The story began when historians began to notice a series of reviews on [Amazon] which praised Figes’s own books and attacked those of his colleagues. Comments posted under the alias “orlando-birkbeck” and “Historian” called Rachel Polonsky’s book Molotov’s Magic Lantern “hard to follow” and Robert Service’s history of communism, Comrades, “awful”, while praising Figes’s study of Soviet family life, The Whisperers as “a fascinating book … [that] leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted”.
Writers trash-talking fellow writers is nothing new: Wyndham Lewis, the “scourge of mediocrity”, took a pop at Ernest Hemingway in an essay ‘The Dumb Ox’, attacking his imitation of the “Gertrude Stein stutter” and his anti-intellectual cult of action in which characters are without will and intelligence. Retaliating 30 years later (!), Hemingway writes in A Moveable Feast that Lewis was a nasty-looking man with the face of a frog and the eyes of an “unsuccessful rapist”.
Macaulay and Isherwood ended their dispute in the way such disputes always seem to end: by convivially inviting each other out for drinks in a show of collegiality that seemed, frankly, a bit forced—a Broadway beer summit. Granted, the stakes weren’t that high: they disagreed over a show that combined the rumba with “My Way.” But a taste judgment, after all, is a kind of value judgment, even if we can’t always articulate those values exactly. What we like reveals something about the sort of person we are. And a serious critic takes his judgments seriously, as Macaulay’s side of the discussion demonstrates particularly well. Different works require different kinds of judgments, he allows, but “there are larger criteria—truth, beauty, humanity—that we do apply all the time, even though … we may use them or recognize them differently.” A critic whom I know and respect, avowing his admiration for a particular author, once told me that a person who couldn’t appreciate this man’s work was a person he wouldn’t want to have as his friend. Just to be on the safe side – I admire this man, but our opinions of books rarely match – I never read the book he was so passionately recommending.
Why translators deserve credit (via @seanjcostello) / Tom Wolfe on the Great American Novel & the Wily Ol’ Roughneck Philosopher of the Wild West (via @GrantaMag) / The Samuel Beckett Seminar Series / A video interview with Joe Meno / The late Peter Porter on the poetry & music of Lawrence Durrell‘s Alexandria Quartet (via @seventydys)