Critics, reviews, and character assassination
On several occasions during my various and sundry careers, I’ve heard a well-known legal maxim. It’s said to be advice given to lawyers during their education. It goes something like this:
- If the facts are against you, argue the law.
- If the law is against you, argue the facts.
- If the facts and the law are against you, assassinate the character of the witness (or “scream and shout”, or “appeal to the jury’s emotions”, or whatever).
I’ve seen that applied on more than a few occasions, in many and varied circumstances, so it seems to be borne out by experience.
I was reminded of it by a long and interesting article analyzing how Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, was treated by the literary establishment and his critics. It’s a sordid tale, one we’ve seen repeated in our own day by the “woke” against those who remain unrepentantly somnolent, and by the publishing powers that be against independent authors. It amounts to little more than disparaging his books by assassinating his character, casting nasturtiums in all directions. Here are a few excerpts.
It’s generally accepted today that writers of popular fiction can be worthy of serious analysis, and Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, Patricia Highsmith and many others have received it in scores of essays, dissertations and books.
For a brief moment in 1953, Ian Fleming seemed poised to enter the ranks of such writers when his debut novel, Casino Royale, received a string of highly favourable reviews in Britain’s broadsheets and literary magazines.
. . .
The reviews for Casino Royale in the [Times Literary Supplement] and several other well-respected publications were coups for a debut thriller, but they had come about in large part because Fleming was exceptionally well connected … However, a backlash began to take shape the following year with the publication of his second novel, Live and Let Die, and the critical verdict on Fleming soon swung violently the other way, with his work being not just criticized but attacked, sometimes in the same publications in which he had earlier been praised. Fleming’s literary standing has been in decline ever since, and despite some stirrings over the decades, remains at a lower point today than it did on the publication of his first novel.
In the same period, his books and the films adapted from them have become increasingly popular with the public, leading to the curious situation whereby one of the most successful novelists Britain has ever produced, and the creator of a globally popular and enduring fictional icon, is largely looked down on in Britain today. Fleming is now rarely discussed in literary publications, and although the Bond novels are sometimes written about in respected newspapers and magazines, it is usually in terms that describe Fleming as a fantasist, a sadist and a purveyor of cheap pulp fiction.
. . .
Most criticism of Fleming today, such as it exists, simply recycles attacks on his work from the Fifties and Sixties that are not only outdated in terms of their moral objections, but were mostly written by critics with very scant knowledge of the thriller genre. In addition, some of those who have criticized Fleming over the years had very little knowledge of Fleming’s own work … if you express an opinion on a book, it only holds any weight if you’ve read it. And if you express an opinion on the entirety of an author’s work, that opinion is likewise only worth considering by others if you have in fact read the entirety of their work.
This might seem obvious, but criticism of Fleming’s work tends to be sweeping and the basic tenets of literary criticism have often been abandoned when approaching it. Having watched a couple of Bond films and read a few chapters of Goldfinger several years ago doesn’t give someone a good overview of Ian Fleming’s oeuvre, however prestigious the publication they write for or strongly they express themselves.
On top of all of these problems, some of the most influential articles about Fleming’s work have been highly unprofessional personal attacks disguised as literary criticism, and I feel they should be discounted by anyone seriously wanting to assess Fleming’s significance.
There’s much more at the link. Recommended reading.
Fleming’s great “crime”, of course, in the eyes of the literary establishment, was his enormous commercial success. He made a lot of money from his books, and even more from their film adaptations (although most of that money went to his estate after his untimely death in 1964). He openly – and sometimes contemptuously – didn’t give a fig for “literary” considerations. What’s more, many of the exploits of his protagonist were based on Fleming’s own experiences during World War II, where he had quite the cloak-and-dagger career of his own. This, of course, was unforgivable in the eyes of the establishment. A fiction author isn’t supposed to be knowledgeable about his field, you know!
I find strong parallels between how Fleming was treated by the literary establishment of his day, and how successful independent authors are treated by today’s establishment. Just look at how Larry Correia was treated by the science fiction establishment over his comments about the Hugo Awards (comments that have been entirely vindicated by history, as anyone who cares to investigate objectively can confirm). Some of our own members here at Mad Genius Club have suffered similar denigration, directly or by association. They don’t “toe the party line”; therefore they must be cast out of it at once, if not sooner. They don’t “fit the mold”; therefore they must be discarded as flawed, and not permitted to achieve success. That’s reserved (or should be reserved, in the establishment’s opinion) for more perfect products of the mold.
We can also see this in some reviews of books by such authors, left on Amazon.com and similar sites. “Woke” reviewers will attack such books by leaving as many one-star reviews as possible, denigrating the book and the author, and often raising completely extraneous points in an attempt to diminish the success of both. Paradoxically, that’s become an indicator to me of books that may be worth reading. When I come across such a wave of spiteful reviews, I tend to suspect that the book may have merit. The more vitriolic the “politically correct” reviews, the better the book is likely to be.
One is reminded of Diana Rigg‘s hilarious book, No Turn Unstoned. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. She contacted her theatrical friends and asked them to contribute the worst reviews they had ever received, and collected many more from the archives of history. One of my favorites is a newspaper review of an exhibition of paintings in a London gallery. The reviewer really didn’t like the painter or his works; so he used the entire review to describe, at great length, the frames in which the paintings were hung! Talk about damning with faint praise…!