Exquisitely Mean

by Kieran Healy on April 12, 2006

“Kieran Setiya”:http://ideasofimperfection.blogspot.com/ announces the “results of his competition”:http://ideasofimperfection.blogspot.com/2006/04/economy-of-prestige.html to find the best exquisitely mean review. The criteria were:

1. The review must have a worthy target. Thus, I was forced to ignore, among other things, A. O. Scott’s review of Gigli.

2. The review may be grossly unfair, but…

3. It has to give good arguments, or memorable ones that contain a grain of truth.

4. Finally, preference was given to reviews that made good use of sarcasm.

Kieran’s readership is composed mostly of philosophers, and his list of reviews reflects this. The prize has already been awarded, to “Miles Burnyeat’s”:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5444 enfilading of Leo Strauss’ _Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy_. But I have a late entry from another field. 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”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Larkin 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:

bq. 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.



nick s 04.12.06 at 12:21 pm

‘I do not mean to say that Moody is racist, sexist, or homophobic. I mean to say only that he is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences. The Black Veil isn’t simply a bad idea badly rendered. It is so awful that it is easy to see the book as in league with the very crimes that it seeks to redress.’


Matt Weiner 04.12.06 at 12:35 pm

I flunk Larkin on “grain of truth,” but those with less of a taste for noise may disagree.


lemuel pitkin 04.12.06 at 12:45 pm


A.J. 04.12.06 at 1:22 pm

Barry Levinson’s review of the movie “Sphere” deserves mention. (Credit where due: I first saw this in a PNH post on Making Light.)


A.J. 04.12.06 at 1:29 pm

Argh. That review was by Matt Zoller Zeitz. So much for credit where due.


Iron Lungfish 04.12.06 at 1:31 pm

This entire competition is pretty mean-spirited and grossly unfair, isn’t it? Which is to say, it’s stupid and myopic, because it rewards bile (which is cheap and easy) over insight (which is not). Any critic can distract from the fact that he’s not doing his job by entertaining them instead, and the easiest way for a critic to entertain his readers is to heap scorn on a target that makes them feel smarter by comparison. We may may chuckle at Philip Larkin’s witty way with words in his bashing of Miles and Coltrane, but his numbing inability to comprehend their music makes him a soulless turd – a soulless turd using pretty language, perhaps, but a soulless turd nonetheless.


Scott Spiegelberg 04.12.06 at 1:38 pm

I disagree with #6. To truly understand a work of art, particularly to understand your own reactions to said work, requires reacting to an antithetical view. Oh dear, I’ve become Hegelian. Nevertheless, I feel that by reading Larkin’s take on Miles and ‘Trane, one can clearly see how different his/her own feelings are. The more strongly the contrary opinion is offered, the more powerful the synthesis of understanding.


Iron Lungfish 04.12.06 at 1:51 pm

The point is that the value of a criticism isn’t in how “well-written and funny” it is; it’s supposed to be in the merits of the ideas it’s putting forth. Otherwise it’s all just an exercise in ladling a few gallons of rhetorical perfume onto a critical pig.


blah 04.12.06 at 2:17 pm

Larkin’s reviews were about as witty as a sour old fart. The idea of a “proper jazz solo” is just crusty stupidity.


bza 04.12.06 at 2:19 pm

But lungfish, nobody is claiming that these reviews are valuable criticism. The point is that they’re entertaining.


dearieme 04.12.06 at 2:25 pm

The middle-aged Larkin continued to love the jazz he’d learned to love as a young man, the vintage jazz of Armstrong and Bechet and company. He wrote about it and its world with great skill, affection, longing. He disliked the modernism of Parker (and Pound and Picasso) and explained why. Much of the pleasure of reading him comes from the contrast between the unaffected joy he takes in the music of the old boys and the vigour and skill with which he described his disappointment with their successors. To call him a soulless turd is wide of the mark: his taste may differ from yours – you too are allowed to explain, if you can, why you like what you like, dislike what you dislike. Insulting someone for not sharing your taste is rather puerile.


blah 04.12.06 at 2:27 pm

No, soulless turd is pretty much accurate.


"Q" the Enchanter 04.12.06 at 2:52 pm

I love Coltrane but I can’t agree with Iron Lungfish that Larkin is “soulless” merely because Larkin doesn’t share my attitude. I found the quoted review quite entertaining and provocative. Even soulful. In any case, good ridicule can be a worthy art in itself.


Maurice Meilleur 04.12.06 at 3:01 pm

This probably doesn’t meet Setiya’s criterion of a “worthy target,” but what about Lewis Lapham’s review of Newt Gingrich’s To Renew America in his “Notebook” in the September 1995 Harper’s? Here’s a bit from that review:

“What was striking about the book was its resemblance to the cargo cults that some South Sea islanders constructed prior to the Second World War from the fragments of industrial civilization (copper wires, motors, tin cans, rubber tires) washed ashore from European ships. Gingrich does something similar with his sequences of historical anecdote and quasi-scientific theory. He knows that somewhere over the horizon on the vast ocean of thought, a race of more highly evolved imagineers (physicists, poets, microbiologists, cyberneticians, genuine historians) sail to and fro in vessels of inconceivable power and speed. Some of their names have drifted onto the post-modern beach with the wreckage of the classical literary tradition, and these Gingrich collects as if they were magical shells or stones. Stringing them together into long strands of patriotic but unintelligible sound — George Washington, Information Age, Ray Kroc, Third Wave, Valley Forge, Norman Rockwell, Telecommuting, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Edison, Thomas Jefferson, Bill Gates, Apollo 13, Admiral Byrd — he composes a high-speed aluminum om, which, if said very rapidly in unison every morning in the hour before sunrise by every man, woman, and child in America, presumably will put to flight the evil spirit of moral decay, guarantee the profits of important business corporations, make safe the streets of Detroit, restore the glory of the American promise, and assure the nation’s happy return to Colonial Williamsburg or Pioneer Village.”


Maurice Meilleur 04.12.06 at 3:04 pm

Oh, and another candidate left out of that competition: Mark Twain’s classic reviews of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.


Carlos 04.12.06 at 3:16 pm

Why is this particularly surprising? Larkin is all about being out of step with time. He branded it, to use the old phrase made obnoxious and new again.

If Larkin had been able to response positively to post-Picasso painting, post-Pound poetry, or post-Parker jazz, he wouldn’t have been Larkin. And I don’t think his talent with words would have been as focused.

That being said, I think these are fairly dull reviews, well-written but not particularly funny or insightful.


Christopher M 04.12.06 at 3:18 pm

iron lungfish: The winner of the contest is the Burnyeat review of a Leo Strauss book, and it’s not “bile” at all. It’s a good, biting review that makes a damn good case that Strauss is a bit of a nutter.


Daniel 04.12.06 at 3:21 pm

I seem to remember Miles Davis at least partly agreeing with Larkin’s assessment of Coltrane’s repetition and emotionalism; after a particularly protracted solo, Miles asked Coltrane why he had gone on so long.

Coltrane: “I just didn’t know how to stop”

Davis: “Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth”.


lemuel pitkin 04.12.06 at 3:32 pm

Ugh, Lewis Lapham. There’s someone who could use a good enfilading himself.

“Cargo cult,” like “there’s no there there” and “jumped the shark,” is one of those canned phrases that’s merely unimaginative when used normally but really unbearably pompous when the writer feels the need to explain it, as if it were a metaphor he’d just thought of that his readers won’t necessarily get.

Spy Magazine’s “review of reviewers” did a gorgeous number on him back in the day, which IIRC summed up by saying “Lapham is the sort of person one wishes the Soviets had designed a special nuclear missile for” (it was the 80s); doesn’t seem to exist online, unfortunately.


wcw 04.12.06 at 3:38 pm

I know nothing about Larkin’s other work, but his analogy of Coltrane’s work as a drawing of a dog with 100 legs actually made ALS sound quite appealing to me. If there really were a futurist sort of jazz playing, perhaps I’d like jazz, of whatever stripe, more than I do. Alas, for all that I recognize Coltrane’s skills, I rarely pull out his LPs, while to this day I pine for a good-quality print of a small futurist painting of a violinist that hangs in one of the big London museums. The musician is indeed depicted in a dog-with-100-legs way, and it absolutely hits the spot for me.

On-topic, I’ve always found that you can tell a good reviewer by his bad reviews. If you can discern through the bile that you, in contrast, would very much like what he’s describing, then he is a good reviewer with whom you disagree (in rock, see Bangs, Lester). If all you know after reading the review is how the reviewer responded, and not more, then he is an awful reviewer (see Arnold, Gina).

Larkin, based on this snippet, is okay. I found his description somewhat off, but I was able to guess I would like A Love Supreme a lot more than he did.

As for acid reviews, does anyone have cites for Moses Hadas’s famously cutting snippets (“I have read your book and much like it,” “this book fills a much-needed gap,” et al)?


Steve 04.12.06 at 4:05 pm

Larkin, based on this snippet, is okay.

For a jazz critic, I hear he was also fair shakes as a poet.


Cryptic Ned 04.12.06 at 4:27 pm

I think there should be another competition of this type, in which the possible choices are not limited to reviews of books about social-science theory.


Robin 04.12.06 at 4:33 pm

Terry Eagleton had some choice bits in his review of Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason.


lemuel pitkin 04.12.06 at 5:13 pm

A sentence which begins ‘At 26, graphing himself into the seat of Aufhebung, Marx sees the necessity for this critical enterprise’ combines the vocabulary of Hegel with the syntax of Hello!

Thanks for that, Robin.


Sven 04.12.06 at 5:44 pm

Here’s a bin of mean to sort through.


Henry 04.12.06 at 5:52 pm

I remember some similarly cutting things being said about Mr. Eagleton himself in the _LRB_ some years back – describing him as “the author of a Ladybird primer in critical theory.”


Robin 04.12.06 at 5:57 pm

“describing [Eagleton] as “the author of a Ladybird primer in critical theory.””

Sounds apt, but he’s still mean and witty.


Randy Paul 04.12.06 at 6:58 pm

Larkin nails Miles or at least the post-Bitches Brew Miles.


sara 04.12.06 at 7:48 pm

Do we include all reviews in The New Criterion of art produced after 1900?

Best way to write evil reviews: possess or adopt the opposite political persuasion, so that you neither understand nor sympathize with the artist’s or author’s intentions (this also can be done from the left, e.g. the attack on Leo Strauss cited above). This also enables you to write the review quickly, as entertainment.

In a word, the New York Times Book Review section (all too often). The reviewers are under time pressure, and must amuse the hungover or caffeine-distracted Sunday morning reader.


Eric 04.12.06 at 7:50 pm

If I may submit a review of a mathematics text, check out this review of Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis (scroll down):


grackel 04.12.06 at 8:11 pm

What Larkin seems to be saying is that (unknown even to himself) he doesn’t like music very much but is more than enthusiastic about some sorts of sentiment or nostalgia. In the example cited he doesn’t really say anything at all about anyone but himself. There is a grain of truth in what one can see about that.


Slocum 04.12.06 at 8:31 pm

Oh, and another candidate left out of that competition: Mark Twain’s classic reviews of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.

Damn. That was mine, but here’s the link to ” Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”:



Mo MacArbie 04.12.06 at 10:12 pm

Dang, I tend to regard A Love Supreme lightly (while stile loving it) because it’s so popular and approachable. Pop Coltrane.



rollo 04.12.06 at 11:08 pm

Iron Lungfish-
It’s inexact to say Larkin’s a soulless turd. Unless it’s hyperbole. Then it’s hyperbole, which is inexact on purpose, yah?
Larkin when he wrote that had a soul, just a very small one.


lalala 04.13.06 at 12:02 am

When it comes to film, I think Anthony Lane’s reviews for the New Yorker would be the best place to look for contenders. “Meet Joe Black” (the Brad Pitt version) certainly fails the worthy target requirement, but it’s a great example otherwise:

“There are many unanswered questions here (why, for instance, does Pitt’s Grim Reaper seem semi-retarded?)…”


“Meet Joe Black is over three hours long. But to be fair, it doesn’t matter how long a movie is, it only matters how long it feels. Meet Joe Black feels like 15 hours.”


James 04.13.06 at 12:11 am

No love for John Dolan’s book reviews over at the exile? I particularly like the Ben Okri one –

‘When I heard that the eXile would be covering the Congo war in this issue, I felt obliged to offer a brief commentary on that other great Central African tragedy, the poetic career of Ben Okri.’



Down and Out in Saigon 04.13.06 at 2:15 am

Dolan is good. So is Terry Eagleton (as you can see on his essay on Stanley Fish.) I also appreciate some of Bob Blacks’s work:

Altough he has placed his gift to the world on-line, Balash has yet to activate a standard feature of the PC, the spell-checker. It’s true that the spell-checker cannot be counted on to correct misspellings of proper names like Germain Greer, Mann Ray, Eugene O’Neil, and Foucalt, among other of his blunders. But it should signal possible problems with “financil,” “propogates,” “homogenous,” “juvenelia” and “subli” – mine is screaming at me right now. I feel its pain. Although I have taught writing several times, I’m an amateur as a writer as well as a teacher, and I don’t know the names of all of Balash’s mistakes. I don’t know what to call it when he starts a sentence by saying, “The adult consumer . . . is able to procure for she and her family,” or “They’re losses should be” something or another. Balash routinely inserts apostrophes where they do not belong and omits them where they do. He also makes just plain dumb vocabulary blunders, as when he refers to “these basic tenants of McAnarchism egoism,” as if egoism was a landlord. The spell-checker is no substitute for a good grade-school education. And – by Bakunin’s balls! – what the hell is a “specious gaze”?

The latter may not count, as it is a counter-attack by one anarchist of some notoriety on another of no fame at all. In other words, it is not a “worthy target”.


mc 04.13.06 at 3:54 am

I second lalala’s citing of Lane’s New Yorker film reviews – at his peak (about half way through the collected volume) he was very good indeed. He’s gone off a bit now.

Also – haven’t got time to reread to check, but I remember this being good: Stefan Collini in the LRB on Hitchens on Orwell (Jan 2003):



Tom Hurka 04.13.06 at 5:52 am

Larkin’s comments on Davis and Coltrane have a larger context. He thought the greatest art has to appeal both to the emotions and to the intellect (as his own poetry so brilliantly does); in music that means combining beat and brains. The jazz of Armstrong and Bechet did that, but post-Parker jazz was purely cerebral. More generally, Larkin thought music in the later 20th century divided into brains without beat (post-Parker jazz) and beat without brains (rock ‘n’ roll). More generally still, he saw all modernist art — Picasso, Pound, etc. — as directly purely to the intellect and therefore unsatisfying. Agree or not –maybe you like purely cerebral works — it’s a brilliant analysis of a distinctive feature of 20th-century art, across the genres, and you have to see it behind the specific comments on Davis and Coltrane.

As for the Burnyeat review, isn’t it taking a sledgehammer to crush a flea? Robert Nozick put it much more pithily: Straussians are people who believe that the sum total of political wisdom is that only the wise should rule. Ouch!


soru 04.13.06 at 7:11 am

Reading the Eagleton review, I think I have worked out why post-colonialist theorists write the way they do.

It is an attempt to show the reader what it would subjectively feel like to read, say, Orwell, not only in a foreign language, but having missed 6 years of education due to having been captured as a sex slave by a gang of child soldiers.


schwa 04.13.06 at 10:08 am

It’s hard to believe that any discussion of vicious book reviews has made it this far without even mentioning Dorothy Parker. I don’t know which of hers I’d put up (maybe “Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up”), but she should certainly be in there.

Speaking of Gingrich, the best filleting of his intellectual dilletantism I’ve ever read — and which, if you stretched the definition, could be called a review essay — is Joan Didion’s “Newt Gingrich, Superstar”, which is reprinted in her book Political Fictions.

As for Peck, I rolled my eyes and ignored the squalls which passed through the chattering classes when the infamous Rick Moody review was published, and gritted my teeth and reached for the gin when it was all repeated on the publication of Hatchet Jobs, so I freely confess to a distorted perspective, but it seems to me that he’s now retreated so far up his own arse, transforming his attitude to all fiction into that of a petulant, nihilistic child (see here for a timely example), that his entire critical oeuvre has been retroactively discredited.


Paul Gowder 04.13.06 at 12:33 pm

C’mon, what about Dorothy Parker’s classic reviews? The one of A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner? tonstant weader fwowed up?


Paul Gowder 04.13.06 at 12:39 pm

whoops, the last comment beat me to it. Well, then, I’ll offer Dear Doctor, I Read Your Play (Byron), which, the legend goes, was Byron’s suggestion for a rejection letter to his publisher.

Or, for that matter, the entire dedication of Byron’s Don Juan, which tears holes in pretty much all of his contemporaries, and BRUTALIZES Southey.


Paul Gowder 04.13.06 at 12:42 pm

Oooh. Oooh. One more. (Sorry for the multiple posts, I’ll stop now.) Jules Coleman shredding Kaplow and Shavell in the Yale Law Journal.


Jay Smooth 04.13.06 at 12:48 pm

De gustibus non est disputandum, but I can’t imagine a less apt description of Miles and Trane than “purely cerebral,” unless it refers to the very late Coltrane works like Ascension.

Other than those few exceptions, their discographies have probably the most intense emotional resonance I’ve ever experienced in music. Especially Coltrane whose work is, to many fans, best known for how it evokes and embodies his lifelong quest for a deeper spirituality.

Also, conveying emotion via music involves the melody and harmony at least as much as the beat.. but Miles and Trane usually had plenty of swing going on regardless, no less than Duke to my ears.

I’m just thankful Larkin never got around to opining on hip-hop.


Jacob T. Levy 04.13.06 at 1:57 pm

Repeating what I posted on the original thread: Barry on Nozick, Nussbaum on Butler, Berkowitz on Singer.


arb 04.13.06 at 2:54 pm

Lee Siegel’s Nation review of the latest Camille Paglia book was pretty mean.


anand sarwate 04.13.06 at 5:33 pm

Gian-Carlo Rota, a mathematician, had a number of trenchant reviews. One, if I recall, was that the book “filled a much-needed gap in the literature.”


Gary Farber 04.13.06 at 7:46 pm

I’m partial to Red Mike, aka Jim Macdonald, and particularly his review of the movie of Starship Troopers.

Many of Roger Ebert’s 0 Stars reviews are also good. I realize these are a bit downmarket compared to some of the other suggestions. (Find Ebert’s by going here, and plugging in “zero” and “zero” into “from” and “to” in the stars pull-down.)


ArC 04.13.06 at 11:03 pm

Downmarket? Well, let me further lower the discourse by suggesting some of Mr. Cranky’s best. Unfortunately, they’ve been taken offline to push the sales of the book. Actually, I suppose they also fail the “deserving target” test.

What about Matt Taibbi’s review of Friedman’s “The World is Flat”?


Matt Weiner 04.14.06 at 12:44 am

wcw, maybe you would enjoy Evan Parker’s solo soprano saxophone recordings? They often sound like several saxophones being played at once, or a few hundred played at once. If asked for a record akin to the dog-with-100-legs picture, that’d definitely be my pick.

Ditto to Jay Smooth about “purely cerebral,” except I also find it an incredibly inapt description of Ascension. “So intense it’s hard to take” is what I’d say.


djw 04.14.06 at 1:17 am

I was wondering when someone would get to Barry on Nozick. Continuing in that vein, Okin on Sandel was pretty classic. Someone in the NYTBR on some Vidal doorstop a few years ago was gloriously fierce for the usually tepid venue. “I felt as though someone was braying in my ear…”


djw 04.14.06 at 1:19 am

Oh, and Kael on The Sound of Music and Hiroshima Mon Amour. When I watched the latter after reading the review, I honestly felt like I might have kinda enjoyed it had I not previously read that review.

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