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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…!

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Christer Hellström #

    Reminds me of the swedish composer and feared critic Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, who, in a review, once wrote:”The soprano Miss X made her debute today. She wore a red dress.”

    February 14, 2020
    • Dorothy Parker once reviewed a book thus: “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, but rather hurled with great force.” I think that was the whole thing.

      And there’s this one, from Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”

      But when a bad review gets you down, recall the wisdom of Robert A. Heinlein: “A critic is a man who creates nothing and thereby feels qualified to judge the work of creative men. There is logic in this; he is unbiased, he hates all creative people equally.”

      February 14, 2020
      • Mary #

        I recently ran across a review of a book that said that the book had the main character, a boy, trapped somewhere, and also a cat and her kittens. And the book said that he got out and made sure that the cat and kittens also escaped — and that didn’t happen, he just left the cat there and anyone who does that is DEAD to her.

        I think that’s peak bad reviewing.

        February 15, 2020
  2. Luke #

    My favorite of the genre was when Florence King reviewed a critical review. (IIRC, it began, “You do not know how to write a review. I do.” And then proceeded to flense the poor bleepard by instructing him on the purpose of reviews, the proper forms forwriting them, and his deficiencies in both respects.)

    February 14, 2020
    • Any chance of a link or the title as my attempts to find it have failed.

      February 15, 2020
      • King mentions that episode in her book With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy. BTW, she says explicitly therein that the review was favorable, which makes the episode still stranger.

        February 15, 2020
        • John R. Ellis #

          If there’s one thing I recall about Florence King from her essays in the NR, it’s that she very openly despised everyone and everything. One could grudgingly respect that sort of honest, upfront despite.

          February 18, 2020
      • Luke #

        And the review was in The New York York Book Review. At the time, that was a big deal.
        .
        The editor writing the forward for The Florence King Reader also mentioned the episode, “In [i]Charity[/i] she quotes a few of the individual tips she gave him, but she left out my favorite, Fault #7: ‘You concentrated on too many minor points and in general farted around without ever stating fully the two things that must be in every review: what the book was about, and what the reviewer thinks of it.'”

        February 15, 2020
  3. Pre-conversion Muggeridge was a giant jerk, I learned. Also, he apparently wanted to know about famous and pre-famous people, but not enjoy their work. (Yes, I was pretty stunned by his reaction to that nice group of kids playing gigs in Germany. Was he dead?)

    February 14, 2020
  4. if you express an opinion on a book, it only holds any weight if you’ve read it.

    Oh, what a quaint sentiment! The Woke have firmly decided that that foolish notion belongs in the past and tend to get quite upset when someone implies that their review of a book that hasn’t come out yet, based on a tweet from someone who read a blog post from someone who read an advance excerpt, isn’t actually valid.

    February 14, 2020
  5. Christopher M. Chupik #

    I had a Facebook tussle once with a guy who was very outraged by TV shows and movies he admitted to have never actually watched. Not that it kept him from arguing with people who actually *had* watched them and insisting they didn’t know what they were talking about . . .

    February 14, 2020
  6. Kirsten #

    Jessie Singal is tearing up the interwebs by comparing quotes from reviews of American Dirt with actual passages from American Dirt, which show either the reviewers didn’t bother to read the book (gasp) or just sort of… skimmed it? https://twitter.com/jessesingal/status/1228812321969098754

    February 16, 2020

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