as bad could be; ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-dressed."

For column after dense column of print, Macaulay worries the inept Croker, recording with furious energy his errors of chronology, wrongly identified people, misattributed quotations, potted history, hopeless ignorance of Greek and Latin, and a host of other "monstrous blunders." And when he comes to the "want of perspicacity" revealed in Croker's notes, Macaulay outdoes himself. Croker "is perpetually telling us that he cannot understand something in the text which is as plain as language can make it," he complains; patiently explaining some obvious reference, he marvels that it was "in human dulness" to miss the point. He chides Croker for interrupting the text with inane interpolations: "They remind us of nothing so much as of those profound and interesting annotations which are pencilled by sempstresses and apothecaries' boys on the dog-eared margins of novels borrowed from circulating libraries-'How beautiful!’—‘cursed prosy'—'I don't like Sir Reginald Malcolm at all.'—'I think Pelham is a sad dandy.'" It is all, as Macaulay says, "very amusing indeed."

This sort of high-spirited vituperation has gone out of style. How rarely one finds in a journal now the fierce, infuriating reviews that were so common in the nineteenth century. Of course, a good many of those reviews were ignorant, ill-tempered diatribes, less clever than merely insulting, and some of them did a good deal of damage; to read Lockhart's vicious animadversions on the "imperturbable drivelling idiocy" of Keats or the anonymous reviewer who called Endymion "a monstrously droll poem" is hardly an edifying experience. But insult and invective were once habitual in literature. From Swift's A Tale of a Tub to Pope's Dunciad, from Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers to Carlyle's objurgations against just about everything, literature has a long history of satire, gossip, and even revenge. Good manners are the sign of a dull literary era.

"Under what gardener's cloche," Alexandre Dumas ills wrote of Gustave Courbet, "with the help of what manure, as a result of what mixture of wine, beer, corrosive mucus and flatulent swellings can have grown this sonorous and hairy pumpkin, this aesthetic belly, this imbecilic and impotent incarnation of the Self?" As I glance through the advertisements in a typical New York Times Book Review, glossing over the hectic blurbs-"irresistible," "haunting," "the kind of book one wants to read over and over again"-I wonder how many critics in our own time have the literary verve or moral conviction to produce such a grand, lipcurling sentence.”

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