Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 350 (1/19) -- Poisoned Pens edited by Gary Dexter

If you want something said really well, you'll want to go to a writer to get it done. And writers are also well-known for not getting along with each other -- like artists in other fields, they're prone to feuding with their rivals (or betters, or inferiors, or competitors, or just whoever happens to be handy). So you would think a collection of quotes from various writers throughout history, all devoted to the proposition that some other writer is really absolutely appalling, would be a wicked joy to read.

But I found Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, a collection of just such quotes collated and organized by Gary Dexter, to be only intermittently exciting, amid stretches of blather and boredom. Dexter likes to give context, which is an admirable impulse, but it often leads to long, long quotes (there are dozens in here that are a page long or longer) instead of zingers.

Poisoned Pens is also arranged chronologically, so the reader has to dig through Chaucer and Cicero and Spenser before getting to insults that aren't elaborately coded in rhyming couplets. (I exaggerate slightly.) And the section on the moderns -- where one expects the really juicy slander and character assassination to be (and is correct to do so) -- seems to be the shortest, as if Dexter either wasn't as interested in it or wasn't able to get permissions for the good stuff.

I also found myself wishing that back-and-forth insults were arranged together, instead of organizing the whole book by slandered author chronologically. Even a re-organization by author of the quotes would add some life by bringing all of one person's nastiness together, and it really would have been best if it went something like Gertrude Stein on Hemingway, Hemingway on Stein, Stein on Wyndham Lewis, Hemingway on Lewis, and so on. It's easy to lose track of who really hated who as you plod through pages and pages of long-winded literary criticism of people like George Meredith, whom no one really cares about to begin with.

There is some good stuff in Poisoned Pens: quite a number of zingers and even more careful demolitions. But it's mostly literary criticism -- biased criticism, yes, unfair criticism, absolutely, but still mostly focused on the work rather than the writer. I'm sure Gore Vidal alone has said enough horrible things about other writers to fill a book this size, and I was hoping for more salacious gossip and rude insults and less "E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot" (Katherine Mansfield). Readers with less strict definitions of invective will enjoy this more than I did, but, characteristically, I thought it wasn't nearly nasty enough.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment