JANUARY 13, 2022
“WHAT’S THE MATTER with book reviews?” asks a recent article by the editors of n+1. They have all started to sound the same: unforgettable, much-anticipated, a bold new voice. The New Yorker has a “Briefly Noted” section in which they review three or four soaring masterpieces at a time, each one meriting a compact little blurb that could fit on a fridge magnet. The n+1 editors attribute this nosedive in quality to the diminished status of the contemporary reviewer, no longer some well-paid public intellectual but an underpaid, overworked freelancer. Hence, the article goes on, the rise of the CTR, or “Contemporary Themed Review.” Relying on broad-brush analysis, the CTR is, like The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” section, an efficient way to knock out several buzzy books at a time, but with a considered and learned tone: the millennial novel, the climate change novel, the internet novel. But before diving into the CTR, the article suggests in a throwaway line that one option for the up-and-coming reviewer is to “[tear] th[e] book to shreds,” as “[h]arsh reviews in the papers of record are so rare and exciting.” But ultimately, the article concludes, this would be unwise; the world of literary production is a shrinking one, and the reviewer doesn’t want to step on any toes.
Such is the lot of the harsh review, the hot take, the hatchet job: dismissed as impolitic, unserious, and always on the verge of extinction. The only thing eulogized as frequently as the novel is the “honest” book review. “A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in 1959, and Lee Siegel updated the same sentiment for 2013 when he mourned the “dissolution of literary ghettos, where the slaughtering review once reigned.” Like the n+1 editors, Siegel attributed this new, polite tone in reviewing to our dwindling “literary-intellectual-commercial space.” Books sections are smaller, there are fewer book critics, and they tend to go to the same parties. And yet, despite all this handwringing, if you think of book reviews in the last few years, the ones that come to mind are probably the merciless pans. Who could forget Parul Sehgal calling Kristen Roupenian’s much-anticipated short story collection a “dull, needy book”? Or Myriam Gurba, dismissing American Dirt as “a perfect read for your local self-righteous gringa book club”? Or the calm violence of Andrea Long Chu on Bret Easton Ellis’s White: “One waits in vain for an arresting image.”
If the hatchet job ever died, it is — like Gawker — back with a vengeance. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the hatchet job is now the dominant mode of literary criticism for the internet era, tailor-made, as Larissa Pham writes in The Nation, to “make the rounds, dropped in DMs and threaded down Twitter timelines.” The market logic of the contemporary book review, like the rest of journalism today, is the logic of virality: clicks equal revenue. How do you get clicks on a book review, the most marginal of media? You write a shocking critical assassination of a revered author or, depending on your perspective, a long-awaited takedown of an overrated hack. These reviews are retweeted, en masse, with a sarcastic eye roll or a thumbs-up. Either way, engagement is up. If we take the hatchet job seriously, and examine it as a literary-critical genre, we can begin to unpack its critical strategy. This latter consists, essentially, of ad hominem elitism: the hatchet job is a personal attack on the author, and one which espouses highbrow ideals over middlebrow ones. This strategy is so effective, and the hatchet job so central a cultural force, that it has shaped a correlative form of contemporary writing: the literature of painful self-awareness.
Lauren Oyler’s review of Jia Tolentino’s 2019 personal essay collection, Trick Mirror, in the London Review of Books is a masterwork in snark, a hatchet job par excellence. In particular, this review is marked by a series of viciously personal jibes. Tolentino has “so many friends that she is simply drowning in wedding invitations,” Oyler comments archly, and later: “I get the sense that she must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one.” These quips are distinctly below the belt, targeted at Tolentino herself rather than the work in question. The bulk of Oyler’s review is dedicated to skewering the essays’ shallowness and prose quality, but threaded strategically throughout is the suggestion that this bad writing is merely a symptom of a larger failure, a failure of personality and intellect. In fact, it would seem to be more accurate to say that certain authors, rather than certain books, provoke hatchet jobs.
But which authors, and what do they do to deserve it? For an answer, we might turn to another textbook hatchet job, this one from across the pond: Camilla Long’s Sunday Times review of Rachel Cusk’s memoir Aftermath, in which she calls Cusk a “peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish.” Particularly illuminating is the passage where Long mercilessly skewers a botched classical allusion:
In a section that is as garbled as it is complicated, she draws odd parallels and repeatedly gives the wrong name for Antigone’s brother. He is not Polylectes, but Polynices — a strange mistake given that she mentions, quite clearly on page 12, that she “got into Oxford.”
This is a relatively minor mistake, but Long makes much of it, and goes on to demonstrate her own superior grasp of the Classics. Why? Because Cusk, here, is reaching beyond her station. The central concern of the hatchet job is to put writers in their place. Its characteristic ad hominem vituperation isn’t just random snark: it has a goal, and that goal is specifically to skewer commercially successful authors for aspiring to elite literary modes. Another way of putting this is that hatchet jobs tend to fixate on works in the middlebrow tradition — that is to say, as Beth Driscoll enumerated in her landmark book The New Literary Middlebrow (2014), works that are emotional, earnest, and, most importantly for our purposes, reverential toward elite culture.
It’s curious, for instance, that the London Review of Books — a self-consciously erudite publication, given to digressive essays on Thomas Mann or Catullus — is even reviewing a commercially popular work like Trick Mirror. Venerable, highbrow literary journals seem generally less beholden to the market pressures of contemporary journalism, and thus less likely to go after “trendy” books. The LRB in particular is distinctly unconcerned with profit: it “loses a lot of money,” its publisher admits, but this hardly matters, as the magazine is funded in large part by a private family trust. Unlike other online-facing publications, it doesn’t need the clicks. But Trick Mirror is marketed, on Amazon and the Penguin website, as “literary criticism” and “feminist theory,” thereby wandering into highbrow territory and the LRB’s critical ambit. “[Tolentino] concludes […] with what she implies is the precious fantasy of Donna Haraway’s ‘tricky’ ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’” Oyler writes, with lethal condescension, before telling us what Haraway actually meant. In other words, Tolentino has fatally misread a canonical work of feminist cultural criticism, when such intellectual analysis should be left to the experts. The cardinal sin, for the critical hatcheteer, is the upstart author, a middlebrow writer who aspires to be highbrow. Driscoll points out that 20th-century cultural figures were scornful of the “middlebrow’s incomplete appropriation of high culture” — this scorn, it seems, has only intensified in the 21st.
Why such vitriol? As the field of literary production becomes increasingly marginal, shouldn’t it mean that all of us working in this industry should all get along, as Siegel argues? In fact, it means the opposite. In Long’s hatchet job, she takes particular issue with the gauche way Cusk advertises the fact that she “went to Oxford,” which is especially interesting because Long, as it turns out, also went to Oxford. Oyler makes a remarkably similar quip in her review of Tolentino: “Don’t worry: she also got into Yale.” Where did Oyler go to university? Yale, of course! On the one hand, this is a classic example of how the hatchet job disparages upward aspiration — there’s nothing tackier, these critics imply, than announcing your credentials. But these examples also serve to illustrate that these attacks are so vicious not in spite of the shrinking literary world, but because of it. More than ever before, authors and critics arise from the same sociocultural milieu, dwell in the same metropoles, and thus compete for the same opportunities: a dwindling handful of residencies, staff positions, and book deals. In any zero-sum game, a certain amount of resentment and backbiting is to be expected.
In fact, the field is so marginal as to erase the distinction between author and critic entirely. As novelist Emily St. John Mandel points out, “It’s really, truly, unbelievably difficult to make a living writing fiction, which is why almost all of us have day jobs and why so many novelists write reviews for websites and newspapers in addition to working on our own books.” To survive, the contemporary writer must be both eclectic and prolific. Novelists like Zadie Smith and Jennifer Egan regularly write book reviews; critics, in turn, are writing novels, notably Oyler herself with her 2021 Fake Accounts. Everyone must have a “take” on everyone else in their small world as a matter of financial necessity, simulating something like gossip. The internet exacerbates the sense of closeness in the literary world, with Twitter, in particular, seeming to bridge the professional gulf between critics, authors, and even readers. Established authors like J. K. Rowling and Joyce Carol Oates are regularly derided by the online vox populi for their ill-advised tweets. The hatchet job expertly taps into the gossipy, backbiting quality of online discourse: it’s mean, sure, but also terrifically entertaining to hear Oyler call Tolentino “self-aggrandising and self-exonerating,” like we’re all part of one big, snarky group-chat. After all, gossip is the great equalizer. Via the hatchet job, “The Author,” that venerable old creature, is stripped of all her exceptionality and reduced to just another literary striver, tweeting and grifting like the rest of us. The contemporary critic’s message can be boiled down to a single phrase: you’re not special.
The maligned author might try and retaliate, but that’s rarely, if ever, a good idea. Alice Hoffman once had a Twitter meltdown over a lukewarm review, after which she was summarily mocked by Gawker and deleted her account. But there’s another, subtler option. Take Tolentino’s reaction to Oyler’s hatchet job, which she tweeted out publicly: “I’ve been idly waiting since my book came out for a truly scathing review of my bullshit, which seemed inevitable given the rest of my good luck & also like it could be useful. It finally came: a cleansing, illuminating experience to be read with such open disgust!”
This is a fascinating and uniquely contemporary response. Where the writers of previous generations would chafe against highbrow hostility — Stephen King, for example, has long resented his exclusion from elite culture — Tolentino seems to admit openly to the charges laid against her (“my bullshit”), and welcomes hostile criticism. In fact, she believes she deserves it (“given the rest of my good luck”). This careful performance of humility — humorous, wry, but vulnerable — might be called “self-aware,” even painfully so.
Self-awareness is a concept that looms large in discourses of contemporary writing, not only in nonfiction like Trick Mirror and Aftermath but also, recently, in novels. Katy Waldman, in her essay “Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?” critiques the “reflexivity trap” inherent in much contemporary writing, whereby obsessively self-reflective protagonists wax eloquent about their own flaws and we’re expected to be impressed. Lucinda Rosenfeld has characterized the protagonists of Sally Rooney, Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, and Lena Andersson as the “heroines of self-hate.” The young female characters in these novels are generally intelligent, educated, and hypercritical, but all this intellectual energy is directed most strongly inward, against themselves. They are class-conscious, but they are even more culture-conscious, hyperaware of the distinctions between brows and the rules of taste, and they are quick to self-deprecate when they stray out of their lane. In these protagonists, I want to suggest, we can track an authorial response to the hatchet job: painful self-awareness at the level of character. Take this passage from Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: “I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.”
Rooney’s protagonist, Frances, first expresses what might be called a highbrow insight, relating epistemology and aesthetics and invoking a French theorist of high academe; and then, in the same sentence, lampoons this attempt at erudition by admitting her own ignorance. This is exactly the sort of scholarly allusion that a hatcheteer would seize on — recall Oyler sneering at Tolentino’s misreading of Haraway — but Frances gets in ahead of the punch, mocking herself. The hostility of the hatchet job is deployed to skewer pretensions to elite culture. The hostility of these novels is deployed in precisely the same way, only in this case it is the protagonist’s own pretensions being skewered. As with the hatchet job, the target in the crosshairs is the aspiration to the highbrow, but here Frances is both the author and the recipient of the attack. She is, in other words, her own worst critic. This is straight out of the Tolentino playbook: the effect being, as Oyler puts it, “akin to getting in ahead of criticism, PR-style, in the hope of lessening its impact on the brand.” The literature of painful self-awareness is a product of our judgmental times, and a product, specifically, of the scornful hauteur of recent book criticism. The hatchet job, we might say, is baked into it from the very start.
But novels, one might object, are not reviewed like memoirs or personal essay collections — in fiction, there is a clear distinction between the novelist and her characters. To which I would respond: Is there, these days? Of course, the academically responsible reader knows that Rooney is not Frances, and Frances is not Rooney. But the conceptual collapse between author and protagonist has come for the novel, too, and nobody knows it better than Rooney. For better or for worse, novelistic coverage, in recent years, simply cannot keep away from the figure of the author. Rooney has, since her debut novel, been the locus of fanatical critical attention, hailed as a generational talent, yet derided as a flavor-of-the-month bourgeois hack. In particular, critics are concerned with the politics of her novels. Becca Rothfeld, in The Point, takes Rooney to task for her depiction of the “watered-down Marxism that affluent millennials claim as a personal brand in both Normal People and Conversations.” Rothfeld is one of many critics who have found fault with the performative leftism of Rooney’s work. This is a curious avenue of criticism because it requires, as its central premise, a deliberate and tacit slippage between author and character. Just because Rooney depicts pretentious and performative young people in her novels, it doesn’t follow that she endorses them, any more than Bret Easton Ellis endorsed the behavior of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. And yet, for the vast majority of critical and authorial discourse, this distinction does not seem to matter, and insisting on it as a matter of artistic principle is a fruitless endeavor.
Perhaps this is why, in her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney presents us with her most unambiguously autobiographical protagonist yet: Alice, the precociously young author tortured by her newfound fame. It’s the literary equivalent of throwing your hands up in disgust. Fine, Rooney seems to be saying, I am this character. Like Rooney, Alice has made a lot of money by writing two successful novels, and like Rooney, Alice loathes the hysterical critical discourse around her. In an email to her friend, Alice writes, with uncharacteristic passion:
What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway? If I had bad manners and was personally unpleasant and spoke with an irritating accent, which in my opinion is probably the case, would it have anything to do with my novels? Of course not. The work would be the same, no different. And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why, is it done this way? Whose interests does it serve? It makes me miserable, keeps me away from the one thing in my life that has any meaning, contributes nothing to the public interest, satisfies only the basest and most prurient curiosities, and serves to arrange literary discourse entirely around the domineering figure of ‘the author’, whose lifestyle and idiosyncrasies must be picked over in lurid detail for no reason. I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything. And yet when other people read about her, they believe that she is me. Confronting this fact makes me feel I am already dead.
There is something distinctly disquieting about this passage, because it is clearly Rooney, herself, speaking to not only her critics but to all of us in this literary ecosystem. Reading this, I felt ambushed, as if someone I’d been cheerfully gossiping about for years suddenly confronted me on the subway. It’s a mirror held up to the online frenzy of capital-D Discourse, revealing its essential ugliness and inhumanity. There is no criticism one could level at Alice that she has not already leveled at herself, and in more vindictive terms. In response to the hatchet-wielding critic’s age-old declaration — you’re not special — the contemporary writer, it seems, finally has a retort: you’re telling me.