Critical sass

Daniel Mendelsohn's How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken could use a little bitchiness
Get sassy, Danny!

ISBN REAL This month, a collection of Daniel Mendelsohn's essays on books, plays, and films is being published. How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken (Harper, 480 pages, $26.95) is excellent. But it lacks something I can't help wanting from the criticism I read, no matter how often some denunciation tries to shame the desire out of me. One of Mendelsohn's pieces even takes novelist and literary critic Dale Peck's 2005 review collection, Hatchet Jobs (New Press, 240 pages, $14.95) to task for indulging in the very thing I look for: bitchiness.

According to Mendelsohn, Peck's analysis of any book cedes too much space to his caustic persona. Mendelsohn suspects that "what's really going on here isn't so much criticism as a kind of performance."

This is a common complaint. As standard as it's become for critics to coat their reviews in personality, extravagantly painting their territory with barbed humor and a couple catalogs' worth of references, there's no scarcity of resistance to that practice, either. Just last week, on Mark Sarvas' blog The Elegant Variation (, writer Benjamin Percy expanded on Sarvas' disgust over an excessively autobiographical review of Julia Reed's memoir, The House on First Street (Ecco, 208 pages, $23.95) in the Aug. 3 The New York Times Book Review. Percy suggested a causal connection between the swell of infantile pop punditry on cable news channels and "those critics who spotlight their voice, their life, upstaging the assigned book."

Within How Beautiful It Is, Mendelsohn quotes Peck's response to the controversy surrounding his critical flaying of Rick Moody a few years ago. Here we-go-'round-the criticism-bush: in turn, Peck's quote mentions Heidi Julavits' highly-regarded piece about the future of literary culture from the March 2003 maiden issue of The Believer. There, Julavits appeals to book critics to cool it already with the self-serving wisecracks. In fact, she mentions Mendelsohn as an exemplar of considered evaluation free from the static of the vitriol that's come into fashion.

Julavits' major beef was with the sadism of the bitchy critic, and in large part, that's the same problem Mendelsohn has with Peck's reviews. I have a lot of inner ethical debates queued up before I ever address, let alone endorse, the matter of the clever takedown. What I am willing to dispute right here, right now, is the puzzling belief that caustic criticism is not just ethically but also artistically deficient.

It's one thing to frown upon a mean-spirited performance that gets away from the reviewed work as well as the rhythm of its own structure. I could even grudgingly comprehend were a canonical critic like Dorothy Parker called out for wandering too far into the realm of bilious stand-up comedy. (So much for wicked stand-up criticism as only a current trend). Regarding Peck, Mendelsohn is not wrong to point out the ungainliness of his grabs at attention. I can appreciate the argument that one's limited reserve of creative energy should be spent in the service of creation and not destruction, particularly in the assessment of writers who don't deserve the baroque angst their crappy books inspire.

But is there really no understanding that the affected horror of the cranky critic is a ritualized template for evaluation, and one that is as valid — when done well — as any other? If there isn't, we're all in trouble.

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