Bad Reviews

Have I lost my edge?

I mean, have I fallen prey to the habit of only praising books? Of only writing good things about them?

I don't think so. In my review of Jean Thompson, I raved about the book but I did say that bits were too easy: that's not totally gutless. And in a review I just turned in of two scholarly books on modernism, I had some rather strong things to say about the weaker book and didn't really mince words about the better one, either. But then, that review is 16 months late (academia allows such appalling behavior though it shames me) in part because I've been dreading finding the right way to finesse my wording.

Still, I'm surprised to see that my very brief account of Glendinning's biography of Leonard leads one to think that I liked the book. I think the same is true of the forthcoming short review for the Virginia Woolf Miscellany.

I did not like it.

But, somehow, I found that hard to say.

Knowing I was going to review this book, I read Glendinning's biography of Bowen early in the year. I'm thinking about spy fiction for my project after the Dalloway one, and Bowen will certainly be a centerpiece. I know that she knew some of the Cambridge spies and I was hoping to figure out some leads there. Instead, I came away depressed and discouraged. Glendinning made Bowen seem dull and ordinary, not an author one would want to pursue study of.

This was discouraging--about Bowen and about Glendinning. How could I get through the Leonard biography? I was not hopeful, but then, once begun, I loved the first two or three chapters about his life before marriage. And then, we got to the part where he meets and falls in love with Virginia Stephen. It was a complicated courtship, over-determined by their mutual love of Lytton Strachey, who loved both but would marry neither. (Which makes sense, given that nagging problem of sexuality: hard for Leonard, who was straight, to be with Lytton; hard for Lytton, who was gay, to be with Virginia--to whom he proposed in a moment of panic.) There were other factors as well. When are there not?

But in Glendinning's account, the 30 years of their marriage were, for Leonard, a long and stressful exercise in postponing the inevitable suicide of Virginia.

It's clear that Glendinning finds Virginia weird.

I suppose she was.

But that seems an unfortunate attitude in a biographer.

And some of this I said, I think, in my review. But I cordoned off my frustration--my anger, at times--because I could see that were I to write a review that really argued what I sketch above, I would simply come off as one of those disgruntled Woolfians, too in love with Virginia to see what a burden, what a sick weirdo, she truly was…

Perhaps it's not so much a question of whether or not I've lost my edge as it is testament to the difficulty of tone in prose. Things that one can say aloud to a friend, things that one can write in a blog such as this, even, don't always translate into the measured prose of a review--even for so tiny a print publication as the Virginia Woolf Miscellany which is, after all, stapled, for goodness sakes…