Nasty, harsh, scathing literary criticism
December 16, 2014 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I enjoy reading erudite yet caustic criticism of literature.

One example would be Michael Hofmann's recent review of Martin Amis's The Zone of Interest that is utterly scathing. I am looking for specific reviews or names of reviewers that have such a reputation. I am not looking for general criticism about the humanities, philosophy or theory (tedious criticism that I loathe). Thank you.
posted by standardasparagus to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dale Peck has been notorious for his caustic criticism. He entitled a collection of same Hatchet Jobs. Sample opener of his review of a Rick Moody book -- "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation."
posted by cupcakeninja at 10:46 AM on December 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


B.R. Myers (The Atlantic) and Katie Roiphe (Slate) are both mega-trolls.
posted by raisindebt at 10:49 AM on December 16, 2014


Harold Bloom has done a lot of this over his career.
posted by jbickers at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't know how erudite he really is, but I immediately thought of John Dolan's fuck-you letter to W. H. Auden (and his probably more famous pre-exposure review of A Million Little Pieces.)
posted by theodolite at 10:54 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not new, nor overly erudite, but for scathing it's hard to beat Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses by Mark Twain.
posted by LonnieK at 11:14 AM on December 16, 2014 [6 favorites]


Thank you, thank you. All very wonderful. Whatever is lacking in erudition may be redeemed in causticity. Perfect reading for over the holidays, truly brings much happiness on the coldest of days.
posted by standardasparagus at 11:16 AM on December 16, 2014


Renata Adler on Pauline Kael is a famously brutal example.
posted by sallybrown at 11:18 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's an annual literary prize for Hatchet Job Of The Year.

Although they somewhat missed the point this year by giving it to AA Gill's squib. Alex Clark's riposte to his review is suitably hatchety itself.
posted by Hartster at 11:21 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Cleanth Brooks is who you're looking for.
posted by dfriedman at 11:22 AM on December 16, 2014


Not sure if my example counts as exactly literary criticism, but I'm fond of this acerbic exchange between philosopher Mary Midgely and biologist Richard Dawkins (for the record, I'm firmly in the Richard Dawkins camp).
posted by alex1965 at 11:25 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't think you can do much better along these lines than D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, which are powered by insights so overwhelmingly mordant and penetrating as to be virtually radioactive:
Whitman

POST-MORTEM effects?

But what of Walt Whitman?

The 'good grey poet'.

Was he a ghost, with all his physicality?

The good grey poet.

Post-mortem effects. Ghosts.

A certain ghoulish insistency. A certain horrible pottage of human parts. A certain stridency and portentousness. A luridness about his beatitudes.

DEMOCRACY! THESE STATES! EIDOLONS! LOVERS, ENDLESS LOVERS!

ONE IDENTITY!

ONE IDENTITY!

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

Do you believe me, when I say post-mortem effects ?

When the Pequod went down, she left many a rank and dirty steamboat still fussing in the seas. The Pequod sinks with all her souls, but their bodies rise again to man innumerable tramp steamers, and ocean-crossing liners. Corpses.

What we mean is that people may go on, keep on, and rush on, without souls. They have their ego and their will, that is enough to keep them going.

So that you see, the sinking of the Pequod was only a metaphysical tragedy after all. The world goes on just the same. The ship of the soul is sunk. But the machine-manipulating body works just the same: digests, chews gum, admires Botticelli and aches with amorous love.

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

What do you make of that? I AM HE THAT ACHES. First generalization. First uncomfortable universalization. WITH AMOROUS LOVE! Oh, God! Better a bellyache. A bellyache is at least specific. But the ACHE OF AMOROUS LOVE!

Think of having that under your skin. All that!

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter. And your ache doesn't include all Amorous Love, by any means. If you ache you only ache with a small bit of amorous love, and there's so much more stays outside the cover of your ache, that you might be a bit milder about it.

I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.

CHUFF! CHUFF! CHUFF!

CHU-CHU-CHU-CHU-CHUFF!

Reminds one of a steam-engine. A locomotive. They're the only things that seem to me to ache with amorous love. All that steam inside them. Forty million foot-pounds pressure. The ache of AMOROUS LOVE. Steam-pressure. CHUFF!

An ordinary man aches with love for Belinda, or his Native Land, or the Ocean, or the Stars, or the Oversoul: if he feels that an ache is in the fashion.

It takes a steam-engine to ache with AMOROUS LOVE. All of it.

Walt was really too superhuman. The danger of the superman is that he is mechanical.
...
And Lawrence actually admires Whitman deeply!
posted by jamjam at 11:26 AM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


An interesting companion piece, and hopefully not so far off as to be unwelcome, would be Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green: a nasty, scathing critique of literary criticism, specifically with regards to reviews of William Gaddis' The Recognitions.
posted by Lorin at 11:38 AM on December 16, 2014


I always link to Geoffrey K. Pullum's The Dan Brown Code whenever someone says "what's so bad about Dan Brown's writing?"
posted by usonian at 11:40 AM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


An acquaintance of mine runs The Review Hart, which focuses on indie books (disclosure, one of my books was reviewed here.). Her partner on this site, Michael Keenan, absolutely massacres books he thinks aren't up to par, like this one.
posted by starbreaker at 11:55 AM on December 16, 2014


George Bernard Shaw on Shakespeare: "As you know, I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare's philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him...."
posted by cincinnatus c at 12:03 PM on December 16, 2014


Have you read Dorothy Parker's literary reviews? Her review of House At Pooh Corner is epic. I can't link to the original (1928 New Yorker) unless you have a subscription, but here's an article describing it, and the review is in the Portable Dorothy Parker.
posted by janey47 at 12:08 PM on December 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, by George Eliot (well, by Marian Evans writing anonymously in the Westminster Review before she became George Eliot).
posted by yarrow at 12:15 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nabokov's Cornell Lectures are just the thing, though not particularly easy to find (and I've been trying on Amazon for at least 14 seconds).
posted by tel3path at 12:23 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if he has this reputation anymore, but William Logan used to be considered a pretty harsh contemporary poetry critic, a maker of enemies with his reviews. Slate (naturally) has an article on him. Here is a NY Times review of a collection of his reviews.
posted by aught at 12:23 PM on December 16, 2014


I haven't finished reading it yet, but Lytton Strachey's lecture on Pope begins "Among the considerations that might make us rejoice or regret that we did not live in the eighteenth century, there is one to my mind that outbalances all the rest--if we had, we might have known Pope. At any rate, we have escaped that." It's not, despite that opening, exactly an attack on Pope, but it is erudite and caustic as all get out.
posted by dizziest at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2014


Seconding Dorothy Parker. Easily about 20% of the snarky one-liners you hear about actresses/books/etc. were originally by her (I can't remember what book she was writing about when she panned one book by saying "this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, it is a book to be thrown aside with great force").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:06 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Haven't read the book in question, but I adore the heck out of this review [NYT] of an apparently scathing Thomas Hardy biography.
posted by Mchelly at 1:26 PM on December 16, 2014


This might or might not match your criteria. In 1979, Joan Didion writes a medium-scathing review of Woody Allen's recent films (Manhattan, Interiors, and Annie Hall). One John Romano of Columbia University pens a response, defending Woody Allen and his work. At the bottom of Mr. Romano's response, the NYRB includes Joan Didion's reply:
Oh, wow.
posted by mhum at 1:46 PM on December 16, 2014


EmpressCallipygos: "I can't remember what book she was writing about when she panned one book by saying "this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, it is a book to be thrown aside with great force""

It's unclear that she ever said that. It is supposedly Benito Mussolini's The Cardinal's Mistress, reviewed in the Sept 15, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, but the New Yorker archives are online now, and I can tell you that review does not contain that quote (but is quite nasty otherwise).
posted by Chrysostom at 1:56 PM on December 16, 2014


Thank you all. Tremendous list thus far! If I find the time I'll compile these reviews into a MeFite Christmas Curmudgeon Criticism Compilation.
posted by standardasparagus at 1:58 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Fighting Words: Writers Lambast Other Writers--From Aristotle to Anne Rice sits on my bookshelf next to Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time. Also two editions of the Portable Curmudgeon. If they all go missing at once, I'll come looking for you.
posted by fedward at 2:59 PM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's probably not quite what you're looking for (though it is caustic), but I love Tony Hoagland's poetic response to critics of D. H. Lawrence and maybe you will enjoy it too.
posted by Quilford at 4:29 PM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


The topics are more pulp than literary, but two internet classics are Slacktivist's ongoing, eleven-year teardown of the Left Behind books and Jenny Trout's hilarious chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of Fifty Shades of Grey. I also find the D, F, and DNF sections of Smart Bitches pretty entertaining.
posted by Alexandra Michelle at 4:34 PM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


This one by DFW re: an Updike novel is a favorite of mine.
posted by mustachio at 9:47 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


The American Spectator's review of Mailer's The Executioner's Song still lingers in my mind. I don't have a citation, and it doesn't appear in the magazine's web site. I remember it as something along the lines of what would happen to a baby harp seal if the hunter really, really hated baby harp seals and didn't need the fur.
posted by Bruce H. at 11:51 PM on December 16, 2014


It's unclear that she ever said that. It is supposedly Benito Mussolini's The Cardinal's Mistress, reviewed in the Sept 15, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, but the New Yorker archives are online now, and I can tell you that review does not contain that quote (but is quite nasty otherwise).

....Okay, but, like, she did say other things, so my larger point still stands.

Her review of The House At Pooh Corner, for instance - her column was called "The Constant Reader," incidentally (which, OP, you may want to do a search for that title specifically for the most direct results), and she so hated the childishness in it that she adopted baby talk to deliver her verdict: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 AM on December 17, 2014


Oh, absolutely, I just wanted to point out that the "great force" line is of unknown provenance, and was definitely not in the frequently cited review of Mussolini's book. No argument that Parker is a great source of literary sniping.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:05 AM on December 17, 2014


This wasn't bad either: a takedown of Lynn Truss called Eats, Shoots and Leaves Us Cold.
posted by LonnieK at 5:27 PM on December 17, 2014


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