August 10, 2006KR BlogEthicsWriting

The Ethics of the Hatchet Job.

There’s an old saw about the pen being mightier, when employed in this kind of writing, it is virtually indistinguishable from the sword. You love them. You know you do. I do, at least. The scathing review, the kind of shock-and-awe review that incinerates everything around its target and then goes back and sows the ground with salt. That review. I’ve read two particularly satisfying ones lately (Hitchens on Updike and Nehring on Jong, via Conversational Reading and AL Daily, respectively), and it got me thinking: are cruel reviews ever justified?

The short answer is no. Even if the book itself is repugnant (Updike, I’m looking at you), there’s no need to tell your reader that you “sent Terrorist windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance.” So why write the review?

During the course of my education, I too have hurled books in a fit of pique and still hold grudges against both those books and their authors. I think the reason the resentment burns so strongly is because I was to be held accountable for those books, whether I liked it or not, and so could not simply stop reading (as I otherwise would). Critics find themselves in very similar positions: they are stuck with reading the new Updike, or the new Jong, and they have to do it quickly so that their review will be relevant. Getting stuck with a clunker must be frustrating. And what better way to take out their frustrations?

The whole point of a nasty review is to do serious injury to the author who has affronted you by writing poorly–or by writing well about something you think is wrong. The reviewer, feeling himself injured by the author whose subpar book he has been forced to read, readies his arsenal and aims. He is going to blow the book to smithereens, and he’s going to get the author while he’s at it.

The thing about these reviews is that the best hatchet job is immensely entertaining for everyone but the author. The reviewer pulls out all the stops with his language, and then proceeds to use the book against the author. It’s an intellectual feat, a really well-written bad review, and the nastier it is, the more fun it is to watch: “Given some admittedly stiff competition, Updike has produced one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events he has so unwisely tried to draw upon.” A pretty nice ring to it. Or Nehring’s opening of her review of Jong:

Attention, Bill Clinton. Erica Jong is waiting for your call. “I can’t get in touch with Bill,” she announces in her most recent memoir. “He has to get in touch with me.” She does everything short of giving her phone number. She agonizes about pleasing him in the sheets (“I wonder if I’m trashy enough”). She reassures him she’s cleared things with her spouse (“My husband is cool about our affair”).

What makes it so enjoyable? Exactly that it is unnecessary, that polite people in polite society shouldn’t talk about each other that way. I read John Derbyshire’s takedown of Ramesh Ponnuru wide-eyed, thinking, “He can’t say that. He can’t say that. He can’t say that,” and then finally, “How is he going to top that?” Ponnuru’s response was equally entertaining. Both writers pulled out all the stops–if you read the pieces, you’ll see that they are showing off. And there’s nothing quite as magnificent to watch as a fine stylist showing off. Each writer must be at the top of his respective game, or his authority may be impugned; further, if he writes with any less vitality than his opponent, his opponent will “win” (if that’s possible). The writing is good because the stakes are high.

The unnecessarily nasty review has a fine and long tradition, and the vitriolic critic his place in society. In addition to providing us with the literary world’s version of a Paris Hilton-Shannen Doherty catfight (see: Derbyshire and Ponnuru) every so often, it also means, as Eric McHenry notes in his profile of William Logan, that the habitually nasty critic must

periodically and grudgingly, give positive reviews, and it’s impossible to distrust a compliment that’s coming through clenched teeth. His recommendation means something.