Saturday, 14 September 2013

On bad reviews

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,

Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article. 
  -Don Juan, Canto XI (published 1823)

John Keats died on 23 February 1821 of tuberculosis. Rumours immediately went round that he had been so depressed by a bad review that he simply lost the will to live. This rumour would have been fuelled by the inscription on Keats's grave, which read:

"This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821"

That malicious power refers to a review of Keats' Endymion in the Quarterly Review. Shelley heard of Keats's death on 11 April and sat down to write his poem Adonais, which was published in July 1821 and included the lines:
...the curse of Cain
Light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast,

And scared the angel soul that was its earthly guest!

On 31st July Lord Byron writes to his publisher, John Murray, and pens a verse:

Are you aware that Shelley has written an elegy on Keats and accuses the Quarterly of killing him? -  
    Who killed John Keats?
    I, says the Quarterly
    So savage & Tartarly
'Twas one of my feats -

A week or so later, he writes to Murray again, saying:

'I have just been turning over the homicide review of J. Keats. - It is harsh certainly and contemptuous but not more so than what I recollect of the Edinburgh R of 'the Hours of Idleness' in 1808.  


Malicious power and homicide review. Our loo-side reading includes an anthology of bad reviews titled Dipped in Vitriol. Who can resist such a book! The cold dish of revenge always tastes good, even if you don't personally know those upon whom revenge is taken. Within its pages you will find D H Lawrence on James Joyce ("Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations"), Dorothy Parker on Mussolini's book ("should not be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with force") and Paul Johnson on Ian Fleming's Dr No ("the sadism of  a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult").

It is interesting to note that of those three - chosen at random - two seem about right but that the world seems to have decided in favour of Joyce, even over Lawrence.

Inevitably - unless we know the reviewed or have read the book and formed a different opinion of it -  we secretly identify with the homicidal reviewer. The review becomes a piece of theatre. Giving the thumbs down to  work results in action (work torn apart) whereas thumbs up means nothing happens. We want action. It is as when Roy Keane gave a gobful to Mick McCarthy in 2002. It's the release of the tongue, the misgovernance of it. It's the boys in the playground shouting: fight! fight! No art without conflict! Very well, forget the art, let's get to the conflict.


I write this in response to two very recent and highly contrasting reviews of the Sheep Meadow US edition of Bad Machine: the bad, by Patrick Kurp, the good by Erik Kennedy

Needless to say I got more pleasure out of Kennedy's because I wanted it to be true and less out of Kurp's because I didn't want it to be true. Kurp's came first by a few days. so that was, in the still-current phrase, a bit of a downer,  but how nice that Kennedy's should arrive a few days later. The blow had in any case been softened by other, much nicer reviews in the UK, and by the knowledge that the books was a PBS Choice and therefore on the Eliot Prize shortlist blah blah. (Oh but those blahs are of great consolation at dark times).

I am not going to quibble about either review. It is fundamentally bad policy to do so publicly. The only quibble that matters is with yourself. A useful bad review helps in identiying weaknesses that you can actually do something about; a useless one simply tells you you are hopeless and that your sensibilities, such as they are, are a waste of everyone's time. 

I have had useful bad reviews in the past - not many because I have been lucky that way - those after which I have suddenly realised something with a thumping of course! (John Lucas in The New Statesman in about 1982 for example, not in fact a bad review but pointing out something I hadn't noticed. The man was simply right.) 

A badly written or stupid review doesn't matter. An early one - about 1980 or so - complained that my simile of 'growling like a dog behind gates' was a cliché. What the reviewer failed to mention was that it was the sea that was growling like a dog behind gates, which is not by any means a cliché. The man's an idiot, I thought a little uncharitably, and made a note not to read his reviews. But it may have been just a bad day for him (and me.)

Damn braces, bless relaxes, wrote Blake. Whether Kurp is right or not, or is useful or not, it is proper that one should be wary of being over-relaxed by praise, that one should know it is possible to think otherwise. Most of the time most of us just want to be noticed. As Peter Porter said to me a very long time ago: Never mind what they say, count the column inches. Few poets get inches. Most live by millimetres.

That is one of the reasons why poets, being sensitive people to start with, are even more sensitive to criticism when it comes. Notice of any kind is rare and when it comes in the shape of a crock o'shite it is somewhat distressing.

Needless to say, dear reader, I am not identifying with Keats. I am not the hero of Adonais, nor, for that matter, dear reader, are you. We are who we are, the sensitive and tremulous figures Byron caricatured, recognising that it is a caricature, nevertheless sensitive and, inwardly, trembling.


What I do understand is that mutual backslapping and bigging-up are pretty worthless. Being nice or kind in itself is worthless. It is worthless in bypassing the poem and heading straight for the person. Some of the very nicest people are bad at some things and it is the things not the persons we should be considering. The groupification of poetry, the use of hyperbole to describe what is pretty good, is not good for the brain or the heart. We want praise, yes, but we want it to be intelligent, focused on the material, with a sense of history and proportion. A desire to read any work for the pleasure it offers rather than for its shortcomings is permissible. It is worth at least trying to find out what the work is in its own terms. Writing a savage review of, say, Anne Carson or Ted Hughes, is a courageous act. Writing a savage review of a figure you consider to be lesser than yourself is not, unless that figure represents an influential tendecy you deplore. 

A good fuming review can be fun in the way Dipped in Vitriol is fun. It becomes less a review than a display.

I like to think that if I had been Lord Hervey, the butt - as Sporus-  of Alexander Pope's satire, I'd have thought: But this is magnificent. Look what a marvellous monster I have become. It is not me, everyone will know it isn't me, but I shall live for ever in this grotesque mask so beautifully contructed.

It is like popping through the mirror, much like Alice. Most of us will not have such an experience. We will remain on this side of the mirror, with the cat, the chess board and the sofa, wondering whether that odd reflection we see before us is any kind of truth or simply a distortion from a funfair.


Malicious power. Homicide review. In one of Byron's earlier responses to Keats's death (letter to Murray dated 26th April 1821) he reflects on his own bad press: 
I know by experience that a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author - and the one on me - (which produced the English Bards &c.) knocked me down - but I got up again. - Instead of bursting a blood-vessel - I drank three bottles of claret.
Three bottles of claret, taken regularly after meals, should settle any attack of hemlock. So thank you, Kurp, you crock o'shite, and thank you Kennedy you glorious bouquet.


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an exhilaratingly bad review of John Fowles' journals, written by Ian Sansom for the LRB and containing the following: " It’s difficult to pick out the funniest bit in a book that is entirely lacking in humour, but ‘apart from language, I am French’ is pretty hard to beat."

George S said...

Never mock journals. People are allowed to be foolish there.

Ms Baroque said...

Whole post including comments has made me smile.

Sullivan the Poet said...

Well said that man!