Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Nasty reviews

Kieran Healy has written about an interesting competition to find the best mean review. He offers his own candidate, Philip Larkin.
For sheer mean-spirited, grossly unfair (not to say misguided) but nevertheless well-written and funny attacks on worthy targets, you can’t beat Philip Larkin’s criticism of modernist Jazz, especially his stuff on John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He thought Coltrane was “possessed continually by an almost Scandinavian unloveliness.” For example, here he is reviewing A Love Supreme:
It is of course absurd to suggest he can’t play his instrument: the rapidity of his fingering alone dispels that notion. It would be juster to question whether he knows what to do with it now that he can play it. His solos seem to me to bear the same relation to proper jazz solos as those drawings of running dogs, showing their legs in all positions so that they appear to have about fifty of them, have to real drawings. Once, they are amusing and even instructive. But the whole point of drawing is choosing the right line, not drawing fifty alternatives. Again, Coltrane’s choice and treatment of themes is hypnotic, repetitive, monotonous: he will rock backwards and forwards between two chords for five minutes, or pull a tune to pieces like someone subtracting petals from a flower. Apart from the periodic lashing of himself into a frenzy, it is hard to attach any particular emotional importance to his work.

And on Miles Davis:

He had several manners: the dead muzzled slow stuff, the sour yelping fast stuff, and the sonorous theatrical arranged stuff, and I disliked them all.

In comments, I started to formulate a reason to celebrate these mean reviews. Terry Teachout created an index to explore one's artistic tastes. I think that reading a mean review also helps to explore the personal aesthetic world. Disagreement with the review can be visceral or intellectual, which helps to pinpoint where the aesthetic view resides. Intellectually, I agree with the points of Kieran's review of Cryptonomicon, yet I enjoyed the book. This tells me that my pleasure was not based on admiration of craftmanship, but on a more emotional level. An agreement with the mean review can cause the reader to be uncomfortable, producing thoughts such as "well, that's a little strong, isn't it." Thus the reader finds out the intensity of his/her likes and dislikes.

These reactions are only possible if the initiating review is worded strongly. It helps if the review is bad, in the sense of creating a false clarity. Nuance waters down the effect, even if it is more honest. Thus, bring on the mean reviews, I say. As long as they aren't about me.

1 comment:

Skwid said...

Cryptonomicon is brilliant, but I think its widespread success has always surprised me a little, because it's always seemed to me like fiction that is targeted towards a very specific readership. This is geek fiction of the highest regard; a regular paean to the lifestyle and mindset. That non-geeks get much out of it is, IMNSHO, almost coincidental.