James Atlas on Disparagement

In 1981 the author and literary critic James Atlas explained why the most powerful and engaging book reviews tend to be scathing.

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 reviews can articulate forbidden wishes—for revenge, for superiority over a victim, for 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 …

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 …

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 … 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.

"In Praise of Dispraise," by James Atlas, August 1981