Why don't American critics engage in hatchet jobs? That was the question recently posed in The New York Times by Clive James, who pinpointed hostile literary criticism as the one thing lacking on the American cultural scene. The US, he said, "can't do the bitchery of book reviewing" where "ripping somebody's reputation is a recognised blood sport" – instead, American periodicals regard such reviews as "negative" and thus to be avoided.
And, indeed, the rare exceptions prove the rule – Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, getting a lot of outraged flak last year for her demolition of the "sweetly sentimental", though generally revered, Anne Tyler in the New York Review of Books. Otherwise, and significantly, the few savage reviews in US publications are usually by non-Americans: notably John Banville's withering putdown of Ian McEwan's Saturday and Zoe Heller's caustic comments on Salman Rushdie's recent memoir, both printed in the NYRB.
Yet it's a US critic writing for a British periodical who's responsible for the latest attack on a sainted American literary icon. Reviewing Alice Munro's latest collection in the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen (who's also an LRB senior editor) says that although the Canadian short story writer's reputation "is like a good address, it's an address I wouldn't want to move to, and I didn't enjoy my recent visit".
Perhaps, he muses, that's because he's a misogynist or a "big city chauvinist" or is simply "deaf to the charms of simple sentences, perfectly polished and perfectly humourless", but reading 10 of her volumes in a row induced in him "not a glow of admiration but a state of mental torpor that spread into the rest of my life".
That last admission provoked a letter in the latest LRB from a California reader who wittily declared: "I just ate 10 two-pound boxes of chocolates. I feel terrible. The chocolates must be bad."
Still, Lorentzen's review shows how a literary hatchet job can be accomplished by damning with faint praise and praising with faint damns.