Thursday, November 01, 2007

Don’t invite Peter Temple and this biographer to the same party

Some things are too good to leave in comments. Instead, they demand posts of their own. Such is the case with Peter Temple’s caustic review of Laura Thompson’s biography of Agatha Christie, to which a reader kindly alerted me earlier this week.

Why should you read the review? For lines like these:

"Christie's brother Monty went to Harrow. A hopeless incompetent, he then found accommodation in the British army, a traditional sheltered workshop for upper-class dolts."

"Mildly deranged and possibly on substances, he amused himself by taking pot shots at the wobbling backsides of the local matrons. True to form, he missed."

"It was, of course, written in the stars that Archie, employed by a company with Imperial in its name, would betray her by shagging his secretary."
and this, which perhaps helps explain any animus on Temple’s part toward Thompson:

"Sadly, Thompson thinks Tasmania is its own nation state."
Christie was a woman of narrow views, ridiculous plots, and a prose style that could have used trimming and toning down, according to Temple. As for her biographer, Temple excoriates Thompson for creamy, cloying and gushing style and, more seriously, for her habit of assuming that passages in Christie’s novels explain Christie’s life.

That's tough but fair. And fun to read.

And now, readers, don't restrict yourselves to crime fiction on this one. Let's hear the funniest, harshest, most caustic or widest-of-the-mark critical putdowns you have ever heard or read.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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23 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I had my copy of the Murder Ink anthology with Pete Hamill's essay about Mickey Spillane, "Mike and Mickey." It's packed in a box somewhere, but I seem to remember it being pretty brutal (and convincing).

November 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the note. I'll put that on my list of reading to look for. Do remember what the grounds of Pete Hamill's attack were? I can guess at at least four, though anyone's who's read Spillane could probably do the same.

I think such excoriating attacks, provided they are written well and back up their arguments, are good for the mind. They can be fun, too.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Oh my. Paging Dorothy Parker. I'll see what I can find.

I wonder how much Pauline Kael is on the web.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Just as I hit "Publish" I thought of this one. It's a review of "The Da Vinci Code," done one day after I published my own. Neddie just blew my effort out of the water.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Here's the Parker quote I was thinking of, from Wikiquote:

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

As quoted in The Algonquin Wits (1968) edited. by Robert E. Drennan. The specific novel was Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

While there I found this one as well:

"Well, Aimee Semple McPherson has written a book. And were you to call it a little peach, you would not be so much as scratching its surface. It is the story of her life, and it is called In the Service of the King, which title is perhaps a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel. It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario."

November 02, 2007  
Anonymous Vincent said...

Peter Temple often has a wicked turn of phrase in his Melbourne Age reviews. A wonderfully dismissive comment that sticks in my mind is his judgment on a book about the British comic act Little Britain. It went like this (I think):

It is difficult to say too little about this book, but one should try.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, I'd read that review of The DaVinci Code. I was pleased that the writer zeroed in on the same sentence that drove me nuts: the first one in the novel and the last one that I read. A book with a sentence that awful deserved no more of my time and got none. That's my one quibble with reviews that demolish a book: If the work is that awful, why did the reviewer bother reading the whole thing? Peter Temple at least has the excuse that the subject of the book in question, Agatha Christie, is of widespread interest. And really, his review spends far more time on Christie than it does on the biography that is the ostensible sunject of his review.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for weighing in, Vincent. Does Peter Temple write reviews regularly for the Age? I would love to read more.

It's good to see comments like this online. I've noticed a small but worrying trend on some blogs recently that decries harsh comments. The underlying assumption seems to be that authors somehow deserve love just because they worked hard on a book. To this, my reply would be one-tenth sympathetic, nine-tenths unprintable. If you write crap, the public deserves to be told it's crap.

November 02, 2007  
Anonymous Vincent said...

Yes, Peter, Temple's a regular reviewer for the Age. He doesn't seem to review much fiction, though. He mostly does histories and political stuff. I remember excellent reviews of Planet of Slums and Tony Judt's Postwar. (Love your blog; I'm new to it.)

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Winston Churchill was a great one for critical putdowns.
Of Clem Attlee he said "he was a modest man with plenty to be modest about."
His verbal jousts with Nancy Astor included:

Winston if I was married to you I would put arsenic in your whisky.

Nancy if I was married to you I would drink it.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Dave K. said...

If you write crap, the public deserves to be told it's crap.

Well, as someone who writes crap, there's something to be said for the less-caustic reviews. I do enjoy the venom it's directed elsewhere, however.

Always liked the Samuel Johnson quote: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

November 02, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Edmund Wilson, of course, famously dismissed Agatha and her ilk in his splendidly titled 'Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?' But if you think Temple was tough, have a look at this review from the UK Guardian newspaper...

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/crime/story/0,,101966,00.html

Personally, though, I have a soft spot for old Agatha. She was no-one's idea of a great writer, but at a certain point in my late childhood (probably when I'd outgrown the equally formulaic Enid Blyton) I loved her books. She led me on to much better stuff, but was at least partly responsible for kick-starting my enthusiasm for crime fiction. Well, I have to blame someone...

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Vincent, welcome, thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the heads-up. Come to think of it, I read Temple's comments about Planet of Slums in January, and I posted a comment about it at http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/01/temple-khadra-connection.html

I'll try to remember to look for Temple's reviews regularly or perhaps subscribe to the Age online. I suspect that's the paper I would read if I lived in Australia.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Michael, I glanced at that Guardian review. It's preening and silly, the writer extending knowing nudges to the similarly inclined, which obviates any need for thought. The review is a string of obvious jokes. Unlike Temple, the writer seems to have no fun doing his job. Unlike say, Colin Watson, this Peter Lennon brings no thought to bear on his subject. Watson and Temple are amusing. Peter Lennon's idea of humor is to use the word dither.

I've read a few of the Poirot stories, and they are not bad. Nor was the movie of Murder on the Orient Express, though its ending was a bit silly.

Dave, you don't write crap. And a prerequisite for caustic review -- as for any review -- is that it be thoughtful, that it add something to the discussion, you might say. I can imagine an author learning something from a caustic review of his or her work.

Uriah, Winston Churchill is the Yogi Berra of Britain. Anything amusing ever said is attributed to those two, if not to Shakespeare. Lasy Astor could give as well as she got, but my favorite attribution to Churchill also concerns Attlee. It is utterly irrelevant to the matter at hand, but perhaps I'll include it in a comment or a post on a slow day.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, Winston and Yogi won a lot more than they lost so they are entitled to take any credit going.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yogi Berra, to his credit, seemed to be aware of the tendency for all witticisms and amusing malapropisms to gravitate toward him. He is said to have said something like "I never said half the things I said."

Of course, I don't know if he really said it.

November 02, 2007  
Blogger Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

Fan of Agatha here. I've just bought the Thompson biography so I'm going to choose not to read the review of it. I enjoy Agatha's formula and while I might perhaps agree that her writing style is quaint, etc., I still enjoy her books and that is the point of reading.

Heather
www.thelibraryladder.blogspot.com

November 14, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Perhaps you can read the review after you've read the biography. It might make steam shoot out your ears, but you also might be able to appreciate Peter Temple's humor.

You might be interested in what Colin Watson wrote about Christie in Snobbery With Violence, his social history of English crime fiction. I quoted an excerpt here: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/06/little-world-of-mayhem-parva.html I also appreciated Christie's narrative technique in a comment I posted at http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/05/cold-case-file.html No danger of steam shooting out your ears if you read it.

November 14, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Was it Churchill about Atlee in the quote, "His relations with the press have never had an all-time high"?

How about "Brain washed? I think a light rinse would have been sufficient." That could apply to the entire Bush White House.

There is a book called "A Lexicon on Musical Invective" that is full of nasty music reviews (deserved or not).

I recently stopped including only positive reviews on my site, at least in my mind and my planned reviews (I never quite kept to the rule anyway, though much of the negative has been in passing, such as referring to "The Eight" as a "thinking man's Da Vinci Code"- written by a woman of course). I'm now committed to including critical comments and reviews- I actually stopped writing reviews for a while, in part because I read a few bad or flawed books and didn't want to deal with them, but now I will.

Closing with Noel Coward's remark to Liberace, "I've seen your act. You do, what you do, very well."

Also, for your reading pleasure, when someone rushed up to him in a pub and said,

"Did you know that sugar is the only word in the English language where "su" is pronounced "sh"?"

Oscar Wilde replied "Sure!"

Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/
http://greenchemistry.wordpress.com/

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

sorry, Lexicon OF musical invective

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I browsed the Lexicon of Musical Invective years ago after hearing the author, Nicholas Slonimsky, interviewed on the radio. Oddly enough, I didn't listen to classical music at the time. Now that I do, I might better appreciate more of the book. Just yesterday I read a comment from an American critic on the occasion of the U.S. premiere of one of Mahler's symphonies. All I could think was "What was this guy thinking when he wrote that?"

My site lacks negative comments because I read and write for fun. If I don't like a book, I'll take the manly course, and put the book aside rather than finish it. I suspect that vitriolic reviews (and I carefully distinguish reviews from criticism here) may be due in strong part to the reviewer's frustration at having to read something he or she does not like.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

My motivation is similar to yours. I just found I was developing a need to qualify some recommendations rather than making all books sound equally delightful. I still have to be pretty happy with a book to write about it, unless I'm comparing it with something specific and germane, like other work from the same author. I want to be honest while opening people's eyes to books they might have missed, and sometimes that means mentioning a few warts.

November 22, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I may note a quibble with a book. And I may want to read further before I pass judgment. In one case, the first book in a series had some clunky prose passages whenever the author put his characters in a particular situation. He has since written many more books in the series, and I think I ought to read some of his later work before I conclude that his prose style is bad.

Also, I more often write little essays about some aspect of a book or an issue relating to it than formal reviews. I thus avoid having to decide whether to expose warts.

November 22, 2007  

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