Hatchet Job: When Bad Reviewers Go Good


Arts & Culture

In February of this year, Adam Mars-Jones, an English writer not much known in this country, won the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award for his review of Michael Cunningham’s Nightfall: “And a two-person epiphany has to outrank the single kind. Two comely young people standing in the lake shallows, ‘looking out at the milky haze of the horizon’—that’s not an epiphany, that’s a postcard.”

Geoff Dyer, another English writer, much better known since 2008’s Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanisi brought most of his strange work back into print, was nominated for his attack on Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending:

Later, after Tony has broken up with his girlfriend, Adrian commits suicide. This would be my first objection. Obviously people commit suicide, for a variety of reasons, but in fiction they tend to do so primarily in the service of authorial convenience. And convenience invariably becomes a near-anagram of contrivance.

The impulse behind good bad reviews is not much understood, and whether understood or not, is usually disliked or dismissed. It’s considered ungenerous, as though generosity could never be misplaced. In their careers, Dyer and Mars-Jones have risked this dislike regularly, but it’s worth reading them at their other best, when they’re admiring works that they love, works that have continued in their minds, works they’ve continued to live alongside.

For that other best is rooted in a love that you can find in their best negative reviews. I’d argue that Mars-Jones wrote a better, even a beautiful, negative review last year, his brilliant dismissal of Orhan Pamuk’s Norton Lectures (published as The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist).

After unpacking the relentless clichés in this very bad little book and finding nothing underneath, Mars-Jones offers something else instead (another mark of a good bad review), which, in the final paragraphs of the review, is a better and more beautiful ars poetica than anything offered by Pamuk:

It’s common sense to assume that artists know what they’re doing, but art is not the domain of common sense. T. S. Eliot has been mocked for disclaiming any authority as an interpreter of his own work, but the opposite assumption is at least as suspect. One novelist who offers a useful version of the writing process in its abstract mechanics is Michel Tournier in his 1977 essay Le vent paraclet. His idea is that novels are cleverer than their writers. Don’t compliment me on my imaginative brilliance, he says, just give me credit for using a device that stores impulses over time. A battery. The novel. The writer spends months if not years generating a charge that the reader experiences in a matter of hours. It’s the same with the suicide who throws himself off the Eiffel tower after climbing to the top. He’s pulped by the same potential energy he built up step by step, because it’s discharged so rapidly.

Each of these two men also have short, newish books on a single film: Noriko Smiling, by Mars-Jones, a longish essay on Ozu’s Late Spring, and Zona, Geoff Dyer’s convoluted, slightly longer book about Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As criticism, both works are curious. They rely heavily on conversational plot summary, tangents; there is nothing formal to be seen. They take for granted that the most important thing in discussing art is not to be bored while discussing art. And so they defy the practice of criticism as we know it. And in fact, both books are less critical works than devotional texts. Not holier than thou, but humble in their intentions. I can approach God or Ozu or Tarkovsky without special dispensation and so can you. Some sort of admirably amateurish engagement is what they both ask.

They are also devotional because they come after a long critical tradition that assumed (or at least assumed that we assumed) the cultural utility of narrative, of film, and of criticism, and that the reality of characters and their problems could be dismissed practically before the discussion ever began. Both of these books—and those like them—take us down as close to the object as they can, in order to teach us again how to watch Noriko and her father struggle with the question of her arranged marriage, or how to watch Stalker and Writer and Professor try to reach a room (the Room) where their deepest desires will be granted. By the lights of Mars-Jones and Dyer, we’re having to relearn what’s worthwhile about identifying with the wish-fantasy of the Room or the marriage predicament of Noriko. Readers and viewers are always doing this, relearning the basic empathy that goes with fiction, but as the intervals become longer and the incentives diminish, the process becomes less certain. A need arises for criticism that doesn’t assume (as authors and filmmakers, usually true believers, do) that we know how to care for characters that aren’t real. Both books, Mars-Jones’s in particular, spend time stripping the previous layers of criticism away. But this isn’t Ozu without tears. We just ought to be crying for Noriko rather than Ozu. We shouldn’t insult the director by supposing that the story on the screen is nothing to him and less to us.

The last few years have seen several books in or near this vein: the art historian T. J. Clark put himself in a room with two Poussins day after day until he had produced a journal of thinking and looking, The Sight of Death, one of the best books about painting I’ve read; its subtitle, An Experiment in Art Writing, indicates that it is clearly meant to be criticism with a difference. Elif Batuman’s personal essays about Russian literature, The Possessed, are closer to some autobiographical line, but they still are most interested in questions of how and why these forms can become complicated and structured enough to think in and live in until we forget there is an outside, that the world is not Poussin or Tolstoy.

For Mars-Jones to deal with Ozu, he has to pry away the glister that Paul Schrader and a whole host of other critics have applied to Late Spring and to the master’s (apparently always a Zen master) meditative camera work. Noriko Smiling has Noriko in the title—and for good reason—the book treats the young woman who wants to take care of her father rather than submit to an arranged marriage as a real narrative problem, not merely as an excuse for formal greatness. It’s one thing that both books have in common. To be truly reverential, you can’t have reverence only for past reverence. There’s something underneath, in this case a story, and both books lean heavily on remarkable and engaging plot summaries to reach it. And yet it’s worth mentioning that both these films are meditative; they spool out their stories at a rate we can take in and have many minutes left over for ourselves. How to spend them? Mars-Jones puzzles over the beautiful vagaries of plot, trying to see how and why it all fits together. He considers the post–World War II American occupation of Japan and the particular nature of the film censorship that went along with it, using these to move deeper and deeper into the imponderables of Noriko’s motivation.

But in Stalker, Dyer has a higher minutes-to-narrative ratio to fill, and he fills it with an extended and marvelous history of his engagement with the movie and all the dark hypotheticals that the movie’s wish-fulfillment plotline has sent him down. But the book isn’t about what Geoff Dyer wants as much as it is about how a movie can make you turn these thing over in your mind, a reminder to take art personally. For this, both men insist, is one of the thrills of narrative—offering pieces of your life, letting them be evoked and then invoked by an author, and then having them returned: altered or turned against you (by something that befalls the characters). The most financially rewarding sectors of narrative make their money by evoking your particular life and then rewarding you for having it: of this many bestsellers are made. Stalker and Late Spring don’t reward us in that way, and they will not let us alone. And these two short books are faithful to that.

Dyer moves so close to the story that he considers what he would do if he were faced with the Room, a room that grants your deepest wish. In a move that would embarrass most critics, he allows the plot of the movie to question and require answers from the life of Geoff Dyer. What would he do? What would you do?

So that this movie and his book are not only an aesthetic sequence of images and their closed commentary, he’s unfolding a knotty human thing in the middle of his knotty human life. In one hell-for-leather passage, he proceeds from discussing the idea of the Room’s offer of a deepest desire to a discussion of his parent’s wish for a better cut of steak from the supermarket. Something which, rather than being easily nostalgic over, he vivisects into a convoluted but gorgeous discussion of the absurdity of denial and fulfillment. Then, in case we still found this too sepia-toned, he mentions that his deepest desire would probably be to have managed a threesome. He conversationally recounts his near-misses. But, lest we think him too bold, he admits that his deepest desire could actually be something embarrassing, really embarrassing, not magazine-writer embarrassing: real estate. To have bought a flat for a thousand that would now cost three hundred thousand. To have sold out when the selling out was good.

But although Mars-Jones and Geoff Dyer both behave as though they are agents of the Secret Service—throwing themselves bodily between their films and normal criticis—the swelling orchestral nonsense of contemporary autobiography is nowhere to be seen. Dyer doesn’t tell us to care about Stalker because his parents didn’t buy the cuts of meat they wished they had or because he never had a threesome. This isn’t the kind of audience-hostage-taking autobiography that David Mamet once compared to bringing a gun to a knife fight. There is this movie, Stalker, you see, and it reminds him of things. That’s all.

Another way both authors signal that these viewing accounts are meant to be provisional is their willingness to say they don’t know. Adam Mars-Jones goes on about Noriko’s father, an old professor, and his habit of rubbing his wooden cigarette holder against the sides of his nose, then throws up his authorial hands and says, Who knows why? You tell me, he says. Dyer does the same, mentioning the many animals of some zoo, including the Przewalski’s horse, then adds, “whatever that is,” conspicuously mentioning not only what he does not know, but did not look up.

Why this gesture from both men? More like an actor’s pose than a rhetorical trick, isn’t it? Why include it at all? Because it creates the sense that this is conversational and locked out of anything like perfect knowledge. He’s just said these things so we can, for a moment, not know, not go down that tangent, and put our phones away. They avoid a static reverence by steering clear of full authority, but also by maintaining their bad reviewers’ willingness to be irritated. Neither Dyer nor Mars-Jones came to the attention of the Hatchet Judges because they were easygoing, but even as they discuss the films they love, the make it clear not only that they do not know everything, they don’t revere everything. Dyer kicks L’Avventura to the curb, mostly to show us that he can be bored by a slow, apparently aimless film, so that we will trust him while he provides running commentary to Stalker, one of the greatest boring films of all time. He does the same to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, as well as to late Henry James, admitting that the moment has passed. He’ll never try for the pleasures of those works.

Mars-Jones echoes this at the outset of Noriko Smiling, saying he hasn’t seen much Japanese cinema, going so far as to mention that, as he writes, a Criterion Silent Naruse is sitting unopened on his DVD player. These are not the Church fathers endorsing the hierarchies. Instead they are admitting that the hierarchies only serve to push us away, putting many removes and understandings between us and the ability to be engaged by a novel or a film. And in this way, they’re even at odds with that other up-to-the-minute genre: I took a year off to become the absolute best at cooking/reading Dante/Proust/Joyce/Carol Oates/memorizing/Paris, and so on.

But despite this different DIY approach, neither book is falsely egalitarian and they don’t dumb anything down. The books demand your reaction and intelligence, and not your education or understanding of this or that. It remains to be seen if these traditions—the novel and the narrative film—can be saved from the kind of curation that has befallen poetry or ballet, or that this year’s Oscar nominees celebrate. Their Hatchet-nominated reviews are not dead-end asides, but preludes to appreciation. Clearing the way, so that Noriko Smiling and Zona and Late Spring and Stalker can be ours fully and pointedly—and not just as part of an interminable and very bland general appreciation.

Drew Johnson is a writer living in Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Five Chapters, The Cupboard, VQR, and elsewhere.