I like this question, because I find good bad reviews so rare.
I remember when Laura Miller published her review of Chuck Palahniuk’s Diary, I felt some strange glee, because he had been an important author for me as a teenager, and book by book I’d begun to really dislike his work to the point I couldn’t finish Diary. Her thing’s here. http://www.salon.com/2003/08/20/palahniuk_3/
And here’s Palahniuk’s letter to her. http://www.salon.com/2003/08/26/chuck_3/ I find it funny he calls her Laura Nelson because I feel there’s literally no way to know whether the misspelling is intentional or not.
But I couldn’t even re-read the Diary review (I just attempted to), because Palahniuk’s right — she is mean-spirited. More and more she’s a critic who doesn’t really review stuff, but just kind of complains about how much she hates the pretentiousness of books, authors, and the literary world.
Another person I’m thinking of is Joshua Cohen. All I know of Joshua Cohen’s fiction is from a reading he gave, which I enjoyed. But all I’ve actually *read* of his work are his book reviews, and it seems like they tend to be negative and not super illuminating. Plus there’s the air of pontification. The book I most want to read a great piece of negative criticism about is Super Sad True Love Story. Laura Miller loved that book (http://www.salon.com/2010/07/25/super_sad_true_love_story/), and Joshua Cohen did, too (http://www.observer.com/2010/culture/love-time-dystopia). I get that Laura Miller liked it because she’s a middlebrow hack, but I was pretty surprised by Cohen’s praise.
Does anyone who knows Cohen’s work better find that unexpected? What’s the deal, are they friends?
Kenner’s ridicule of Amy Lowell’s Chinese translations (aided by Florence Ayscough) on pp. 291-298 of The Pound Era:
Not a mistaken theory, not a theory ridden too hard, not even “inaccuracy,” makes Fir-Flower Tablets unreadable today, but Amy Lowell’s impregnable vulgarity[.]
Kenner is a meticulous historian (to the extent that he’s any kind of historian; pretty large, in my view), but what makes the demolition as thorough and certain as it is, is Kenner’s own artistry of phrase, paragraph, and concinnity.
(Let me say that there’s plenty in Kenner for me, anyway, to disagree with; that criterion – a horizon of agreement between critic and reader – is only a small part of the value of useful, attractively written criticism. –but I agree with him about Lowell’s versions of Chinese poems and about her own unaccountably (to me) respected poetry.)
Cohen’s of Tao Lin was the funniest. On book forum. I also thought N+1’s review of Pitchfork made me rethink that website (although I had my problems with the smugness of the review). http://nplusonemag.com/54
Great prompt by the way.
Oh, I guess all of Cohen’s reviews are pretty badass. Even when I disagree, like with The Instructions, where I felt like he was an awkward choice to be the reviewer.
Palahniuk doesn’t matter, really. But…I vehemently disagree with you about Cohen’s reviews. Whether in Bookforum or otherwise, his reviews are smart, thoughtful, and illuminating. There’s no air of pontification, only a strong voice that expects something from writers. In fact, I find him so strong that I can’t disagree with you any more strenuously.
Thanks for those links, Drew. I agree. I feel like there are lots of bad good reviews, and lots of bad bad reviews, but not many good bad or good good reviews. Good bad reviews are rare. It’s too bad because they’re pretty fun to read.
Yeah, it is a bummer. I think the problem with some of the most pointedly scathing reviews is that they come from critics who have made a niche out of that, like Dale Peck and B. R. Myers. Since it’s so obvious they have an axe to grind, their criticism doesn’t feel like it’s “about” the books in question. They’re just using whatever book they’re bashing as Exhibit X of What’s Wrong With Literature Today.
Not to mention that B.R. Myers is one of the dumbest, most tin-eared, and straight up dishonest (you often get the sense he didn’t even read what he attacks) critics in existence. Not to mention he is a horrible writer! Still can’t believe that guy has a platform.
Dale Peck is at least a smart critic, even though he lets his shtick overwhelm him.
Look how quickly it slips away, Ben. You ask a simple question–and all of a sudden it’s Chucky P and people touting their favorite critics. I guess the answer is that most people who read The Gint have never received valid negative criticism because, you know, they’re all fucking geniuses. I had a teacher a few years ago who kind did an erasure of my poem. This was at Emerson College. At least that’s what it looked like–no comments really, just–he erased like 70% of the poem. At first I was very pissed, like–seriously, dude? This is what I get for 30 grand? but, then i read it and I liked it, the poem. Still my words. Then I read it a few times, and I started to understand why he had chopped like that. So it worked.
thank you for everyone who contributed to this thread. It was a very enjoyable and thought provoking way to spend the morning.
For what it is worth, I think it is easiest to write a bad bad review followed by a bad good review and good good review. It takes considerable skill to pull off the good bad review, the least of which is convincing the reader why you care so much about something you think is so terrible beyond, of course, ‘everything that is wrong in today’s writers, etc.’ After all, well written negative review is probably going to inspire a person to read the damn book.
I had a teacher who did an erasure of my poem –no comments, just –he erased like 70% of the poem. At first I was very pissed, like–seriously? but, then I read it and liked it. Still my words. Then I read it a few times, and started to understand why he had chopped. So it worked.
This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review,
comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by
well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard
philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I
read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it.
Not sure about “valid” but critic Wills takes a stand against an otherwise highly lauded book by some eminent people – in an attempt to set the record straight, as he sees it.
Which is exactly why Myers is a buffoon. His reviews rarely make you believe he understood the book he critiques and his criticism is mostly of the “old man yells at cloud” school of complaining about “today’s writers.”
Uh oh, Kitchell, are you upset that your chapbook isn’t selling very well, so you feel like lashing out at an author you see as too “mainstream” because he sells a lot of books? I’m not a Palahniuk fan in particular, and I don’t own any of his books, but whenever I read him, I’m always expecting the writing to be awful because people like you give him flack all over the internet. But the writing is actually pretty damn good. I doubt you would give him shit if he was a struggling writer getting published through indie presses.
Rob, surely you’re kidding. The quality of the writing (of that at the link) is poor, embarrassing in fact for someone of certain reknown, and of value only to someone like you who spends your evenings whittling carrots.
The Times Book Review has gotten really terrible, other than the occasional decent essay. It’s become no more than a hack rag to prop up the NYC publishing biz. Frankly, the rest of the paper isn’t much better anymore, little beyond a doctrinaire stance or annoying tone.
I actually prefer cucumbers. And I know I’m certainly in the minority for not hating on Palahniuk, but the guy writes a tight sentence, explores issues of masculinity in thought-provoking and humorous ways, and hasn’t let his success turn him into an asshole. Like I said, I’m not a huge fan, but I think those qualities of his are admirable, and rare.
Thanks for those links. I enjoyed reading the John Beer one. Also, I think it suffers from the problem that most negative criticism suffers from, which is a lack of charisma or like some kind of technique that shows the piece was written for the reader and not for the writer’s embittered constitution. It’s like a quarter of the way through, the pedantic tone, the name dropping, all makes me feel like dying. Like I don’t even want to stick around to hear what the writer has to say, like his entire thesis can be summed up in his tone, which can be garnered from the first paragraph. All that being said, I stuck around because I liked the headiness. Beneath the acrid tone, it’s really interesting, even if I think John’s book was rad and a joy to read.
What’s funny is that his style is similar to a lot of writers publishing through indie presses–the same sort of flat, plodding, staccato style that’s magically “experimental” if the book is published by Goose Turd Press with a press run of 50 limited edition copies.
Joe Wenderoth’s essay eviscerating Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” (it appears in Wenderoth’s book of essays). It articulated in a way I never had been able to do for myself something about the ways a poet can go wrong–in this case, JW makes the case that Hass’s poem is all about celebrating the poet’s own sensibility at the expense of any real engagement or risk. It’s masterful…