The Acid Tongue
It All Comes Out In The Wash
Selected By Toh Hsien Min
Recently, a clutch of my writer friends exchanged a few hundred messages on WhatsApp on the state of literary criticism in Singapore – what this was (comatose, we agreed), whether criticism had any value, whether the paucity of criticism was more of a demand or supply issue (supply, in my book – judging by the number of writers asking QLRS for reviews versus the number of writers willing to write reviews) – and then extended it to most of the discussion around dinner the following week. We had never argued so vociferously about Sing Lit proper, nor about any of its individual books, which I thought was at least starting evidence of its import. One of the bigger bones of contention, however, concerned whether one should ever write a review that is negative, which fairly quickly also added the nuance of how much negativity was permissible within the range from gentle putdown to full-on bloodlust. Even the idea of kindness here came in for scrutiny: was it a greater kindness to be honest with people about their work or to feed or spare their egos and indirectly encourage them to produce more terrible work?
Longstanding readers of QLRS will know our positions on this. We need to weigh up every book we publish without fear or favour if we are to improve as a literary scene, and that means being able to say harsh things about people's passionate lives' work if it comes to that. We don't think criticism should transgress into ad hominem attacks, but on the literary work itself a conveyor belt of "this book is wonderful for reasons I can't memorably articulate to you because they don't exist and I'm only writing this because I want to be able to run into you at the next cocktail event and emerge from it not dripping with Cabernet Sauvignon" benefits nobody. Without negative reviews, we can't have positive reviews. Or to borrow from The Incredibles: when everyone's super, no one will be.
Of course, being ever ready to explore the meta-argument, we didn't take long to consider the case of reviewing the review and for the others in the discussion to lament the dormancy of the Acid Tongue. So for this issue I decided to look for a review that wants to be critical at the same time as it wants not to be, possibly to save on a dry-cleaning bill, and I initially thought I might have found it in Rory Waterman's review of David Cain's Truth Street, in Poetry Review vol. 109:3, Autumn 2019.
The road to damnation with faint praise is paved with good intentions, and Waterman begins with these:
You're a decent bloke. Decent blokes keep their wines in their wine-glasses.
Seeing as Truth Street concerns the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-final because of police incompetence, this arguably had to be the safest opening anyway; Waterman quickly follows with a summary of the event and a brief description of the structure of the book. Surely
is wholly innocuous? Well, yes, if one believes that poetry should do the opposite of dialogue in fiction and theatre, in which case it is an accomplishment given that the source material was in fact eyewitness accounts, and only artistic care can flatten out individuality.
Presumably one doesn't want to see the stitching in haute couture, and therefore this is another mark of approval? But to really convince, one shouldn't ever write a review without at least some marks of nitpicking, ergo:
But this is where the strain of being polite gives way to truth street.
In other words, you're better off reading something else.
No really, please read something else.
Hang on, there is the dinner jacket to think about:
I can't do it. Let's just wear the old suit with the frayed stitching.
QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020