Mark Athitakis Newsletter #16

Mean critics, cable installation, the blues.

Front Matter

You might have heard that a critic was very mean to Leonard Cohen recently. In last week’s New York Times Book Review, William Logan dismissed a posthumous collection of Cohen’s poetry, lyrics, and ephemera with the mercilessness and spiky humor that is his trademark. A critic I admire took to Facebook to declare the piece a mean-spirited hit job (“This isn’t criticism; it’s assault and battery”), and he found plenty of company among people speculating about the Times’ ulterior motives and Logan’s intellectual and sexual shortcomings. My attempts to argue that assigning Cohen’s self-declared book of poetry to a serious poetry critic made a certain sense---Logan loves poetry mercilessly too---fell on deaf ears.

I’m on the record as saying that critics rarely deliver hit jobs with ill motives. (If you care to play NYTBR Kremlinologist, here’s my theory: Logan was assigned the piece to be included in the review’s recent all-poetry issue; the editors, finding the review’s negativity not in keeping with the issue’s general up-with-poetry vibe, held the piece for a couple of weeks. And I don’t discount the notion that keeping Logan away from a living poet is a safe bet re: “up-with-poetry.”) But that doesn’t mean that critics have no motives at all; they’re aware of the effects of what they write, especially when they’re negative.

Usually. A little more than a year ago, I wrote about Edgar Allan Poe’s habit of delivering hatchet jobs, and if he was doing it to “make a name for himself,” as negative reviewers are so often accused of doing, he was going about it all the wrong way---often, his targets were editors whose support the ever-impoverished Poe could have used. But beyond that, Poe’s attacks on books were usually little more than fussy attacks on the book at hand. He groused over word choice and plot decisions, and he rarely had a broader statement to make about American literature, or even what might make for good literature. (His inexplicable vendetta against Longfellow, larded with dodgy accusations of plagiarism, only underscored this randomness.)

Negative reviews, done right, are correctives. Mark Twain attacking James Fenimore Cooper was good fun, but also an attempt to banish Romanticism from the American literary landscape. Dwight Macdonald demolished James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed to call out the critical hive mind and and Cozzens’ alleged priggishness and bigotry. Renata Adler slammed Pauline Kael not (as some have assumed) to dismiss the whole of her output as useless but to identify an intellectual slackening she perceived in an influential week-in-week-out critic as the 80s dawned. David Foster Wallace did much the same to John Updike, in a piece where Wallace himself didn’t call Updike a “penis with a thesaurus” but could see where such a reader was coming from.

And Logan had some correctives to deliver too: Against the idea of easy posthumous cash-grabs, against the assumption that lyrics equate to poetry, that invoking love as a theme doesn’t mean you have anything interesting to say about it. Those are not in themselves especially provocative statements to make, but attached to a figure as sainted as Cohen, it was a problem. The critic I bantered with on Facebook argued that Logan failed to explain “why Cohen strikes such a responsive chord in so many.” But I’m not sure that’s necessarily a critic’s job, except, though it’s nice to acknowledge that it happens. And Logan made it clear enough that he didn’t see the appeal.

That point may stoke a reasonable argument that Logan wasn’t the best choice to review the book---there are qualified poetry critics who could see where Cohen was coming from, I’m sure. But that doesn’t mean the end result was inherently mean and unhelpful. You want mean and unhelpful? Let’s swing back to Updike. In 1998 the New Yorker published a story of his, “Bech Noir,” in which an aging novelist is feeling wounded by his critics, much as Updike was at the time: The story was published on the heels of his 1997 novel, Toward the End of Time, which was consistently panned, including in that Wallace review.

Eating breakfast with his young girlfriend, Bech takes pleasure in the obituary of a critic who once dismissed him years ago. The two have an exchange:

“You seem happy.”

“Very.”

“Why? You say he had stopped being a critic anyway.”

“Not in my head. He tried to hurt me. He did hurt me. Vengeance is mine.”

And then Bech concocts an idea about what to do with the rest of the critics who’ve wronged him.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Laura Miller notes that Kristen Roupanian’s debut story collection isn’t bad beyond its centerpiece, “Cat Person,” but it does get discomfitingly weird. Kent Cartwright defends the English major. Robert Sullivan considers the impact of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and the obsessiveness with the private life of its creator. Lauren Hough recalls the laugh-to-keep-from-crying nature of working as a cable-TV technician. Last April, Roxane Gay shared her experience with weight-loss surgery and how it exchanged one set of anxieties for another.

End Notes

Last night a Twitter friend mentioned Geeshie Wiley’s haunting “Last Kind Words Blues,” a song I’d first heard when I read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2014 article about its mysterious provenance. Wiley’s song seems to bring out the best in writers—-see also Daphne A. Brooks’ 2017 appreciation in the Oxford American.

Thanks for reading. Send favorite hatchet jobs and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.comBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.