All the way back at the beginning of this blog I wrote a bit about negative reviews of literature. The subject popped up again the other day, twice, in connection with the same reviewer. James Wood is an English critic who moved to the States in 1995 and is now a staff writer at the New Yorker. A couple of years ago I read his book How Fiction Works and loved it. But, what? Some writers are not happy with him.

Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the 2004 Booker prize for The Line of Beauty, has a new book out, The Stranger’s Child. I read the now-ubiquitous Geoff Dyer‘s review of it in New York Magazine, and figured “I should really read some Alan Hollinghurst.” Dyer comes out with the neat line “…Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer…”* and says other smart and nice things like “the sweep of the narrative, its simultaneous flicker of comedy and drama, is matched and sustained by the precision and the leisurely economy of its individual sentences.”

So when The Millions had an interview with Hollinghurst I figured it would be interesting. It is, but it also revealed that the aforementioned James Wood had been not exactly nice about The Stranger’s Child, and Hollinghurst was not exactly chuffed about it. The interview (as recorded on the website) actually opens with the following exchange:

The Millions: Do you read reviews?

Alan Hollinghurst: I do, unless very strongly warned off them by some kind person. There’s no point in upsetting oneself unnecessarily.

TM: So did you read the James Wood review up to the very end?

AH: I did. But actually, when he got to the bit when he was imagining how I might write something, it just seemed so pathetic that I stopped taking it seriously.

TM: When he did the parody of you?

AH: Yes, it’s very ill-advised to do something like that, I think. It exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

To their credit, interviewer and interviewee then move on and discuss other stuff and it’s all very nice. Of course, I had to go and read the Wood review (which appeared in The New Yorker) myself; here it is. Now, the thing about it is, it’s not actually a terrible review. Wood makes clear his disappointment in what he sees as Hollinghurst giving himself too much of an easy life in his choice of subject matter and his style; one telling line is: “Given how thickly trafficked this corridor of English literary history has been in recent years, a writer like Hollinghurst can spin yards of this soft stuff practically in his sleep.” He also gathers several sets of examples of the writer using the same word or technique many times over, with an effect similar to that video of David Caruso I linked to the other day: by repetition the subject is made ridiculous. However, Wood is also tremendously nice about Hollinghurst’s writing in general; early on he says:

His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—into a stealthy equality.

What you might notice here is that Wood is also, in fact, a bit of a fan of his own writing: “a stealthy equality” is a pretty flashy way of making any point and when you’re in the process of describing someone else’s writing it seems almost uncharitable to call attention to yourself in this way. And this, as the exchange from the Millions interview above makes clear, seems to be what took Wood’s review beyond the pale for Hollinghurst (and his sympathetic interviewer): Wood’s most egregious sin was to attempt a parody of Hollinghurst’s style:

(“Ralph’s cock was small but sincere; in the afternoon’s fading light, thinned by winter’s quick transit, it seemed to Hugh almost shyly noble. The two men could hear Lady Soames’s little lacquered laugh, somewhere downstairs. . . .” And so on.)

So. While I find it difficult to forgive a writer for complaining about negative reviews, I think this simultaneously snobbish and sniggering passage at least means there’s a case to answer here. Further, despite three or four readings, I still can’t make sense of this sentence from the review: “These flecks of aspic are scarcely heinous, but cumulatively they suggest an overindulgent hospitality toward the material.” Any help?

Just to conclude Hollinghurst/Wood: the LRB’s review falls between the Dyer and Wood positions, by being generally complimentary about Hollinghurst and his new book, but agreeing with Wood that the material is somehow unambitious and a retreat from the vigour of The Line of Beauty

Case number two, then! Jonathan Lethem has a new book out, The Ecstasy of Influence. It’s a collection of his essays, and one of those essays was featured in the LA Review of Books the other day. It’s called “My Disappointment Critic.” In it, following a lengthy opening made up of apparently relevant quotations from other writers, Lethem says:

What happened is this: I wrote a book (The Fortress of Solitude) and James Wood reviewed it. What happened next: I wrote James Wood a long, intemperate letter. (Not an open letter.) And he wrote a curt postcard in reply. Eight years later, I haven’t quit thinking about it. Why?

And you just know that this whole thing is going to be one big car crash. I neglected to mention in the previous paragraph that the first of the many quotations Lethem uses to open the essay comes from Renata Adler’s “The Perils of Pauline,” which is itself an excoriating review of a collection of Pauline Kael’s writing on film. Its argument is, essentially, that if someone becomes a full-time critic they will inevitably start spouting nonsense after a few years. So in support of his argument that he got an unfairly bad review, Lethem is invoking an argument that all critics are terrible***: this does not bode well.

Sure enough, he goes on to do a bunch of moaning, saying that Wood ignored an important plot device that sounds completely ridiculous (“my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility”), but is swiftly outdone in ridiculousness by Lethem’s assertion of what he thinks this device accomplishes:

Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism” — mimeticism is the word I prefer — into crisis by insisting on uncanny events.

As one of the LA Review of Books’ website commenters swiftly noted, “If a reader misunderstands, the writer has failed.” In fact, it’s worth reading the whole of the comment section because the people there break it all down pretty well. A lot of them are in sympathy with Lethem and others feel that Wood had this coming to him, but the weight of opinion seems to be that going after a critic like this is just a Bad Idea. Strange thing is that Lethem seems to know this and acknowledge it, but doesn’t convince on why it was he decided to write the essay anyway.

I remain of the view that writers and other artists should generally just put their stuff out there and leave it be no matter what people say about it. Hollinghurst got asked a direct question so you can’t blame him for offering an opinion, but I don’t see how you can make any complaint beyond that with integrity.

OK that’s all for the moment. Gosh I’m exhausted.

*I stupidly cannot help but be reminded of a line from The Damned United (it was definitely in the film; not sure about the book**), where one of the directors of Leeds United says to Brian Clough: “We’ve hired you because we’ve heard you’re the best young manager in England,” and he replies “I’m the best old one, too.”

**But supposing it wasn’t in the book, it’s an excellent example of how the film turned what was really quite a dark story about a flawed man – who eventually drank himself to death – making a series of catastrophic decisions into a bit of a jolly old British romp. It was entertaining that way, but kind of weak.

***Yes, so, this is where we have arrived: I am discussing an extract from a review of a book of reviews, quoted in an essay that is itself responding to a review.