It is often argued, and always by critics, that we cannot have great literature without great criticism. If this is true, then it follows that we cannot have great criticism unless we have great criticism of that criticism. Thus, this review of a review.
One might hope that a book review would provide the reader with insight into the book under review. One would frequently be disappointed. In place of insight, we too often get nothing more than debris from the collision between the book and the reviewer’s prejudices, or worse, the reviewer’s sense of how he would have written the book if only he weren’t a lazy little dipshit of few redeeming qualities whose greatest contribution to our literature thus far has been a glowing, if semi-literate, review of a book by Terry Fallis. And so it is with Hubert O’Hearn’s review of Marina Endicott’s new novel, an effort that does little to advance the form, nor, indeed, to advance anything at all.
O’Hearn’s review suffers first from stupidity. Reviewers everywhere, allow me to offer you a tip: do not double up your lead by slamming the book with two paragraphs of insult, and then follow up by complaining that you were unable to keep track of which character was younger through some three hundred pages of reading. Your inability to keep track of even the most trivial detail will mark you as a buffoon whose ability to read the more subtle variations of character is surely in question. If you are unable to grasp that the character whose name commences with “B” is younger than the character whose name commences with “C,” the reader may well question whether the problem lies with the book, or with the reviewer.
Above all, O’Hearn wishes that Endicott had not written her book, but had written his instead. It’s a common mistake among those who haven’t quite gotten down to the real work of writing their own: how nice it would be to have someone else drop your book in your lap! And when they fail to do so, the disappointment!
And so O’Hearn complains that Endicott has not used her three sisters in the manner he would use three siblings, if only he were to get off his lazy ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott did not give Swain’s Rats and Cats the importance O’Hearn would have accorded them, if only he were to get off his ass and write something of consequence. And that Endicott has not concerned herself with the audience, which O’Hearn surely would, if only, etc. The failure of her book, apparently, is that it is her book, and not O’Hearn’s, a point underscored by his continual complaint that she wastes her material.
O’Hearn also complains about the quality of Endicott’s writing, in a paragraph that leaves one muttering, “Physician, go fuck thyself”:
But really— scudding? Slow-flurrying? In trying to write, shall we say, ‘in period’ Endicott throws in clunky phrasing that brings to mind nothing other than The New Yorker and Wolcott Gibbs’ famous description of Time magazine’s style: ‘Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.’ One other point— Groucho actually was from that period, and he sure never talked like that, nor did Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice or, hell, anyone who ever drew a living breath.
Notice the wordiness (‘shall we say,’ ‘nothing other than’), his missing comma, his comma splice, his brutal misuse of the em-dash, and the tin ear that leads us from Time magazine style to Groucho Marx through that clumsy “one other point.” This man cannot write.
I am reminded of Jim Harrison’s complaint that he can’t give a damn about a critic who hasn’t written a good book: if your own stuff is no good, who the fuck cares what you have to say? Harrison is wrong here, in that one can be a superb critic without being a competent novelist, but he still has a point: who cares what you have to say about how other people write, if you can’t yourself write an acceptable English sentence? In O’Hearn’s one paragraph I find three errors of punctuation, not to mention a solid dose of the “clunky phrasing” he so derides.
But worse than any of this is the evident glee O’Hearn finds in kicking around someone who has put two more novels out to face the critics than he himself has managed. Reading O’Hearn’s disclaimer (“I’m not enjoying writing this”), complete with emphatic italics, I find myself muttering that the lady doth protest too much. There is the double lead, his sarcastic complaint that the non-sequential names “must have seemed writerly and symbolic,” and his attempt at a final witticism. A reviewer who does not enjoy savaging a book discards sarcasm. To be savage and to pretend one would rather not is dishonest, or, in more precise terms, chickenshit.
Books deserve to be reviewed well, and The Winnipeg Review usually rises to a better level.
I can’t comment on whether The Little Shadows is a good book. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, on the other hand, it’s the kind of book club fiction I so despise. But I can’t help but feel that, having read a review, I should have some sense of which it is. I don’t. O’Hearn, as a reviewer, is a failure. He has provided me with some sense of his pettiness, but no sense of its object.