Saturday, September 28, 2013

Burying the Hatchet

September 26, 2013 - Posted by  - The New Yorker
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I have a confession to make. For years, I earned a living—or a sort of living—writing negative book reviews. Panning a book wasn’t all I did, and it wasn’t even most of what I did, but the pans were what got the attention. Yet when I think of the prospect of sharpening my knife and setting to work on another negative review, distaste for the enterprise makes me listless. The truth is that I intend never to write a negative book review again.

I didn’t realize how strong my revulsion against negative reviewing had become until some months ago I read, in the New York Times, an essay by the critic Clive James titled “Whither the Hatchet Job?” James laments the inability of American critics to lay into their scrivening colleagues with the exuberance practiced by their British counterparts. “America,” James wrote, “does polite literary criticism well enough. And how: there is a new Lionel Trilling on every campus.” In contrast to the soporific American scene James sets the thriving vitality of book reviewing in Britain, where “ripping somebody’s reputation is recognized blood sport.”

James is on to something significant about the current critical landscape, but the mild tone in American book reviewing today is not a permanent feature of the American character. From Dwight Macdonald to Pauline Kael, John Simon, Seymour Krim, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, and Dale Peck, American critics have been as sanguinary as the Brits in their estimations of that lamb gambolling toward the slaughterhouse known as the “new book.” Even the “polite” Trilling was lethal in his sardonic condescension toward “The Kinsey Report.”

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