Rewarding The Poison Pen
February 18, 2013 1:57 PM   Subscribe

The Omnivore's Hatchet Job of the Year rewards "the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past 12 months," with the winning critic taking home a golden hatchet and a year's supply of potted shrimp. 2013's winner: Camilla Long, for her devastating review of Rachel Cusk's divorce memoir, Aftermath. Among other things, she described it as a nasty, bizarre memoir written by a "brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist." (Via)

More
* The harshest book reviews of the year - in pictures
* Hatchet jobs: Agony for the author but bliss for us to read. (John Walsh describes how he and his fellow judges chose a winner for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award)

Honorable Mentions
* Zoë Heller on Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
* Allan Massie on The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine
* Suzanne Moore on Vagina by Naomi Wolf
* Craig Brown on The Odd Couple by Richard Bradford
* Ron Charles on Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
* Richard Evans on Hitler: A Short Biography by A.N. Wilson
* Claire Harman on Silver: A Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

Previously on Mefi
* The Omnivore
* Last year's winners: 2012's Hatchet Job of the Year Awards. (Adam Mars-Jones took the award for his takedown of By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.)

Previously in The Guardian
* Is Zoë Heller's review of Salman Rushdie's memoir the 'hatchet job of the year'?
* From Franzen to Fieri, the five rules of the review as takedown
* Hatchet Job of the Year shortlist lines up sharpest reviews
posted by zarq (71 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dayum. After that review i wanna divorce Rachel Cusk, and im not even married to her.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow, that was a scorcher. I'm tempted to read Cusk just to see if she is that terrible.
posted by Area Man at 2:17 PM on February 18, 2013


So. This is what happens when someone's unexpurgated diary gets used as source material; Confusion to other-readers and great wallows of self-pity.

In other news: Hyphens! They're making a comeback!
posted by LD Feral at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2013


I particularly recommend the takedown of Hitler: A Short Biography. It's not made up of acuteness or snark -- just a brutal listing fact after fact that was blatantly wrong:

The "Aryan race" in Nazi ideology was not "the Eurasian race"; it did not include "Slavs", "Latins" or "Celts". Hitler's ideas did not include a "quasi-religious cult of violence based on a return to the mythologies of the pagan north" – pagan cults and mythologies were publicly condemned by Hitler in 1938. General elections were not "held on an almost monthly basis" in 1932; there were only two, in July and November. General Erich Ludendorff's "proph­ecy" of the damage Hitler would cause once in power was invented later by the Nazi Hans Frank and has no basis in fact . . .

After a while it became hilarious. I wanted to start making up my own.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:24 PM on February 18, 2013 [16 favorites]


I remember reading the Zoe Heller takedown of Rushdie's book. It was brutal.
posted by Kitteh at 2:33 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Strangely enough, I don't think the knives were sharp enough for either Cusk or Wolf. Bravo, the reviewers made it farther than I did for either book.
posted by jadepearl at 2:37 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The AV Club is mean to Pete Wentz.

Honestly, I'll probably enjoy it and I'll enjoy whatever review this is about "So. This is what happens when someone's unexpurgated diary gets used as source material; Confusion to other-readers and great wallows of self-pity."
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:40 PM on February 18, 2013


I found my first example of clear pedantic bitchiness in one of these:
This scrapbook way of making a book is also lazy. “There was a small item in Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair about Hollywood dinner parties and how boring they were – because all everyone talked about was who’d had plastic surgery and who had big cocks. Supermarket outlets were outraged and Tina had to tour selected Wal-Marts to calm the buyers.” So what? In any case, can a supermarket outlet be enraged, and how could she have toured unselected ones? Poets ought to be more careful in their use of language
Find me one English speaker who would be confused by "Supermarket outlets were outraged" in this context. Oh, you mean the parking lots and aisles and cash registers were outraged? You should have made yourself more clear! Ridiculous.
posted by thelonius at 2:41 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


These are the "angriest, funniest, most trenchant" reviews from the entire English-speaking world, renowned in other countries for its wit? Yawn.
posted by Termite at 2:43 PM on February 18, 2013


OK, on further reading, the Naomi Wolf one was good.
posted by Termite at 2:49 PM on February 18, 2013


The first two paragraphs of the Naomi Wolf review made me laugh like a hyena in my dim, empty office on this federal holiday, so thank you for posting this.
posted by eugenen at 2:58 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


God *damn*, that takedown of Guy Fieri's restaurant had flow.
posted by notsnot at 2:59 PM on February 18, 2013


The strange bit is everything else. The book is crammed with mad, flowery metaphors and hifalutin creative-writing experiments. There are hectic passages on Greek tragedy and the Christian concept of family, as well as fragments of ghost stories, references to the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, and heavy Freudian symbolism, including a long description of the removal of a molar, “a large tooth,” she writes portentously, “of great…personal significance”. The final chapter is an out-of-body experience — her situation seen through the eyes of her pill-popping Eastern European au pair. Oddly, I read the whole thing in a Bulgarian accent.

This book sounds great, and I want to read it. The best way to make sense of the world is to insert yourself into a mythic flow of events, whether its Joyce comparing the wandering of his characters to the Odyssey or Patrick Stickles framing his personal life in terms of a civil war battle. A shame the reviewer is too small-minded to see that.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:04 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Cuntini" sounds like the world's worst cocktail. I can almost imagine the blend. Blrgh.

I'm not thrilled about the fact that two of these reviews, including the winner, feature women savaging the intimate inner lives of other women. But, to be fair, said women should not have written such terrible books.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:05 PM on February 18, 2013


Naomi Wolf's book got trashed by everybody. I didn't read single positive review.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:08 PM on February 18, 2013


My favorite in this genre, unfortunately from 2011, before the first of these awards, is Christopher Hitchens's takedown in the NYT of David Mamet's The Secret Knowledge.

My favorite slam: [A claim about the Israelis and Palestinians] has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic.
posted by netdpb at 3:14 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not thrilled about the fact that two of these reviews, including the winner, feature women savaging the intimate inner lives of other women. But, to be fair, said women should not have written such terrible books.

Exactly. I was a little bothered (at first) by this as well, but then I realized... what would have happened if men had penned those reviews? A likely chorus across the Twitterverse of MEN WRITES DEVASTATING PAN OF WOMAN'S BOOK MISOGYNY BLRGH and the quality (or lack thereof) of the reviewed books, as well as the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the reviews themselves, would have become a sideshow. I wish it weren't that way, and I think our better male and female thinkers don't jump on that bandwagon, but a lot of people do.

I doubt that I will bother subjecting myself to potential torture with either the Cusk or the Wolff book, but if they are anywhere near as deserving of these hatchet jobs as the reviews suggest, then I say someone had to do it. Long has it exactly right when she says "This is a pity, as confessional writing is meant to be about truth — the whole truth." If women want to be taken seriously in the intellectual and literary arenas, then they have to be open to honest criticism, and if their subject is their own lives, well, then they have to be ready for criticism (and maybe judgment) there as well. If Thomas Friedman's and Salman Rushdie's work can be the subject of hatchet jobs, then why not Naomi Wolff?

Of course, so many women are already writing good to great books, fiction and nonfiction. I'm thinking of last year's "By Blood" by Ellen Ullman, anything by Amy Bloom, "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson, anything by Tana French (lighter fare but still worth a look). Some women will write great books, some women will write poor books, and the vast majority will lie somewhere in between. I wish all of those books would get the critical attention they deserve.
posted by Currer Belfry at 3:34 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The best way to make sense of the world is to insert yourself into a mythic flow of events
note: this is incredibly dangerous and should never be attempted by anyone
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:37 PM on February 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


I just read this takedown of Jamaica Kincaid's new book from the NYT a week or so ago - I think it's a strong early contender for next year's prize.
posted by mygothlaundry at 3:56 PM on February 18, 2013


This seems like a good place to link to the only really mean book review I ever wrote, of a history-of-math book by David Berlinski.
posted by escabeche at 3:59 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


A shame the reviewer is too small-minded to see that.

Oh man, dude, spend just a couple months at an art school and tell me how long it takes you to grow weary of the mythical.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:24 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Has there ever been a book written about one's own divorce that isn't shitty? On its face, exploiting for cash the private lives of others while they are still ambling this earth seems gross.
posted by basicchannel at 4:36 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


To be fair to Rachel Cusk, she also wrote a book about how she wasn't really into being a mother even though she had two kids, and another book about being unhappy in her hometown, then selling her house and travelling to Italy with husband and kids while she sought the geographical cure and an odd friendship with a Scottish man called Jim.

Maybe it would be safer for her to pull out of the navel gazing, take up yoga, and write a genre novel based entirely on library research.
posted by C.A.S. at 4:57 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Has there ever been a book written about one's own divorce that isn't shitty? On its face exploiting for cash the private lives of others while they are still ambling this earth seems gross.

Possibly, but it certainly would have to be funny and self-deprecating or at least have something wise to say about the experience rather than just spewing a bunch of whiny mythologizing in every direction like an emo pinwheel. Divorce is really painful, it's like dying, but it doesn't give you magic dignity or special insight into the secrets of universe anymore than having cancer does--you still have to turn it into art. Splashing classical allusions on your wounds is as easy as it is ineffectual. This is more than a vicious takedown, it's a thing that needs to be heard by every nascent memoirist. Pain makes pretentious cliches and high dudgeon seem like epic poetry (though for healing purposes they can be useful) but good writing has to say something interesting not just be gruesomely honest.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:28 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Possibly, but it certainly would have to be funny and self-deprecating or at least have something wise to say about the experience rather than just spewing a bunch of whiny mythologizing in every direction like an emo pinwheel.

Yes, the best way to deal with a blow to your ego is to attack it more, and the only valid way to present yourself is as somebody who's less special than you are. Self-deprecation and a 'sense of humor' are the highest virtues, not glorious writing or sublime beauty.

And what's an 'emo pinwheel'? A pinwheel with razor blades that cuts you when you spin it?

Maybe it would be safer for her to pull out of the navel gazing, take up yoga, and write a genre novel based entirely on library research.

Because another book about 'spiritual self-discovery' is exactly what the world needs.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:46 PM on February 18, 2013


escabeche, nice review. I believe I had a copy of The Advent of the Algorithm at some point but sold it unread after finding out that Berlinski is an evolution denier. Possibly this is not a fair way to evaluate a book, but luckily the terrible quotes in your review convinced me that I might well have done the same based on its actual (lack of) merits. Which seems better to me. So chalk my feeling of vindication up as another victory for hatchet jobs.
posted by valrus at 6:31 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


That Richard Evans review was just terrific. I like that most of these (though, not so much the winner) are really much more than hatchet jobs.

I think there's something degrading - and a bit dispiriting - about vicious reviews, where the calumny far outstrips the mediocre or wan output it assesses. Scaling those lofty peaks of hyperbole to damn the vista of pop-culture seems like a futile effort - doubly so when everyone is perfectly aware that Twilight or whatever is shit. It's a bit masturbationary, I feel. (And let the record reflect I was far, far from innocent in my own four years or so of reviewing books professionally. It is an addictive, powerful feeling, to enthusiastically rip the shit out of something with unremitting fervour).

Really good criticism should be targeted at the dangerous texts. The ones attracting acclaim, being paid Serious Attention to, being held up as exemplars of excellence, prose, a way of thinking, a way of living. But transporting messages that are actually dangerous, destructive, oft-times wilfully stupid. And crucially not immediately apparent to on a reflexive reading.

That's when you need proper criticism. Deconstruction, contextual knowledge. Powerful, forceful arguments that are damning in their own right sans any linguistic flourishes.

I think I've spoken about it before on mefi, but you know when I was reviewing, the hardest reviews were neither the good ones, nor the bad ones. Hardest (and the reason I stopped reviewing professionally) was the endless procession of mediocrity. Hard indeed, to meet your word count when a book could be summed up quickly: "This book is exactly what you would expect from the cover, blurb, author and publisher. It is not very good, but neither is it very bad. If you like this sort of thing, you will probably like it. If you don't like this sort of thing, you definitely won't like it."

Most books I reviewed fell into this category, and it's relentlessly depressing as an open-minded reader, to have your expectations so consistently and decrepitly met.
posted by smoke at 7:12 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's ten years old now and James Frey is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, but I think this review is a pinnacle of the takedown genre. (NSFW ads in sidebar)
posted by metaman livingblog at 7:16 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rachel Cusk is an excellent novelist. As a memoirist, not my favorite.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:19 PM on February 18, 2013


These are so much fun. My favorite negative view will always be this takedown of a biography of Thomas Hardy, whch I've saved (in print form) since the morning it almost sent cereal out my nose.
posted by Mchelly at 8:00 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yes, the best way to deal with a blow to your ego is to attack it more, and the only valid way to present yourself is as somebody who's less special than you are. Self-deprecation and a 'sense of humor' are the highest virtues, not glorious writing or sublime beauty.

There's a passage in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead which struck me very strongly the first few times I read it. The protagonist, I think, Howard Roark, is walking through a street somewhere in a moment of real dejection and confusion, wondering why the things he loves are so seemingly valueless to the rest of society. And, as he walks, he passes by a playbill for a Romeo & Juliet remake which advertises something like: "These kids aren't normal! There's nothing special about them! We've taken Bill Shakespeare's classic play and turned it as mundane as you are!"

Your argument sounds like Rand's: why is self-deprecation and the mundane valued over this mountain peak known as the sublime, this testament to glory and greatness? And it makes the same mistake that Rand made – that is, it thinks great art is somehow a denial of reality, rather than a testament to it.

Humor and self-deprecation are how we acknowledge one of those most difficult truths – the fact is, we're not gods, we're not myths. Not even the best of us were. Jefferson owned slaves, Teddy Roosevelt was kind of a dick, Joe Biden doesn't throw keggers at the White House. Wonderful things grow out of piss and shit and cum and dirt – that's just how it is. If you get too mythical, too grand, without stopping to consider the banalities, then you're not telling the truth. And you're not going to give a real sense of that greatness; at most, you'll make a pretty illusion that people can buy into if they lack a sense of perspective.

I think that this is at the heart of every significant piece of art criticism – the excellent bit of nastiness that metaman livingblog just posted is a perfect example. Art that's bad for being too safe, too typical, rarely draws the ire of these "hatchet jobs". No, the anger comes from a smart critic reading Rushdie or Cusk or Wolf and going, "You know what? This is bullshit. People are saying good things about this because it confirms what they want to already believe, but there's something glaringly missing in the details and it's frustrating as fuck." I find, and you might find too, that it's easier to hate something that's great in one shallow way and completely lacking in another than it is to hate something which is truly, thoroughly, mediocre. At the same time, I enjoy the hell out of things which attempt greatness and fail utterly – it's why I host The Room showings and read people "My Immortal", the wretched Harry Potter fanfic. They want to be something which they're not, and the discrepancy is hilarious.

What I'm getting at is that self-deprecation and humor are crucial to sublime beauty, glorious writing. They are a part of what makes us human. If we weren't capable of thinking too highly of ourselves, making such stupid mistakes, we wouldn't be conscious at all. Shit, we'd be, like, logs or something. Humor gives us context. It reminds us: this is who we are. And anything great that happens, anything lovely, anything truly stupendous, is genuinely an accomplishment. We can't take greatness for granted. It doesn't happen without supreme effort, supreme failure. And it is all the more beautiful for that chance of failure.

Name a great writer without a sense of humor. Just one. I've found that the greater a writer is, the more sublime his or her sense of humor. Melville, and his fantastic yarns about every man pointing to the sea; Joyce's delirious sexuality; Shakespeare's jokes about masturbation and impotence and Hamlet's metajoke criticizing actors for being too melodramatic. Humor for sake of cynicism, or self-deprecation for the sake of self-pity, has limits. Humor for the sake of capturing the sublime, ungraspable truth is crucial.

Don't get me wrong. I love myths. I love fairy tales. My favorite novel of all time is a YA book which uses English folk ballads to comment on the mysteries and beauty of the world, masterfully; I think there's value in pointing out the miraculousness of everything and suchlike. But the problem with such ambitions is how easily you can get lost in your own grandeur. It sounds like Cusk and Rushdie lost themselves pretty deeply in some serious bullshit, to the extent that they lost the humor that might have kept their work beautiful.

Is it truly a "mythic flow of events" when Rachel Cusk describes a landlady as a "witch" with a "large mounded body, a shock of grey frizzy hair, a clutch of big yellow teeth, a red leathery face grotesquely made up"? Or is that just some author deciding that she has the right to use her descriptive talents to bitch about somebody, a real person, who did her some minor wrong? Is there something sublime and uplifting about the thought that, yes, it's possible to be a real asshole to somebody else, then defend your own weaknesses while still insulting them for theirs – the way Heller accuses Rushdie of doing? Both of these reviewers acknowledge the talent of these books' writers. Their criticism is that talent is not enough. Technique is not enough. Grandeur is not enough. Things can be all these things and still be loathsome. In fact, maybe it's only the works of deluded ambition and talent which are worth loathing.

Like I said, spent a couple months at an art school. I recommend the film and theatre students especially. If you want to be stripped of the illusion that self-importance is the same thing as artistic greatness, just look for the guy who writes himself into sex scenes with his numerous crushes, or the girl who cynically attacks society by making self-consciously terrible, miserable films. You'll learn pretty quickly that nothing is uglier than a person who sees themselves as worthy of self-worship – not even mediocrity.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:37 PM on February 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yes, the best way to deal with a blow to your ego is to attack it more, and the only valid way to present yourself is as somebody who's less special than you are. Self-deprecation and a 'sense of humor' are the highest virtues, not glorious writing or sublime beauty.

Charlemagne, you may want to fight for this hill, but you'll die on it, because the writing in Cusk's book is neither glorious nor sublime.

Because another book about 'spiritual self-discovery' is exactly what the world needs.

That isn't what C.A.S. recommended she write.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:41 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


On second thought, what Rory said.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:43 PM on February 18, 2013


Is it truly a "mythic flow of events" when Rachel Cusk describes a landlady as a "witch" with a "large mounded body, a shock of grey frizzy hair, a clutch of big yellow teeth, a red leathery face grotesquely made up"? Or is that just some author deciding that she has the right to use her descriptive talents to bitch about somebody, a real person, who did her some minor wrong?

But in the book and presumably in her mind, she's not a 'real person' (whatever that is) - she's a person she saw and translated into a character. Which is something awesome - that inside the mundane shells of all of are are lurking witches and gods and demons and demigods and symbols.

Humor gives us context. It reminds us: this is who we are.

That's what so disturbing and evil about it - it tears us down, reminds us how little and pointless we actually are. And it feels like all these reviews hate everyone who doesn't buy into that stupid, petty narrative.


Name a great writer without a sense of humor. Just one. I've found that the greater a writer is, the more sublime his or her sense of humor. Melville, and his fantastic yarns about every man pointing to the sea; Joyce's delirious sexuality; Shakespeare's jokes about masturbation and impotence and Hamlet's metajoke criticizing actors for being too melodramatic. Humor for sake of cynicism, or self-deprecation for the sake of self-pity, has limits. Humor for the sake of capturing the sublime, ungraspable truth is crucial.

People don't remember or quote the gravediggers in Hamlet or the comedic thugs at the start of Romeo & Juliet. They don't quote the many jokes in Joyce. Out of all of Milton, what is most remembered? Satan's speech.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:48 PM on February 18, 2013


she described it as a nasty, bizarre memoir written by a "brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist."

A description like that just makes me want to give it a chance, at least.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:50 PM on February 18, 2013


People don't remember or quote the gravediggers in Hamlet or the comedic thugs at the start of Romeo & Juliet. They don't quote the many jokes in Joyce. Out of all of Milton, what is most remembered? Satan's speech.

"People" think "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" is a question about Romeo's location. "People" think Hamlet could commit suicide before finishing his big speech. "People" don't even read Paradise Lost.

Let's read the works themselves, and not their reputations.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:59 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


That's what so disturbing and evil about it

Humor? Are you talking about humor? 'Cause I've never before encountered the argument that humor is evil. But I'd like to.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:01 PM on February 18, 2013


It was a response to a very specific line:
Possibly, but it certainly would have to be funny and self-deprecating
. So humor aimed at onesself, and humor aimed at taking yourself down, specifically the kind of humor that people always find lacking in these kind of self-mythologizing books or songs or whatever, is actively evil. It quickly turns to mocking laughter and an instinct to terror down greatness.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:09 PM on February 18, 2013


It quickly turns to mocking laughter and an instinct to tear down greatness.

Read Tristram Shandy and then write this without laughing.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:18 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Has there ever been a book written about one's own divorce that isn't shitty?

Well, to the extent that it qualifies anyway, I read Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth just after someone posted "The Fourth State of Matter" here. It's astonishingly good.
posted by brennen at 9:27 PM on February 18, 2013


humor aimed at onesself, and humor aimed at taking yourself down, specifically the kind of humor that people always find lacking in these kind of self-mythologizing books or songs or whatever, is actively evil.

If this is true, then I don't know if Woody Allen is the most evil man on Earth or a logical impossibility. Anyway, IME, "self-mythologizers" are always at least a little humorous; it's just a matter of whether they are aware of that or not.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:30 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Self-deprecating humor is evil? I could not possibly disagree more. It's not always fruitful, and not always a great strategy for personal growth, but it's also infinitely more charitable than other-deprecating humor.

I haven't read Cusk's most recent memoir. But her memoir about becoming a parent---which I liked OK, but less than her novels (of which The Country Life is by far my favorite)---was remarkable to me in its lack of charity toward others, which to me wasn't balanced by any recognition of her own failings or foibles.

"Silly you! Silly them!" needs to be balanced by "Silly me! Silly us!" or it feels claustrophobic. Even the great vitrioleurs and vitrioleuses, like Hunter S. Thompson and H. L. Mencken and Dorothy Parker, were aware of their own fallibility and ridiculousness. Otherwise you're just taking cheap shots from a high horse.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:19 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Man, that is a lot of well-to-do white people.
posted by nushustu at 11:15 PM on February 18, 2013


Charlemagne In Sweatpants, try more careful attention to the text - I didn't write she should write a yoga novel, i wrote that she "should take up yoga AND write a GENRE novel",

i.e. a murder mystery (or spy novel, or romance, take your pick - something about fictional people
posted by C.A.S. at 12:26 AM on February 19, 2013


Divorce books, what about Nora Ephron's Heartburn (about Carl Bernstein)? People seem to like that one
posted by C.A.S. at 12:28 AM on February 19, 2013


Also, Charlemagne, seeing people as characters, let alone using them for one's own purposes (i.e. a good story/mythic tale of one's own inner state/journey) - that's what gets one a narcissist tag -

failing to recognise the separate humanity of people is bad, doing that to people in your family who don't have much choice in the matter (like your children, for instance) is morally dubious.
posted by C.A.S. at 12:31 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Humor, self-deprecation, and most of all, EMPATHY. That's what makes great writing, and what allows us to take anything away from books, the chance to understand someone else's humanity and experience.

Empathy is the opposite of narcissism.

Rachel Cusk, by turning her life into a self-centred internal drama where others are role players, and classical allusions are used to justify one's own excessive self-consciousness and self importance, is not doing anyone any favours.
posted by C.A.S. at 12:37 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This seems like a good place to link to the only really mean book review I ever wrote, of a history-of-math book by David Berlinski.
posted by escabeche at 3:59 PM on February 18 [5 favorites +] [!]


Wow, David Berlinski! Yeah, I read through A Tour of the Calculus, and The History of the Algorithm in college. I remember showing an older hippie friend his (snooty) picture on the in-sleeve, and saying "this is why people hate math, its explained condescendingly by guys that look like this!"

I actually liked both of those books, but I think you're right about his writing style. Its been a while since I last read them, but I remember clearly how every time he introduced an historical figure, he would write at length of the persons looks, demeanor, character ... in a way that he wanted to fictionalize, or mythologate (totally sure that's a word) them.

I love accessible pop-math books, or anything that just tries to explain the mode of thought to a wider audience, but something about his direction of the actual Mathematicians always struck me as an awkward nerd fan-fiction.
posted by lkc at 1:18 AM on February 19, 2013


Ordinary stories about ordinary people and their ordinary problems seen in an ordinary, down to earth way is what makes soap operas and Maury Povich the highest form of art.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:30 AM on February 19, 2013


Ordinary stories about ordinary people and their ordinary problems seen in an ordinary, down to earth way is what makes soap operas and Maury Povich the highest form of art.

As unintentional satire perhaps. With all the subtlety, subtext and nuance of a sledgehammer.

Neither medium portrays "ordinary" people or problems. Soap operas and Maury Povich certainly don't give a realistic "down-to-Earth" perspective of the human condition.
posted by zarq at 3:24 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Dozen of photos of people I do not recognize and who are not identified.

Talk about an eff-you attitude!
posted by IndigoJones at 5:48 AM on February 19, 2013


People don't remember or quote the gravediggers in Hamlet or the comedic thugs at the start of Romeo & Juliet. They don't quote the many jokes in Joyce. Out of all of Milton, what is most remembered? Satan's speech.

Disagree. Joyce's (dirty/earthy) humour is a big part of his attraction because it puts into perspective the loftier aspects of his work, R & J can be directed as a great tragicomedy (Falstaff is one of S's most popular characters) and sometimes the little bits are just as inspiring cf. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Since this is a reviews thread, how about Dante putting people in Hell/Limbo/Purgatory according to how much he liked them?

Like I said, spent a couple months at an art school. I recommend the film and theatre students especially. If you want to be stripped of the illusion that self-importance is the same thing as artistic greatness, just look for the guy who writes himself into sex scenes with his numerous crushes, or the girl who cynically attacks society by making self-consciously terrible, miserable films.

Or go to Livejournal archives and don't pay tuition.
posted by ersatz at 6:00 AM on February 19, 2013


Cusk's work is often excerpted in The Guardian on Saturdays. Her pieces are literally unbelievable. You can't really engage with her words because your brain is too busy looking for definite proof that the work is a put-on. You just can't believe she is real.
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 6:10 AM on February 19, 2013


Ordinary stories about ordinary people and their ordinary problems seen in an ordinary, down to earth way is what makes soap operas and Maury Povich the highest form of art.

Someone tell Chekhov he's been writing soap operas.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:13 AM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Traditionally, soap operas have been anything but "ordinary stories about ordinary people and their ordinary problems." Soap operas and reality TV rely on emotionally charged, archetypal, stock characters with very little introspection or appreciation of their own limits, usually. As a genre, the soap opera is nothing but the ordinary made grand. It is precisely the insertion of the "mythic" into the ordinary flow of bourgeois life that Charlemagne craves. (Cf. the descent of the soap opera from the gothic romance with attention to Austen's Northanger Abbey.) This can be moving in a skilled hand; more often the result is just bathos.

Can I take this moment to say that whenever I see the name "Charlemagne In Sweatpants," I start humming Michael Penn's "No Myth"? "What if I were Charlemagne In Sweatpants / what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth / ..." Thanks!
posted by octobersurprise at 7:23 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The funniest review I've ever read was a very short review of a book of poetry the singer Jewel put out (this is probably at least a decade ago). It was in a magazine, for some reason I think Spin magazine, but I don't remember. The reviewer merely described the attributes of the physical book itself and the font choice, never mentioning the content.
posted by Falconetti at 8:22 AM on February 19, 2013


People don't remember or quote the gravediggers in Hamlet or the comedic thugs at the start of Romeo & Juliet. They don't quote the many jokes in Joyce. Out of all of Milton, what is most remembered? Satan's speech.

The famous "lovers' sonnet" in Romeo and Juliet, in which the couple goes from not knowing one another to being deeply in love by way of dirty puns?

Molly Bloom's soliloquy, which ends with an orgasm that literally brings the whole of Ulysses to a stop? Or the entirety of Finnegans Wake?

Hell, little kids snigger at the name Moby-Dick, because, DICK! And they wouldn't be wrong to! If you think masculine insecurity in the face of the unknown isn't a major theme in Moby-Dick, well... well. Well.

Dude, the history of art is a long history of artists realizing that profound truth in and of itself is not especially valuable. The truth itself can be reduced easily to a cliche. What makes art profound is how thoroughly it reaches people, and you reach people in part by doing things that people like.

Woody Allen. Isaac Asimov. JK Rowling. Quentin Tarantino. Shakespeare, Melville, Joyce, Hemingway, Marquez. Mozart and Beethoven. Lennon and McCartney. Without humor, there is no art. One of my early memories of sublime cinema is Walter and the Dude pouring Donny's ashes out of a Folger's can and it blowing back in their face. The humor doesn't lessen the profundity. It's what proves that it's there.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:20 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Falconetti: "The funniest review I've ever read was a very short review of a book of poetry the singer Jewel put out (this is probably at least a decade ago). It was in a magazine, for some reason I think Spin magazine, but I don't remember. The reviewer merely described the attributes of the physical book itself and the font choice, never mentioning the content."

Spin, August 1998. Here's the review.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:14 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


People don't remember or quote the gravediggers in Hamlet or the comedic thugs at the start of Romeo & Juliet.

Speak for yourself! I remember them, and so does any lover of Shakespeare! Are you arguing that humor is a non-essential part of his genius?
posted by feste at 10:23 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eponysterical!

And the lines I quote most often from Shakespeare are these:

GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR: Ay, so can I, or so can any man;
But do they come when you do call to them?
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:27 AM on February 19, 2013


This really belongs in the thread with mccarty.tim's menu item generator but that's closed: someone ganked Fieri's domain and substituted a variant menu.
posted by gingerest at 3:45 PM on February 19, 2013


God, Amis writes working-class speech like a man who's never even walked past a council estate gingerly with his hands on his keys and phone.

Oh.
posted by mippy at 8:01 AM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


t was a response to a very specific line: Possibly, but it certainly would have to be funny and self-deprecating. So humor aimed at oneself, and humor aimed at taking yourself down, specifically the kind of humor that people always find lacking in these kind of self-mythologizing books or songs or whatever, is actively evil. It quickly turns to mocking laughter and an instinct to terror down greatness.

Just to be clear Charlemagne I.S., I finished that sentence with "...or at least have something wise to say about the experience rather than just spewing...". I agree with you that some great art isn't funny at all. You don't have to discount humor to make that point. I was saying "Humor or at least wisdom is necessary, not just raw self-pity, that isn't good writing."

Furthermore, this is about Divorce, not losing a child or falling in love or growing old. Divorce, no matter how awful, is inherently funny, because like, yo, you fucked up. You were wrong about the most important thing you ever had to decide. Good work dummy. To treat it like Gotterdammerung with a straight face is pretty much impossible. Not to mention that this lady sounds like a bad writer.

But I mean I love that we're debating this shit based on a review of a book neither one of us has read. Metafilter's Finest Boyeeeee. *shoots 2 muskets into the air*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:53 AM on February 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Furthermore, this is about Divorce, not losing a child or falling in love or growing old. Divorce, no matter how awful, is inherently funny, because like, yo, you fucked up. You were wrong about the most important thing you ever had to decide. Good work dummy. To treat it like Gotterdammerung with a straight face is pretty much impossible.

I disagree! The MORE mundane something is the more you need to mythologize it. Joyce turned one day in Dublin into a Greek epic. The Hold Steady turn scene politics and murder into Biblical allegory. Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus compared moving from New Jersey to Boston with a Civil War battle. The idea is that life is so inherently meaningless that one way to give it meaning is to look for correspondences that elevate it into the realm of the mystical. John Crowley does this in some of his books and M John Harrison critiques it in The Course of the Heart. Unknown Armies lets you play it out in an RPG. I'm not sure what the name for this mode of being is, but its a valid way to make sense of the world.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:09 PM on February 20, 2013


Joyce turned one day in Dublin into a Greek epic.

No, he parodied Greek epic with a day in Dublin. Odysseus avoids home because he knows Penelope is sleeping with her suitor.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:29 PM on February 20, 2013


The MORE mundane something is the more you need to mythologize it.

As a literary technique, it can have real merit. As something you impose on the real people in your life, this can be problematic.
posted by Area Man at 1:38 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


From a conversation between two bad readers:

"'Now I, on the contrary, adore stories that rush breathlessly along, that frighten one. I detest commonplace heroes and moderate sentiments, such as there are in nature.'"

From a letter by its author:

"I am in the act of composing a conversation between a young man and a young woman about literature, the sea, mountains, music, and all other so-called poetic subjects. It may all seem to be seriously meant to the average reader, but in point of fact the grotesque is my real intention. It will be the first time, I think, that a novel appears where fun is made of the leading lady and her young man. But irony does not impair pathos - on the contrary, irony enhances the pathetic side."

Emphases mine.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:02 PM on February 20, 2013


She was flamed then by the critics for her self-absorption and fearlessness — and there’s plenty to get the blood circulating in this book, too. Her sheer pretension, for starters. “I surrendered to the ascetic purity of that other religion, hunger,” she moos.

Perhaps hatchet jobs can be yet more vicious, but I really don't see how.
posted by BigSky at 4:03 PM on February 20, 2013



She was flamed then by the critics for her self-absorption and fearlessness — and there’s plenty to get the blood circulating in this book, too. Her sheer pretension, for starters. “I surrendered to the ascetic purity of that other religion, hunger,” she moos.

Perhaps hatchet jobs can be yet more vicious, but I really don't see how.


What's weird is that's a perfectly sensible line, since hunger and fasting have been used as a form of purification and religious observance for thousands of years.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:18 PM on February 20, 2013


Hunger: A world-wide religion, the holy land of which is Ethiopia.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:29 PM on February 20, 2013


The idea is that life is so inherently meaningless that one way to give it meaning is to look for correspondences that elevate it into the realm of the mystical ... I'm not sure what the name for this mode of being is ...

Quixoticism.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:19 PM on February 20, 2013


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