Eunuchs at a Harem
By Darran Anderson.
The critic is a curious pitiful beast, feared and reviled in equal measure. And yet in an age where the cries of “look at me” have become a cacophony, they are a necessary evil; a swift way of drawing attention to overlooked works or calling into question the overexposed. The critic’s relationship with the writer fluctuates between symbiotic and parasitic. At their best, which is usually their most scathing, they can be highly entertaining (rare is the example of the good review as art – George Orwell’s celebration of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer – ‘Inside the Whale’ – being a notable exception). Schadenfreude is underrated. We can feign piousness and lament the damage they can do (Thomas Hardy, for one, never wrote another novel following the critical battering his magnificently bleak Jude the Obscure received). We can even question their motives and accuse them of jealousy and creative impotence but we’re still drawn to the most merciless reviews with the same morbid interest as driving slowly past a car crash.
For all his eccentricities, Walt Whitman is largely viewed today as that most dreaded and toothless of figures; the national treasure. Not so in 1855 when the Boston Intelligencer wrote of his recently released Leaves of Grass, “We can conceive of no better reward than the lash for such a violation of decency. The author should be kicked from all decent society as below the level of the brute. He must be some escaped lunatic raving in pitiable delirium.”
Graham’s Lady Magazine gave a similarly scornful reception to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (released under the gender-ambiguous pseudonym Ellis Bell), “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”
A derisive critique is one thing, wishing a physical beating or suicide upon an author is another, judgements so disproportionate they seem hysterical in hindsight. We can look back at the quaint ease with which they were shocked but who’s to say we will not be similarly judged in the future? Recall the publisher who reputedly vomited on reading Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez or the mass fainting that accompanied readings of ‘Guts’ from Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted.
There is a notable side-effect of the contrarian review in that it may make us see the respective work in an entirely different light from that which we are accustomed. Sometimes critical acceptance and consensus can result in a certain loss of edge or a dampening of interest in a writer. They may be placed on a pedestal and forgotten about, joining the great unread ranks of the classics. A note of mockery or mere opposition can, by contrast, have an enlivening effect. We’ve long grown used to Shakespeare’s primacy in the literary canon but when we consider Robert Greene’s assessment of him (“an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”) in his Groats-worth of Witte or the later criticism of the Bard by Bernard Shaw (“barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse”) and Tolstoy (“irresistible repulsion and tedium”), we’re reminded his work is assailable and perhaps more fallible than we’ve been led to believe. This enigma, upon whom we’ve imposed all manner of ludicrous conjecture and claims of perfection, was a real flesh and blood person with all the humanising flaws that entails.
It’s often not the writer’s most refined work but their most difficult and contradictory which retain interest. Certain novels remain alive as long as they defy any definitive understanding. Criticism has an essential role in this. The person who questions and criticises aspects of, for example, Ulysses does its creator more favours than the purveyors of Bloomsday for it implies a genuine engagement with the book rather than pastiche. To hate a novel is to (re)invigorate it. We can smirk at the purple prose of Amanda McKittrick Ros or the bathetic verse of William McGonagall but in doing so we are keeping their work alive, when so many far ‘superior’ writers have been forgotten.
Rarely though does criticism have noble intentions. Often professional or personal rivalry is at its black heart which makes for, if nothing else, diverting soap opera. Writing operates within a finite market and writers are Janus-faced creatures: one side monstrous ego, one side gnawing insecurity. Today the simmering bitterness only occasionally spills over publicly and even then in sufficiently veiled form. It was not always so as Nabokov demonstrated when he cut Hemingway down with a withering dismissal of his writing as “something about bells, balls and bulls.” Hemingway could be equally damning himself, saying of James Jones, “To me he is an enormously skilled fuck-up and his book [From Here to Eternity] will do great damage to our country. Probably I should re-read it again to give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs; nor suck a boil to know it is a boil; nor swim through a river of snot to know it is snot.”
Perhaps sensing what posterity held in store for both of them, Anatole France declared Emile Zola’s books to be nothing short of evil and commented on the man as “one of those unhappy beings of whom one can say that it would be better had he never been born.” For crimes of literary brilliance as well as being the wrong race and class, James Joyce became a focal point for derision as well as acclaim. George Bernard Shaw gave Ulysses the most back-handed of compliments by declaring it “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one.” Others were far less sparing. “James Joyce is a living argument in favour of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island – for the corner boys who spit into the Liffey” reckoned the Reverend John Pentland Mahaffy. The latter quote is a fine example of how a rebuke can say much more about the critic than the subject of the criticism. Sometimes it can wholeheartedly backfire on the detractor as with Virginia Woolf’s assessments of Ulysses which range from the dismissive (“I dislike Ulysses more and more — that is I think it more and more unimportant; and don’t even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it.”) to the offensive (“It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense… the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating”). It’s such comments which give Woolf the haughty air of snobbishness from which she suffers, distracting us from the many strengths of her writing.
With the advent of the internet and its illusory anonymity, we are treated daily to all kinds of snarks, trolls and flaming. In terms of book reviews, conduct has generally remained above-board, perhaps through some latent nostalgia that this is still, or ever was, high art we’re dealing with. Generally an imaginary modicum of chivalry is maintained. There is the odd dazzling exception to the rule; the infamous “Foer isn’t just a bad author, he’s a vile one” New York Press hatchet-job or the “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation” New Republic broadside. As brutal (and enjoyable) as these write-ups are they’re hardly Norman Mailer decking Gore Vidal (“Words fail Norman Mailer yet again” the latter shot back from his horizontal position on the floor), let alone Verlaine shooting Rimbaud or John Scott and Jonathan Henry Christie undertaking a fatal duel over an article on the Cockney School. Antagonisms these days are, if not rarer then, better disguised and sublimated.
There is one area in which criticism and even repression of a writer’s work remains an effective endorsement: the State. Under authoritarian regimes, it is almost a validation (were that not so flippant and painless a term) to have your work condemned. To put it simply, if you are noticed, you are doing something right. Anna Akhmatova, one of the great poets of the Russian Silver Age, was denounced by Andrey Zhdanov, head of Soviet cultural policy, as ‘half nun, half whore, or rather both nun and whore with her petty, narrow private life…” The telling part of that denunciation is the reference to her private life, a realm like thought or the conscience in which totalitarianism sought control or even abolition. A critic in the worst possible sense, Stalin took a personal interest in writers, these “engineers of the human soul,” damning some to exile or death with a stroke of red ink, absolving others (“do not touch this cloud-dweller” he wrote beside Boris Pasternak’s name on a death-list, referring to his poetry collection Twin in the Clouds). It’s no consolation of course for those who were, or are still, persecuted by such regimes but it does demonstrate the power of their writing that it was felt necessary to attack or even destroy them (a bad review in Pravda was usually the precursor to arrest and the Gulag for Soviet writers). The State critic, as with the censor, provides us with an invaluable lesson; the books they condemn or ban are the ones worth reading.
It is not just the more explicitly authoritarian societies in which we see the institutions of the State as critic. A Belgian police report issued in 1873 gave unintended praise to a young poète maudit, “In morality and talent, aged between 15 and 16, Rimbaud was and is a monster. He can construct poems like no one else but his works are completely incomprehensible and repulsive.” The FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program held surveillance records on numerous writers (Hemingway, Henry Miller, Carl Sandburg, John Steinbeck among them) suspected of left-wing sympathies, “premature anti-fascism” or “subversive” tendencies. Allen Ginsberg was referred to as a “Hippie (sic) Poet” with “evidence of emotional instability” who’d been observed chanting “unintelligible poems” (later revealed to be verse by William Blake). Norman Mailer appears as “an offbeat crusader for peace” and a “concealed communist” with added references to his “homicidal tendencies.” In Britain, Special Branch files accused George Orwell of “advanced communist views” and even more damning noted, “He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” The absence of recent reports on writers of this nature (at least in the West) says more about the diminishment of the novel in terms of cultural importance and the lack of subversive writers. It is worth noting journalists still warrant monitoring as in the case of the Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam who the FBI tracked until the late ‘80’s at least. In China, Putin’s Russia, Thailand and a swathe of Islamic States (to name only a few), writing still matters enough to condemn.
How can a writer react to a critic? The sensible answer would be they shouldn’t. “Silence, exile and cunning” as Joyce noted are three indispensable weapons in a writer’s armoury. Silence provides the illusion that a writer is rising above it all. If a writer is possessed of the rare wit of an Oscar Wilde, a Jonathan Swift or an Alexander Pope, they can perhaps hit back with a mocking retort. Otherwise it is best to take heed of George Bernard Shaw’s advice, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Writers can comfort themselves that bad reviews are rarely remembered in posterity beyond footnotes. Alternatively they can deride the profession (if you could call it such) of the critic without replying specifically. Brendan Behan once declared, “A critic at a performance is like a eunuch in a harem: He sees it performed nightly, but cannot do it himself.” His fellow countryman Samuel Beckett has Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot abuse each other with gradually more insulting curses – “Vermin!” “Abortion!” “Sewer-rat!” – ending with the worst of all, “Crritic!” In their mighty Manifesto of 1910, the Futurists warned, “Regard all critics as useless and dangerous.” Failing that, do as their patriarch Filippo Marinetti did the previous year when he struck a critic across the face and settled the matter with an eleven round fencing duel in public, evidence that there comes a time when the pen is not necessarily mightier than the sword.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 28th, 2012.