The ol' hatchet job

Did anyone else read William T. Vollman's review of Anthony Swofford's new book Exit A in the New York Times Book Review this weekend?

Holy crap.

"Imagine my satisfaction," reads the Scribner publicity office's form letter that came with an advance copy of this book, "when I found myself immersed in a dark love story that was all at once sensual, moody and elegant." Imagine my dissatisfaction when I found myself not in the least immersed in a love story to which none of these adjectives apply, not even "dark." For this is a novel that ends as follows: "He wanted to find answers to other questions, too, some of his own, some of hers, but they would answer those later. Together." This is a fair sample of Anthony Swofford's prose in his first novel, "Exit A," prose that befits a Harlequin romance novel more than functioning as (to quote the publicity office again) confirmation of Swofford as a major literary talent."

The next paragraph of the review starts: "Do you want more?" To which I answered, silently, "No." But then, on further consideration, admitted, "Well, maybe more. Just a little bit."

Why is it that I'm always so conflicted about nasty reviews? On the one hand, I really like the idea of a criticism with teeth -- of reviewers willing to be, as Lester Bangs said in Almost Famous, "honest, and unmerciful." If I read a positive review, I want to feel like its writer really meant it, that I'm not just being pumped full of bullshit. And, for this to be true, I guess we need some nastily negative reviews, right? It's like I've always said about fortune cookies: I'd be more inclined to believe them if every now and then they said "Don't buy that Volkswagon" or "You sure suck."

On the other hand, I guess I come from the polite Southern school of If You Don't Have Something Nice to Say Don't Say Anything at All. And while I'm not advocating the NYTBR leave a blank spot in its pages for every lousy book, isn't there a way to say a book's not very good without being mean about it? Is it possible to not pull punches while also refusing to slap the author around unnecessarily?

For instance: There's something about quoting back the end lines of a novel, as Vollman does here, as if to say "See? Even if you make it to page 300, this is all the reward you'll get," which seems particularly harsh to me. But maybe I'm just overly sensitive. It's not, after all, an ending that gives anything away, so Vollman hasn't ruined it for anyone, though I get the sense that's exactly what he's trying to do.

I generally feel wary about reviewers quoting lines out of context. Vollman also mocks this one: "'What's the number?' She dialed the phone and ordered. They went downstairs to wait for the delivery."

So, okay, not exactly poetic, but it seems like a weird thing to pick out as representative: a couple lines in which they wait for a pizza?

None of this is which to say the book is being misread, or misunderstood. I've seen bad reviews elsewhere, including one in Entertainment Weekly that concluded, "Swofford's writing here is just not very good."



aaron said...

This post is by far the most atrocious I have ever witnessed on this site. He engages in banal assertions such as "I really like...teeth." What are you, in 2nd grade?

And he just gets pornographic with the following statement:
"I...need...nast[y fun time with men, I mean it]."
Look, guy, what's the deal? We don't need to hear that.

About the only true thing he says, besides the larger point of the article, which I basically agree with is: "I'm....pumped full of bullshit."

Get the feeling this guy is cherry picking? I do.

Court said...

I am all for negative reviews. If the writing is bad, then the writing is bad. I see no need to pull punches. If you go through the enormous effort of writing and then getting a novel published - you are putting yourself out there to be judged, for better or worse.

I crave honesty in reviews, not positivity.

Not that a writer him/herself should be criticized; just the writing.