The Hypocritics

In a spring issue Peter Davison look up the phenomenon of the review of hook reviews. Now FELICIA LAMPORT, author of SCRAP IRONY, examines the review reviewer’s associate, the anti-reviewer.

The anti-novel, the nonbook, and even the nonfiction novel have declared themselves quite candidly, but the non-or anti-book-review, the most prevalent form of all, has managed to slip by unnoticed. The time is at hand for this genre of criticism to be recognized and clearly labeled for the protection of the consumer.

The nonreview is essentially a reflexive, not a reflective, form. It can be readily identified by its tendency to emphasize the reviewer rather than the book under review. The volume in question is generally brushed off with all deliberate speed since its only function is to provide a launching pad for the critic’s own erudition, prejudices, vanities, and foibles.

It is important to distinguish the anti-review from the true review that is merely unfavorable. Although the anti-critic usually tends to disparage, this is a secondary, nonessential trait, springing not from judgment but from simple ambition. He has discovered that it is only by being outrageous, umbrageous, and rampageous that he can make himself known as a man for the ages. He can no longer get into literary orbit by praising a book since there is no mileage left in the laudatory words; these have been worn out and stripped of all meaning in a mad, mad Madison Avenue whirl.

The anti-critic is not necessarily malicious or even incompetent. He may once have aspired to become a real critic, only to give up when he found out how great an amount of intelligence, taste, perception, scholarship, vision, dedication, and luck would be needed to make him one of our few true men of letters, in which lofty position he would be unknown to the public at large and in receipt of an annual income considerably lower than his cleaning woman’s. More probably, the anti-critic established his bread-and-butter base in another profession and saved book reviewing for his moonlit hours. Usually, according to the italics that justify his by-line, he is a writer whose novel has never otherwise been mentioned in print, a lecturer on a familiar subject at an unfamiliar college or an unfamiliar subject at a familiar college, a pensioned diplomat, civil servant, military man — but whatever his age or condition of servitude, he is ready and determined to make his mark. He has access to more readers than the top best seller, but his space is limited and his time is short: today the world, tomorrow the garbage pail. Carpe diem being clearly indicated, he proceeds to carp.

Although hypocriticism is just coming into full flower, the form is as old as vainglory. A coeval eye cast on the Aeneid undoubtedly brought forth the comment, “Lamentations and ululations ring throughout the land at the premature dissemination of a work still notably flawed and unripe. When in the throes of what proved to be his last illness, Publius Virgilius Maro clasped this reviewer’s hand in his and spoke in haltingtones of his hope that I would assist him in composing the urgently required revisions.”

Macaulay, though he later had the grace to regret it, launched his own career in 1825 with a nonreview of stunning length and irrelevance. So many other critics followed his lead that Poe felt the need to start the new year in 1842 with a protest against the bursts of misguided miscellany that were shaking the review columns. But to no effect: once the nonreviewer had discovered what sweet music could be made by blowing his own horn, the form continued its development as a wind instrument for self-enunciation, played every day of the week and con brio on Sundays.

The modern anti-reviewer has perfected an ingenious variety of techniques for the practice of his craft, with a range as wide and untrammeled as the flight of the ego. Perhaps the most notable of these is the autobiographical approach, in which the book under consideration is viewed through an exophthalmic “I.” A review of this sort generally begins with some such phrase as, “The last time I saw Hemingway,” or “Hammarskjöld” or “Paris” or even “Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.,” and fills the allotted space with the critic’s full-bodied personal reminiscences, straying only briefly somewhere in the runover for a mention of the book under review. The author is mentioned only when he can be used to bring out points in the critic’s personal history, as in: “I had occasion to note this writer’s penchant for the loose generalization thirty years ago when I happened to be his editor,” or “. . . examining him for his doctorate.” Such authors, as C. P. Snow, who have moved in distinguished circles are able to serve as free launch counters. But the subtlest effects are achieved when the anti-critic is able to document his distinctions without mentioning the author at all. A truly accomplished technician can pack so much meat into a few words that his reviews have the texture of Spam: “I told this story to De Gaulle shortly after introducing Eisenhower to the Baroness Blixen, causing such a spasm of laughter to shake Le Grand Charles that he could scarcely finish pinning the Croix de guerre to my chest.”

The autobiographical technique, though highly effective, is of little use to the noncritic who has not moved among the great and the near-great, but only among the ingrate. Understandably, his impulse is to denigrate, especially when confronted with the work of an old stinkball opponent who has made it as a literary light. So he adopts the biographical, stay ad hominem approach, reviewing the author’s life, ambience, and id rather than his work. Writers like Norman Mailer always seem to bring out the wolfe pack in full cry. The critic of this stripe prepares for his reviewing chore by digging through gossip columns, police files, and newspaper morgues with a Freudian trowel, giving the book itself barely a riffle. He makes no particular reference to his own curriculum vitae, which is not (yet) of interest even to himself, but he uses it as an implicit yardstick against which the author’s life is measured and found wanton. He concludes that the writer, “mired down in obsessive, narcissistic vanity, has left the lyric promise of his earlier novels on the garden paths of the Establishment and lost contact with the simple, genuine milieu from which he drew his strength.”He blackens the author with jet set associations and belabors him with book clubs until it is apparent to the least perceptive reader that literature can only flourish in such obscure impecunious hands as the reviewer’s.

Hypocriticism is not limited to personalities; it embraces scholarly matters as well. The anti-critic working this vein likes to get his teeth into the summum bonum of contention. He generally begins his review with something like: “Assistant Professor So-and-so has seen fit to argue that . . and then develops his own quite different view, bolstered by many an “as all the leading scholars agree.”He implies throughout that he could have written the book a good deal better himself, and indeed undoubtedly would if the literary editors would only stop importuning him with these assignments and let him get on with it. Sometimes he already has written it (quite often, in fact, since editors like to assign Macy’s to review Gimbels whenever possible) and welcomes the opportunity to bring it back to the attention of the public.

Many anti-critics function as errata rooters, nosing out truffles of inaccuracy in fact, spelling, circumstance, or interpretation and spreading them out for the delectation of the reader. “It is difficult to credit the scholarship of an author who refers to Caesar’s maternal uncle as Publius Caius instead of Publius Gaius and places him as the third rather than second son in his family.” When he has completed his work as minutia man, the parascholar often takes a broader look at the volume under his thumb: “The trouble lies not so much in the fact that the author does not know the right answers, nor even in his failure to frame the right questions; the crux of the matter is that he has written the wrong book entirely. The later years of Hammurabi’s life are of no interest to the modern reader. He is a signficant figure only in his childhood and adolescence.” Swinging into the role of retroactive ghostwriter, the nonreviewer then outlines the book that should have been written.

The great dissenter class of anticritics is not confined to scholars alone. It includes an abundance of retired military men who have shifted from reviewing martial columns to marshaling review columns without missing a beat. They constitute a taking-to-task force dedicated to Setting the Record Straight. “Although the author was a schoolboy at the time of this campaign, an exercise of the assiduity one has the right to expect from a historian would have led him to discover what was common knowledge to those of us then in positions of command in the field.”

All but the most intransigently stern anti-critics accept the convention of the complimentary curtsy in the last paragraph. Column after column moves relentlessly through craggy excoriation to one of the standard transitions: “Despite such lapses,” “What this book lacks in craft,” or “ These demurrers apart”; and finally emerges on the sunny plain of “genuine talent,” “important contribution,” or “undeniable fascination.” The total effect is that of an apache dance concluded with a minuet figure.

Certain other patterns emerge from the hypocritical warp and woof. One of the most popular is created by the critic who uses the review — any review — as a field for currying his sacred cows and baiting his bêtes noires. Since prejudice, pro and con, runs rampant among nonreviewers, one man’s meat is another man’s aspersion; such writers as Henry James and Saul Bellow often figure as objects of both testimonial and detestimonial.

Anti-critics of a somewhat different temperament, convinced that one can only evaluate by classifying, are so busy putting books and authors into pigeonholes that the air around them is full of displaced birds. “With the publication of this new volume, Mr. Such-and-such moves securely into the position of our country’s second ranking major minor poet,” or “Now that this writer has shuffled off the coils of naturalistic humanism, he is at last able to come into his own as a Kierkegaardian existentialist.”

Although the anti-critics differ widely in approach and technique, they all seem to share a certain fruitiness of style, a partiality for the rich, ripe in word and phrase. A book is never good or bad: it “has thrust” or “is flawed.” Characters in novels no longer speak in dialogue, but “struggle to communicate.”Whether they are mentally retarded eight-year-olds, lovely whimsical ladies, or perverted dope addicts, they either “emerge with a certain charisma from the flickering chiaroscuro of their identity search,” or “sink ever more inextricably into anomie.”

These demurrers apart, it must be noted that the nonreviewer, by and large, exerts an undeniable fascination. Despite such lapses as have been mentioned, his genuine talent equips him to make an important contribution to the literature of our age by reviewing the ever mounting flood of nonbooks for the ever increasing audience of nonreaders.