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Deconstructive Criticism

August 28, 2017

By Jim Rhodes

Today’s literary critics seem to me to be a tame bunch who mostly produce insipid reviews of works that probably ought to be trashed without mercy.

The earlier generation of book and drama reviewers, which blossomed in the 1930s, had no such scruples. Consider the following …

“It opened at 8:40 sharp and closed at 10:40 dull.” (Heywood Broun)

“It was one of those plays in which all the actors unfortunately enunciated very clearly.” (Robert Benchley)

“If you will only take the precaution to go in long enough after it commences and to come out long enough before it is over, you will not find it wearisome.” (George Bernard Shaw)

“That’s not writing, that’s typing.” (Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac)

“There has long been a controversy over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays – Shakespeare or Bacon. I propose to settle it today by opening their graves. Whoever turned over wrote Hamlet.” (Robert Hendrickson on the morning after an especially awful performance of Hamlet)

The finest practitioner of the trenchant acidic put-down was Dorothy Parker, who lived from 1893 to 1967. She was a fixture at the famous Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. She reviewed plays for Vanity Fair, and wrote a regular book column called “Constant Reader” in The New Yorker during the early 30s. (She was also a deeply unhappy person who wrote sad poems, attempted suicide more than once and died an alcoholic alone in a hotel room in Manhattan.)

Here are a few of her gems.

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

“It was written without fear and without research.” (on a book about science)

“She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B.” (on a performance by Katherine Hepburn)

“This play holds the season’s record thus far, with a run of four evening performances and one matinee. By an odd coincidence, it ran just five performances too many.”

“The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.” (on an autobiography)

Theodore Dreiser

Should ought to write nicer.

And finally…

“Tonstant Weader fwowed up.” (on A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner).

Happily, the critics don’t always have the last word. The playwright Christopher Hampton once said, “Asking a working actor what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs.”

Paul Hume once panned a singing performance by Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret in The Washington Post. “Miss Truman cannot sing very well” and “has not improved.” The president wrote the following response on White House stationery. “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” (Too bad Harry didn’t have Twitter at his fingertips!)

Finally, consider this response from Max Reger (pictured above), a German composer and concert pianist who lived from 1873 to 1916. The music critic from Münchener Neueste Nachrichten published a scathing review of Reger’s Sinfonietta in A major. The composer wrote him this note: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. Soon it will be behind me.”