Sunday, September 19, 2021

Can a Review Be Too Vicious?

 Long ago, in a different universe, before internet competition bankrupted book review journals, I was a book reviewer.  I  loved the free books in the mail and seeing my reviews in print.  I was an avid reader of literary fiction, or the occasional biography, and though my reviews were not always glowing, they were not hatchet jobs.  If I hated a book I returned it to the editor, who did not mind because he/she had little space for reviews, and less for hatchet jobs - unless they were very, very amusing.

Writers are so sensitive that they occasionally mistake a negative sentence for career-ruining criticism.  But there is something horrifying about a truly well-wrought vicious review.  Human beings glory in schadenfreude.  I am a tougher bird than I used to be, and try to take the higher, if not the high, road.  Nonetheless, I was spellbound by Michael Hoffman's brutal review in the TLS of Colm Toibin's The Magician, a new historical novel about Thomas Mann.      

I have complained that reviews are too "nice."  This one is not.  It is way, way over- the- top. And after the initial excitement, I felt slightly sick about it, because the first few chapters of The Magician seemed pretty good to me. I haven't finished the book. I put it back on the shelf.  Hoffman has (only temporarily, I hope) ruined it for me by reducing it to a "biopic"  by a writer with a poor vocabulary.  

Hoffman claims Toibin used no words longer than two syllables in The Master, a novel about Henry James, and three-syllable words in The Magician. Here is a passage from the review:

...  Tóibín has a dozen, or even a score, of people to push through sixty years; that makes perhaps a thousand man-years, or Mann-years, and he can’t afford to stop too many times. And so the poor words come out for them to speak. Like little soundbites, little what-might-have-been-said-by-you-or-me-in-similar-circumstances samples. Scenelets. Description intolerably bland: “In the confusion created by the war”, or “her clothes understated and expensive”.

Well, you know, it's only a book review:  it's not a critical analysis of the pandemic. 

So no more complaints about too nice. 

Has anyone read The Magician yet?  


  1. I assume this is Hoffman the poet and German to English translator. Quite a few years ago Poetry Magazine published a bilingual translation by him which, I thought, took eccentric liberties with a simple poem. Another reader thought so too in a mild letter to the editor. Hoffman’s reply was unpleasantly, scornfully insulting. I had already had a negative reaction to a piece of his so enough was enough, I resolved never to read him again, and here he is!
    The most vicious reviews I can recall are Renate Adler’s 3000 wd (or so) demolition in the New York Review of Pauline Kael’s collected pieces for the New Yorker and Timothy Snyder’s ugly,ugly review of Sir Richard Evans final volume of his History of the Nazi Party also in the NYR. I better stop here, others are coming to mind.

    1. Yes, it is Hoffman the translator. I try to read between the lines of bad reviews, but this one defeated me. But it's easier to dish it out than take it, no? I do not know Hoffman's other work, but I will avoid his reviews.

      Oh, I loved Pauline Kael! The best movie reviewer of all time? And I liked Renata Adler's novels. Favorites vs. favorites: never a pretty sight.

  2. While I'm still planning on starting the new Richard Powers as soon as it arrives tomorrow, Dwight Garner has certainly taken the edge off my anticipation with this review:

    1. The new Richard Powers is on my list, too. Heavens, we'll have to stop reading reviews until after we read the novels.

  3. i suppose publishers like notoriety=$... the excerpt reads like an ant stuck in a pile of pine needles, tho... jerky and confusing; i'd think he'd want to study prose a bit before he vaunted his lack of skill...

  4. I'm reading it now though I'm having second thoughts. 500 pages and what if it turns out being a terrible book?