In Praise of Dispraise

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

Francis Jeffrey, famous in the early nineteenth century as the editor of the influential Edinburgh Review, is now remembered—if he is remembered at all—as the critic who began his review of Wordsworth's Excursion with the curt announcement: "This will not do." John Wilson Croker, an eminent critic in his day, achieved posthumous notoriety by deriding Keats as a poet of the Cockney School. Charles A. Dana, the managing editor of Horace Greeley's Tribune, declared Leaves of Grass "uncouth and grotesque"—words quoted by every biographer of Whitman.

What hapless men we consider these critics now (though others since Croker have fallen asleep over Endymion). Their foolish judgments serve to vindicate the axiom that we can never know in our own time what will endure and what will be forgotten. And they further cheapen the dubious prestige accorded literary critics, whose verdicts on the work of their contemporaries can always be dismissed as mere opinion, the babble of ignorant journalists. Let history judge. "I shall not pollute my fingers with touching his book," Wordsworth proclaimed of Jeffrey—a sentiment echoed by many another writer making that unbelievable claim "I never read my reviews."

But even critics are right on occasion, and there have been reviews that altered a reputation forever—generally for the worse. A lively negative review tends to stay in the mind. The language of disparagement is simply more vivid than the language of praise. Henry James's description of Russian novels as "large loose baggy monsters" is worth pages of his panegyrics to George Eliot and Balzac. One can read Randall Jarrell's fifty-page advertisement for The Man Who Loved Children without encountering a single phrase as memorable as his succinct description of Karl Shapiro's Trial of a Poet as "a sort of bobby-soxer's Mauberley." It is the dismissive review that we remember, the clever deflation, the impudent reappraisal of an honored name—not Dr. Johnson's encomium to Pope but his observation of Paradise Lost that "none ever wished it longer."

Why is a stern critical denunciation so invigorating? It appeals, I think, to the punitive, grudging, envious impulses we generally suppress in our daily social transactions, gives expression to hostile, aggressive instincts through a sanctioned mode of discourse. Like jokes, negative review can articulate forbidden wishes—for revenge, for superiority over a victim, or the subversion of authority. "Parody and travesty," Freud noted in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, "accomplish the degradation of the exalted"—and so does a good negative review. Its candor is a fugitive from the unconscious, which scorns polite revision.

Invective is an art like any other; when brought under rigorous aesthetic control, it can be persuasive even if the reviewer's animus is clear. Norman Mailer, flailing about in a meditation on what he called "the talent in the room" in Cannibals and Christians, managed to land a few punches because of his insolent, vigorous prose. William Styron's Set This House on Fire was "the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy," "a bad maggoty novel" in which "four or five half-great short stories were buried like pullulating organs in a corpse of fecal matter." (It was pretty bad.) John Updike's Rabbit, Run was spoiled by "imprecise, flatulent, wrynecked, precious, overpreened, self-indulgent, tortured sentences." Mary McCarthy's The Group featured "piss-out characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed, or depth of feeling." Hardly well-mannered assessments; but they have a brutal, gangsterish authority.

More chilling is the dismissal fomented by no apparent grievance, in which the critic appears to go calmly and coldly about his work—a gravedigger bent to his gruesome but necessary task (and as the gravedigger in Hamlet says, "the houses that he makes last till doomsday"). I know of no more damaging instance of this efficient, hand-rubbing method than Stanley Edgar Hyman's essay on Edmund Wilson in The Armed Vision. The innocuous subtitle, "Translation in Criticism," gives no clue to what lies ahead, and his introductory remarks have a deceptively neutral, even generous tone. (Shaken by the critical devastation Hyman wrought on Wilson's career, I returned to these opening paragraphs like a detective in the Loeb and Leopold case trying to figure out what made such nice boys do it, and came away bewildered by Hyman's geniality.) There are, to be sure, references to the "novice reader" presumed to be Wilson's audience; but these condescending asides are muffled by the recital of Wilson's virtues: his talents as a popularizer, his erudition, his "formidable qualifications for exegesis."

Only when Hyman labels Wilson "a writer of epistles to the philistines," and slips in a reference to his "skillful use of other men's researches and insights, sometimes without credit," do we begin to suspect that what we have before us is hardly an hommage. It isn't long before Wilson is faulted for "sniping at" poetry and "booming" Edgar Allan Poe—verbs that resonate with ill-concealed contempt. In this bristling atmosphere, even Wilson's modest explanation of his strategy—"first to get books for review or reporting assignments to cover on subjects in which I happened to be interested; then, later, to use the scattered articles for writing general studies of these subjects; and finally to bring out a book in which groups of these essays were revised and combined"—seems dishearteningly lame.

Like a mob emboldened by its own lawlessness to ever more daring acts, Hyman then ventures to suggest that Wilson's enthusiasm for Poe indicates "some form of personal identification"—in other words, Wilson was a neurotic like Poe. Appropriating a theory formulated in The Wound and the Bow, where Wilson speculated on the connection between creativity and some crippling psychic disorder, Hyman rudely surveys Wilson's own work in search of such a connection, and comes up with a good deal of embarrassing evidence: the crude, clinical treatment of sex in I Thought of Daisy; the misogynism that flickers through Europe Without Baedeker, the querulous arrogance of his self-interviews. "If any of this applies to Wilson himself," the relentless Hyman concludes, "and if the wound-and-bow theory makes any correlation between the extent of the wound and the power of the bow, we are reduced to wondering why Edmund Wilson is not the foremost artist of our time." By this point, any admirer of Wilson must be thoroughly flustered.

But the ordeal isn't over yet. Having cornered his victim and pawed him over, Hyman is prepared to finish him off. Modulating his voice toward unctuous sympathy, he observes that Wilson's later work is suffused with nostalgia for a vanished era—an era, Hyman notes with sudden malice, "when Edmund Wilson was a young writer fresh out of college and full of promise." The implication, of course, is that Wilson is washed up. Referring to a passage in Europe Without Baedeker where Wilson lamented that one of his favorite magic tricks had failed to interest some young Athenians, Hyman concludes with remorseless acerbity: "Even the children seem to have grown tired of seeing that pocket handkerchief turn into a mouse." No wonder that when Hyman's name came up in conversation with Brendan Gill, Wilson muttered, "That fellow Hyman is bad news."

What could provoke such a merciless appraisal? Can a review that goes to such great lengths to destroy a writer's reputation properly be called objective? Hyman works hard to produce an impression of reasoned argument, reluctant disapproval ("I'm only doing my job"), yet there are moments of gleeful jocularity that verge on insult: the taunt that Wilson's essays on Russian literature “held the literary world tense with the revelation that the Russian language has all sorts of interesting words and sounds"; the derisory observation that To the Finland Station was so basic "it might have been called Men Who Made Our Marxism and sold to the Junior Literary Guild." Could it be that Hyman was jealous? Wilson was, after all, the most eminent critic of his day (though Hyman thought his reputation "abnormally inflated"); and it clearly annoyed him that Wilson was a celebrity in England—which Hyman attributed to "the fact that almost all of his books of criticism have been published in England" (unlike Hyman's). Moreover, Hyman considered himself the better scholar (as he demonstrated in an elaborate digression about the history of criticism from antiquity to our own day, working in such household names as Anaximander, Stesimbrotus, and Fulgentius), forced to labor away in academic obscurity while the worldly, privileged (non-Jewish?) Wilson made a name for himself.

That Hyman felt competitive with Wilson doesn't invalidate his criticism. Indeed, the most exhilarating negative reviews—those forceful, unsparing cross-examinations that question a writer's whole achievement—are usually prompted by some latent resentment, some inspirational abrasion. Irritated by the success of James Gould Cozzens, whose truculent, reactionary attitudes could hardly have been more at odds with his own progressive ardor, Dwight Macdonald set about demolishing what was then a considerable reputation with such ferocity that Cozzens never recovered. What Macdonald accomplished in his review of By Love Possessed, the number-one best seller of 1957, wasn't criticism; it was a sustained display of rage, a methodical dismantling of Cozzens's pretensions to literature provoked by the fear that he was "getting away with it."

Where Hyman edged up to Wilson with faint praise, Macdonald declared in his first sentence that Cozzens's triumph was "the most alarming literary news in years." The main character was "a brute," "a prig," "a club bore" capable of musing: "I've often wondered how far anyone can see into what goes on in someone else. I've read somewhere that it would pose the acutest head to draw forth and discover what is lodged in the heart." ("Now where could he have read that?" Macdonald wondered.) And the prose was lamentable: a sex scene was said to involve "the disposings of accustomed practice, the preparations of purpose and consent, the familiar mute motions of furtherance," "moist manipulative reception" and "the mutual heat of pumped bloods" (an image Macdonald likened to "a Fortune description of an industrial process"). Cozzens was guilty of pointless inversions ("Owned and operated by Noah's father was a busy grist mill"); melodrama ("Deaf as yesterday to all representations of right, he purposed further perfidy"); and impossible dialogue that reminded Macdonald of "two grunt-and-groan wrestlers heaving their ponderous bulks around without ever getting a grip on each other." From the distance of twenty-four years, Macdonald's demolition of this "tongue-tied Dr. Johnson" scarcely seems worth the trouble.

Yet By Love Possessed, hard as it is to believe after reading this review, won virtually unanimous acclaim. Malcolm Cowley and Brendan Gill raved; Time put Cozzens on the cover; newspapers across the land were ecstatic. Macdonald's quotations from the critics were as damaging to this country's literary culture as his quotations from the novel were to Cozzens. "He is not a literary man, he is a writer," admonished Bernard De Voto; Whitney Balliett spoke of his "dark, supernal intelligence"; Granville Hicks lauded his "great eloquence and even poetic power." And the provincial reviewers were quick-in the words of Carl Victor Little in the Houston Press-to "ditto the dithyrambs."

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.”