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The Bracing Brine of Plain Dislike : ROTTEN REVIEWS A Literary Companion Bill Henderson, editor (Pushcart: $12.50; 93 pp., illustrated) : ROTTEN REVIEWS II A Literary Companion Bill Henderson, editor (Pushcart: $12.95; 93 pp., illustrated)

December 27, 1987|Larry Ceplair | The Times' review of Ceplair's most recent book, "Under the Shadow of War: Fascism, Suti-Fascism, & Marxists (Columbia University Press), is forthcoming

These books, collections of snippets of nasty comments on well-known books or well-known authors prior to and after 1961, respectively, force one to confront a hideous, hidden truth about high culture: Critics hate authors even more than authors hate critics. One could be generous and ascribe this hatred to the critics' love of language and veracity, elements frequently trashed by authors, or to a pronounced ecologic1634476147to so unworthy a collection of phrases).

The greater likelihood, however, is that less lofty impulses are at work. After all, a critic receives books wrapped in hype--the inside jacket copy, outside jacket blurbs, and letters from the publisher. Many of these books the critic would not otherwise touch, never mind finish. Finally, in return for the expenditure of precious creative time articulating reasons for disliking the book, the critic receives sums of money and prestige that hardly qualifies him or her for "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." And, if the critic has dared to produce a harsh assessment, nasty letters to the editor follow.

Critics do not face this latent hostility well and, to traduce Oscar Wilde, kill the thing they hate: "The coward does it with a kiss,/ The brave man with a sword."

Unfortunately, as George Orwell noted, most reviewers abjure the sword: "The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with . . . In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be 'This book is worthless,' while the truth about the reviewer's own reaction would probably be 'This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.' "

These two books prove that slashing reviewers are not extinct. "Rotten Reviews" tends to be more concerned with matching a famous author with the most cutting remark that could be found about him or her. "Rotten Reviews II" tends to offer more rapier-like thrusts. In response to Ann Beattie's "Love Always," "Commonweal" wrote: "Beattie's admirable eye for the telling detail has unfortunately developed a squint." "The Listener" said that May Sarton's "Crucial Conversations" "reads like an unsuccessful attempt to make a Montaigne out of a molehill."

But both books, short as they are, are tedious, finally. Longer review snippets matched with the author's acerbic comment about critics or criticism would have provided a far more interesting format, a tennis match rather than a punching bag. Some authors' respon1936028448the end of II, but they are either self-congratulatory, whining, or disingenuous.

Nor are these books representative. Those who read book reviews regularly know that most critics bend over backwards to be "fair" and write "balanced" reviews. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote: "A book is born into a puddle of treacle." Too rare is Peter Prescott's response to Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions": "From time to time it's nice to have a book you can hate--it clears the pipes--and I hate this book." Or Paul Theroux's broadside at Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying: "This novel, misusing vulgarity to the point where it becomes purely foolish, . . . devaluing imagination in every line . . . represents everything that is to be loathed in American fiction today."

Instead, critics regularly hide behind adverbs. Phrases such as curiously flat, oddly positive, bafflingly identifies, decidedly curious, and "somewhat disingenuous, to put it mildly" bedizen the pages of book reviews. The favorite camouflage, however, is the peroration that often follows the most brutal eviscerations: "Despite such objections (errors, shortcomings, idiocies, misinterpretations), this is a book that every student (devotee, masochist, bibliophobe) must read (rent, own)."

But when critics become authors, they squeal, as Shylock did: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" And some undergo a conversion experience. James Atlas, for example, wrote the editors of "Rotten Reviews": "No critic who has even been through the experience of getting slammed by reviewers as I have recently can every feel quite the same about his job." He does not promise to be positive in the future but to criticize "in a gingerly way and with genuine remorse."

That approach serves no one. His future books will not necessarily be treated better, and gingerly, remorsefully written reviews are a disservice to readers. Criticism is not a science; there are no canons of appreciation. If a reviewer thinks a book is bad or the writer stupid, those responses should be reported with all the emotion attendant to their birth. Angry, cutting reviews, eloquently written, citing telling examples of ineptitude, provide what every author needs--what Hardwick calls "the brine of hostile criticism." (He wrote, tremulously.)

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