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This report is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

The Art of Non-criticism

The Sword is Mightier than the Pen
Rory Waterman
Norman Mailer, writer and boxing fan, once famously punched Gore Vidal at a party, after receiving a negative review from him. But it wasn’t a knockout: ‘Once again words fail Norman Mailer’, Vidal is said to have retorted – proving that, though he couldn’t dance like a butterfly, he could certainly sting like a wasp. And after Vidal’s cutman pressed a bag of frozen peas to his cheek for half an hour or so (I’m editorialising here) there was, in fact, only one clear winner. Like George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, the harder hitter had punched himself out all too early in the contest.

There are morals to this story, of greater and lesser kinds. Moral 1: reviewers and reviewees are bound to cross paths, and both should probably be careful as well as honest. Moral 2: reviewers might want to have a bon mot ready for when the displeased subject of a not wholly positive article decides to turn a literary bun-fight into a literal fist-fight. Moral 3: the wounded author is probably best off making a bonfire of his grievances. A writer has no right to expect lavish, untempered praise just because he has the privilege of seeing his name on the spine of a book. The most interesting books have often tended to flummox or peeve the reviewers anyway.

I’ve reviewed for as long as I’ve been publishing poems, and can’t imagine doing one without sometimes also doing the other. Being a poet as well as a reviewer has probably reminded me not to be unkind ...


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