Where have all the critics gone?
I've been reading a lot of reviews of new mystery novels lately and they have been exceedingly complimentary, every one. I'm delighted because these happen to be very fine novels written by my good friends. But I have to admit that a small part of me would like to read a really nasty review once in a while. Cutting critiques are hard to find. Even the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books seem to steer clear of the really eviscerating remarks. These belong to a by-gone era and I have to say I miss them.
We were at the National Arts Centre last week and I was taken aback to read the following notes on the evening's performance of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35.
"The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely not an ordinary talent, but rather an inflated one, with a genius-obsession without discrimination or taste. Such is also his long and pretentious Violin Concerto. For a while it moves soberly, musically and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and asserts itself to the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed." And on and on it goes. It wasn't clear until the end of the notes that this was not a current review but rather one from the first performance of the piece in 1881. Once in on the joke, the NAC audience members could be seen turning to their neighbours to share the review and to laugh at how we'd all been briefly duped. I wondered, though, if they, like me, had a moment of missing the days when a review like this one was de rigueur.
Where are the modern-day Dorothy Parkers? Who today would ever dream of writing the following about a book, as did she, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Or "It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up.”
Even restaurant reviews have calmed down since Seymour Britchky's days writing for New York Magazine. Britchky said of one famous Manhattan eatery: "The wines are overpriced and anyway, the proper drink for the food here is Alka-Selzer."
And of Mamma Leone's, "So when you sit down, you are brought celery, olives, tomatoes, and a block of soap the size of half a loaf of Wonder bread, and you cut off a hunk and go to the washroom to wash before dinner, and a few old hands restrain you good-naturedly and say no, no, that's cheese, for to eat, no soap. And you say no, no, it's soap, I can tell from the taste. And they say oh no you can't, because it doesn't have any taste! And everyone has a good laugh."
I miss Dorothy and Seymour. Maybe I'll just have to tune into the Parliamentary Channel to get my daily dose of insults. Ack!
Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted appeared in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.