Dos and Don’ts of Negative Literary Review

Ian McEwan’s “The Cockroach” Photo: Random Penguin House

I’m trying to write a novel. I know I know. Me and everyone. I’m telling you for a reason. As I just figured out how really, really it’s difficult to write good fiction, it makes me think about literary criticism.

I have reviewed books in the past, on the radio and for newspapers. I always send mini-reviews to a list of friends and family when I read something that I really like.

In my impassive youth, I loved to write scathing reviews of really bad books. As any reviewer knows, it’s a lot easier (and, perversely, more fun) to write a scathing indentation than it is to give clever praise.

I like to think that as we get older we become more generous, in general. We come to recognize our own flaws and are, ideally, less harsh on others. (Note: this is not a perfect system.)

I have decided that there are so many good books in the world, why spend my time and others talking about books that I don’t find appealing?

Sometimes, however, sad but true, the mud is fun. I have been known on more than one occasion to swallow up a well-written, intelligent and sarcastic review. So maybe we should agree on some ground rules for less than charitable critics. Here are mine.

“Bob Honey Who Just Does Stuff” by Sean Penn Photo: Simon & Schuster

The first novels are out. When it comes to an author’s first published work, leave it alone. The process was hard enough. They don’t need a mean critic to rain down on their first show.

If a famous novelist writes a clunker, that’s okay. Here is New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner on Ian McEwan’s political satire “The Cockroach”: “… so toothless and pale that he can drag his readers into long apocalyptic caravans. Young McEwan, the author of little novels darker than black, the man who acquired the nickname “Ian Macabre”, would have preferred to bite his fingers rather than write it.

We can take comfort in thinking that McEwan, winner of several major and internationally renowned awards, could handle the saying if he even noticed it. I mean the guy received the Queen’s CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), a distinction just short of chivalry.

Panning shot of a movie star? Totally fair game. I had the misfortune of reading Sean Penn’s novel “Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff” and I wish he would stick with what he does well.

“’Bob Honey’ is a 160-page self-clean, ass demo exercise,” Claire Fallon wrote in the Washington Post. “When I say ‘Bob Honey’ is reminiscent of a feverish dream, I mean it’s absurd, unpleasant and left me sweaty with a mixture of horror and confusion.… It doesn’t quite seem possible that a human person wrote this mess.

It is certainly not kosher to criticize a novelist for the size of his advance check like Sandra Newman did in The Guardian, writing on Garth Risk Hallberg’s “City on Fire”.

“The book is certainly impressive… but I can’t explain the adulation that has been given to it,” she wrote. “It’s good, but not $ 2 million good.” It stinks a bit of sour grapes. The rule of the beginnings also applies here.

“The House at Pooh Corner” by AA Milne Photo: Random Penguin House

A lot of people love James Michener because he writes the kind of big, big historical novels you can spend your summer on. Not the New Yorker. Here is the balance sheet of his 2000-page “Chesapeake” that appeared in the pages of the venerable publication:

“I have two recommendations. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t let it fall on your feet.

Is moral turpitude a good reason to criticize a novel? You decide. According to the New York Times review of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” “Crossing the artistic danger line of madness is another even more fatal. This is where the particular mania is a perversion like that of Humbert. To describe such a perversion with the pervert’s enthusiasm without being disgusting is impossible. If Mr. Nabokov tried to do it, he failed.

Perhaps my all-time favorite slam comes from the inimitable Dorothy Parker, who wrote in the New Yorker under the signature Constant Reader. At the end of his review of AA Milne’s beloved “The House at Pooh Corner”, a volume that would seem sacrosanct, Parker quotes Pooh telling Piglet that he puts the word “pom” at the end of “tiddley. “to make her song more” hummy.

“And it’s that word” um, my darlings, that marks the number one spot in “The House at Pooh Corner” to which Tonstant Weader Fwowed. “

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