Friday, July 19, 2013

More literary raspberries

Artists of all stripes will agree that it's hard to put yourself out there and face the music. As the minimally talented wife who is strong-armed into singing opera cries out to Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, "you're not the one who gets the raspberries!!" 
Larry Ceplair wrote in the LA Times when Rotten Reviews first came out that “these books, collections of snippets of nasty comments on well-known books or well-known authors … force one to confront a hideous, hidden truth about high culture: Critics hate authors even more than authors hate critics.” And as the LA Review of Books's William Giraldi wrote when Rotten Reviews Redux appeared:
Bloggers and other online epigones are the impetus behind editor Bill Henderson’s reprisal of his 1987 bestseller....  (Henderson is the publisher of the long-standing Pushcart Prize series, a labor of love and annual celebration of literary journals for which he deserves to be sainted.) Now called Rotten Reviews Redux, this priceless little compendium boasts a new preface by Henderson in which he castigates the “unfettered, unedited, unfiltered, and ridiculous rage” rampant on the Net. But it’s not necessarily the foppish rage that so incenses Henderson — it’s the anonymity: “Anonymous online critics ambush unprotected writers in bursts of verbal automatic rifle fire.” We now live, according to Henderson, “in an online Wild West.” The image is apt, whether or not your business is literature. “All civility gone. Empathy, balance, decency, knowledge, out the window. Everybody a blogger. Everybody an instant critic.”
Here, for your delectation, are some more choice bits of literary snarkery taken from the Rotten Reviews omnibus linked to above.
On Edgar Allen Poe
After reading some of Poe's stories one feels a kind of shock to one's modesty. We require some kind of spiritual ablution to cleanse our minds of his disgusting images. (Leslie Stephen [Virginia Woolf's father], 1874)
[Poor Poe. Not only did he have to fight for survival in this world, but they ganged up on him in the afterlife!]
On Henry James [left]
An idiot, and a Boston idiot to boot, than which there is nothing lower in the world. (H.L. Mencken, The American Scene, 1915)

On Ulysses, James Joyce [right]
...a misfire... the book is diffuse. It is brackish, It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky. (Virginia Woolf, in her diary)

On Moby Dick, Herman Melville
This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilised life, and rhapsody run mad...  (The Spectator)
On The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot [above left]
Mr Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior.  (New Statesman, 1922)

On Ezra Pound
A village explainer, excellent if you were in a village, but if you were not, not. (Gertrude Stein; above right) [surely the readers/critics who loathe Stein herself are legion??]

On Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep. (Marc Humblot, French editor, rejection letter to Proust, 1912)

On Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud
...poorly written, full of repetitions, replete with borrowings from unbelievers, and spoiled by the author's atheistic bias and his flimsy psycho-analytic fancies. (Catholic World)

On Hamlet, William Shakespeare
It is a vulgar and barbarous drama, which would not be tolerated by the vilest populace of France, or Italy... one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage. (Voltaire, 1768)

On A Midsummer Night's Dream
The most insipid, ridiculous play I ever saw in my life. (Samuel Pepys, Diary) [fairies courtesy of Edmund Dulac]

As Anthony Brandt remarks in his introduction to Rotten Reviews Redux, “One of the pleasures of this wicked collection is watching the great being terribly wrong about the great.” Although surely one must acknowledge the often vast differences between cultures, periods, tastes, and styles of writing when evaluating the evaluators!

Coda: Yesterday a reader observed that Virginia Woolf dwelt often on class issues. Read this diary entry and wait for the kicker:
I have finished the Wings of the Dove, & make this comment. His [Henry James's] manipulations become so elaborate towards the end that instead of feeling the artist you merely feel the man who is posing the subject. And then I think he loses the power to feel the crisis. And then I think he loses the power to feel the crisis. He becomes merely excessively ingenious. This, you seem to hear him saying, is the way to do it. Now just when you expect a crisis, the true artist evades it. Never do the thing, and it will be all the more impressive. Finally, after all this juggling and arranging of silk pocket handkerchiefs, one ceases to have any feeling for the figure behind. Milly thus manipulated disappears. He overreaches himself. And then one can never read it again. The mental grasp & stret[c]h are magnificent. Not a flabby or slack sentence, but much emasculated by this timidity or consciousness or whatever it is. Very highly American, I conjecture, in the determination to be highly bred, and the slight obtuseness as to what high breeding is.
Oy! It's quoted in Poisoned Pens, as are several long passages on D. H. Lawrence by both Woolf and Dame Edith Sitwell. Both are engrossing, but it is the Mandarin Sitwell who takes Lawrence out for his faux working-class lingo. 


  1. We really must have some balance--my poor Mr. Poe!
    Charles Baudelaire on Poe: "The most powerful writer of the age."
    George Bernard Shaw: "A born aristocrat of letters." Of "Ligeia": "not merely one of the wonders of literature, it is unparalleled and unapproached."
    Willa Cather: "We lament the dearth of great prose. With the exception of Henry James and Hawthorne, Poe is our only master of pure prose. Poe found short story writing a bungling makeshift. He left it a perfect art."
    Even T. S. Eliot: Sherlock Holmes was deceiving Watson when he told him he had bought his Stradivarius violin for a few shillings at a secondhand shop in the Tottenham Court Road. He found that violin in the ruins of the House of Usher."

    1. Leave it to Baudelaire to stand up for Poe. Baudelaire spent years translating Poe into French, not to mention writing a seminal essay drawing heavily on Poe's "Man of the Crowd." An interesting phenomenon, one author translating another...

      I read an interview with Murakami and he said that he sometimes writes a page or two in English, then translates it into Japanese to see how it sounds. He also said that he never reads his novels once his trusty translator translates them into English.

      ...And where would we be without Baudelaire! We would have no Beatniks, No Rimbaud! No Dylan! The movie "I'm Not There" wouldn't exist!

      It is disappointing when an author I look up to ends up being racist or homophobic or a degenerate. It is also unfair to expect more from authors...I guess...I do expect more from you if you are heavily entrenched in the cannon!! I'm still looking at you Virginia!

  2. Well put, gang! Hambone, I'm glad you acknowledged Virginia Woolf's outright bigotry. I've long thought that one "suffers through" more than "reads" Woolf and, when you throw in her blatant racism, I've got a dustbin waiting. Dead and gone or not, it's important that we don't forget the bad ones... T.S. Eliot - I'm looking at you, too!!

    1. My problem is this: I do like V. Woolf, but I am forced to compartmentalize her in order to enjoy reading. I have to break her up into bits and keep all the offensive bigoted parts in a separate place.

      I can rant about those parts to friends while secretly enjoying her books. When I come to a particularly offensive passage I can just throw it in my "Virginia Woolf was a monster" box and keep reading.

      Admittedly a problematic approach! Her prejudices are a part of her and maybe I can enjoy no parts of Virginia without accepting her as a whole...I still would feel bad if I put her in a dustbin.

      I agree with Mr. Fink, sometimes it is fine to speak ill of the dead. Just because they are dead doesn't mean they should be canonized. Never forget the bad ones <----band name?

    2. Jeez, Hambone, you're not marrying the girl! Lighten up;-)

    3. What I will say is this, there is rarely an author, musician, actor, etc. etc. etc. that it without some sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic root. What I have said to students and otherwise, is that if you try to avoid all these things, you wouldn't be able to leave the house or even open your eyes. As with much of the early feminist writers, Virginia Woolf has a race problem. This is something the current feminist movement still has to grapple with, seeing as many of it's founding mothers, if you will, had some really messed up viewpoints about race.

      I don't suggest that you throw away your Woolf, just as I can appreciate Bukowski despite him being a misogynistic jerk. But the fact that you realize the problems, shows that you're able to encounter the material in a way that gains knowledge without supporting any hateful principles behind it.

    4. Well said, MM. Case closed:)

    5. Is this a corollary to "hold your nose and vote?"

    6. Virginia Woolf would never marry me. I am too lowborn...and because life isn't a fantasy novel or a videogame I am unable to level up...I will always be too low for Virginia.

      I will never evolve into a Charizard.

      Also, Molly Monday has some great points.

    7. Gioconda, most excellent of you to throw some balm on the inflamed rash of all this Poe-hate. Eliot's quote: a sly reference to Poe's creation of the detective story?

      Wonderfully put Hambone and Molly! I've encountered the same discomfort and frustration with H. P. Lovecraft, one my personal influences. Relegated to publishing his works in the pulp magazines of the 20's and 30's, he's seen a steady rise in attention since. This upwards filtering of recognition is most visible, it seems, in the past decade. His works were published as a Library of America hardcover in 2005. Incredibly influential across the board, writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and the ubiquitous Stephen King have all cited him as a major influence. The intellectual giant Jorge Luis Borges dedicated one of his stories to the memory of Lovecraft. Underneath all this influence, Lovecraft the man held and espoused some pretty vile racist attitudes.

      It's a controversy that has been passionately discussed recently in the Lovecraft community, and one that will remain even if the man is installed in the canon alongside Poe, one of his greatest influences. We must recognize these writers, all writers, as people, human, complex, and flawed, and in doing so we do not support their views but can still learn from what they created.

    8. The Call Of CthulhuJuly 19, 2013 at 7:38 PM

      Beliefs aside, Lovecraft is the most METAL author of all time.

  3. Yeah, that's a great point. If I was unable to divorce the art from the artist, I couldn't watch a single Disney movie:( They'd be relegated to the "Vault" where they keep Disney's frozen head, haha...

  4. To think that M. Humblot and I have nearly identical reactions to Proust's finely detailed tedium!
    Almost makes one believe in the commonality of Man.

    1. Another writer-cum-jerk was H.L. Mencken. I stopped reading him after I heard some of his views.

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    1. Oh how we've missed you, mein herr!!