There’s Nothing Like a Great Takedown

A negative review can be a beautiful thing: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Illustration of a hand making the thumbs-down gesture while holding a rose
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

There’s something a little sexy about a well-executed negative review. Take Stanley Edgar Hyman’s coyly lethal essay on Edmund Wilson in The Armed Vision. Hyman’s first paragraphs feign modesty, dabble in flattery. His uncensored opinion gets a slow reveal—and when revealed, it’s devastating. The careful dance is outlined in James Atlas’s 1981 article for this publication; Atlas revels in the thrills of Hyman’s technique, and praises rigorous, literary takedowns, including the aloof and the enraged. “Invective is an art like any other,” he argues, and he even gives its practitioners a name: “the negativists.” A great pan does not just point out what’s missing from a book. It can fill those gaps with exhilarating, new conversations.

In her review of Sandra Newman’s The Men, Hillary Kelly follows in that tradition, finding the novel’s incidental ironies more revealing than its narrative premise. The story of a world where all cis men suddenly disappear, Kelly writes, not only is drearily binary but also, oddly, still foregrounds those very men. And that paradox begs a question: What would a true feminist utopia look like?

Brandon Taylor wonders why Nell Zink’s Avalon won’t let its own protagonist lock into focus. He keeps a close eye on the novel’s “hollowness.” Taylor also makes the case for a full-bodied reading experience, indulging the book’s humor more earnestly—“I laughed for, like, four minutes after I read that”—than its twee evasions. Vivian Gornick similarly deconstructs a book she deems skimpy. In her review of Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer, she argues that the author is more defensive than disciplined. With equal relish, she imagines the gifts of a more fleshed-out thesis.

Mark Greif starts his essay on Jennifer Egan’s new book with a list of accolades for her old one. He takes his time digging into the satisfying sentimentality of A Visit From the Goon Squad before he turns to the limits of The Candy House—a slow reveal that recalls Hyman. But Greif’s initial praise is more than a red herring. Instead, it makes plain the serious pleasure he has gained from the writer’s oeuvre. It helps measure the stakes of the critique at hand. Sometimes, a pan clarifies what we love.

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What We’re Reading

Two thumbs down

Bettmann / Getty

In praise of dispraise

“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.”


Triptych with a woman's eyes, men's torsos, and a man's mouth

Hulton / Getty; Fox / Getty: Michael Putland / Getty; The Atlantic

What if all men disappeared and the world was just boring?

“Rather than pivot toward the women, to the rush of possibility for a world full of ambitious, complex, at-odds women … rather than defy the cruel banality of a binary gender apocalypse, Newman gives men the narrative. She even gives them the title.”


Woman sitting at the edge of a pool

Mafalda Rakoš / Connected Archives

A portrait of the artist who never makes art

“It does make for tedious reading when an entire domain of a character’s life is mere plot contrivance. And it points to a hollowness at the center of the book.”


Close-up of eye, hair, and painting hand

The Italian painter and sculptor Giorgio de Chirico painting a still life, Rome, July 1967 (Mario De Biasi / Mondadori / Getty; The Atlantic)

The arrested development of Geoff Dyer

“There’s a significant distinction to be made between those writers who’ve been compelled to develop a working life around a single piece of lived experience—the one that gives them their story—and those who’ve been unable to do much more than flash on the experience, not really stay with it. Dyer, I think, is one of the latter.”


illustration of a book lying open, full of gears and cogs, with a fire starting and smoke

TJ Rinoski

The Goon Squad gets old

The Candy House knows the techniques of The Goon Squad, but doesn’t recognize the limits of their strengths. It is like Samson after a haircut.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she’s reading next is Honey and Spice, by Bolu Babalola.

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