The timidity of literary criticism
Published 03/07/2010 | 05:00
The art of adverse criticism is all but dead, or at least so rare as to be the occasion of news stories.
A century ago, George Bernard Shaw regularly railed at the awfulness of English music and the turgidity of Brahms. In the 1950s, Kenneth Tynan felt free to skewer the pretensions of Beckett and Pinter and to expose the acting fragilities of Vivien Leigh and Michael Redgrave.
Meanwhile, on the literary front, Truman Capote was eviscerating Jack Kerouac ("That's not writing, that's typing"), while a little later Gore Vidal (below) was being bracingly rude about Norman Mailer and John Updike.
Since then, incest -- which always tainted reviewing -- has become the norm, with Pal A raving about Pal B's latest offering, his superlatives chosen in the knowledge that Pal B will be equally enthusiastic when it comes time to return the favour.
But a more general timidity has also infected reviewing, and this is especially noticeable in the coverage of books, where hardly anyone dares to say a bad or even sceptical word, especially about a writer whom the literary establishment has deemed to be untouchable.
And thus it was that academic Terry Eagleton's review in the London Review of Books last week of the first novel by poet Craig Raine made headline news in British papers. Eagleton, who's currently visiting professor at NUI Galway, tore into Raine's Heartbreak, declaring it "a novel in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough" and noting that "the publishers have represented it as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers."
Those broadsides are contained in Eagleton's opening paragraph and the review doesn't get any kinder from then on, not least about Raine's prose, which Eagleton deems worthy of Pseud's Corner. But, hey, it's just a hard-hitting piece (you'll find it on www.lrb.co.uk) and is hardly deserving of excited media attention.
However, such is the craven state of most critical journalism that it's deemed to be newsworthy.