On the Hatchet Job

Sharp, at times cringe-inducing diagnosis of the negative book review from The New Yorker a few months back. Starting with the tension arising from the powerless but high-minded creative types wringing their hands over every action of the pragmatic elite:

…during much of the fifties and sixties, literary and intellectual life was far removed from the mainstream. Miller’s dismissal of Updike’s novel had zero effect on Updike’s career. The same, one imagines, went for Albee’s play, and for a volume of Arthur Schlesinger’s essays, most of which were panned by Dwight Macdonald in that first New York Review issue. The intellectuals’ inability to affect the social currents and political trends they obsessed over was a driving force behind their negative reviewing.

Elizabeth Hardwick refers, with worldly bluntness, to this sharp sense of limitation in an essay in the inaugural New York Review: “Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.” A few years earlier, Harold Rosenberg had described the downtown bohemian atmosphere as “a kind of metaphysical retirement.” Saul Bellow, in his 1968 story “Mosby’s Memoirs,” contrasted the character of Hymen Lustgarten, a bumbling, ineffectual former left-wing writer, with Willis Mosby, a smooth WASP aristocrat who, by virtue of his position in society, has become a member of the political elite. For many of these writers, the imbalance between the power of their minds and their actual power was almost vertiginous.

And moving to the writer’s own reasons for letting go of Attack Mode:

“New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.”

I don’t know about that last part—pretty horrible defense if you ask me.


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