It has been a season of literary takedowns, but then it usually is. You can always get a rise out of the otherwise lethargic reading public by launching an offensive against one of its icons. In the past two months alone, we have had Kathryn Schulz disliking “The Great Gatsby” in New York magazine, Christian Lorentzen’s salvo against Alice Munro in the London Review of Books, and Joseph Epstein in the Atlantic Monthly, asking, “Is Franz Kafka Overrated?”
The great thing about such essays from an editor’s perspective is that they make one portion of the readership angry enough to quarrel with the critic in the comments thread and beyond. Meanwhile, another portion is enthusiastic to an almost equal degree at having their privately held reservations finally voiced in a public forum. Still other readers can, like high school students, be counted upon to cluster around any promise of a fight. Emotions run high, which is the journalist’s brass ring and pretty hard to come by in discussions of literary topics.
For this reason, the literary takedown has a long and storied history. Perhaps the most celebrated of them all is Mark Twain’s hilarious “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a flamboyant drubbing of the early American author of wilderness adventure novels. Surveying “The Deerslayer,” Twain observes that “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record,” and then goes on to list the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction,” 18 of which Cooper has violated.
“When you strike at a king, you must kill him,” Ralph Waldo Emerson warned Oliver Wendell Holmes when Holmes, then a college student, sent him a paper in which he railed against Plato for “loose and unscientific” thinking. A corollary to Emerson’s advice: If you’ve got to strike somebody, don’t pick on the serving lad; that only makes you look like a bully. A good literary takedown selects its target with care. If Cooper was not quite a king, he did enjoy a good amount of popularity and critical respect, the latter of which Twain demonstrates by opening his attack with three examples of praise Cooper had received from professors and another novelist (Wilkie Collins).
To kill him, Twain offers a highly detailed dissection of the physical impossibilities represented in one of Cooper’s action scenes and several other instances in which the novelist was “splendidly inaccurate.” But Twain was not merely pedantic on practical matters related to sharpshooting and riverine navigation. He was also, as ever, funny — declaring, of Cooper’s uneven dialogue, “when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.”
Exasperation, rather than flaming rage, is the emotion that drives the best takedowns. A certain distance also helps. A pan of a single novel that has otherwise been admiringly reviewed and is by an author currently in his or her prime, doesn’t really count. First, living authors are never as revered as the dead kind, so the critic lacks the moral high ground obtained by attacking a sacred cow. Furthermore, many a great writer has produced a mediocre book, and a takedown ought to encompass an entire career, even if it chooses to focus, as Twain did, on one exemplary title. Lastly, since so many critics are novelists themselves, an assault on the reputation of a living competitor, especially one who’s near the attacker in rage, will usually be read as motivated by feelings of professional resentment and rivalry.
Some takedowns, written by young critics about a living author relatively late in his or her career, amount to generational shots across the bow. That’s what Lorentzen seems to have been attempting in complaining that, in contrast to “the consensus around Alice Munro,” he finds her short stories drab, repetitive and excessively “sad.” It’s what David Foster Wallace was clearly up to in 1997, when he reviewed one of John Updike’s disposable late novels in a piece given the headline “John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?” It was Wallace’s way, à la Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence,” of clearing some space for the new kids in town.