I don’t think there is a writer out there capable to ignore reviews. Not long ago I was talking to a guy who has written a highly engaging and effervescent work of non fiction and do you know how he met my praise? With this: ‘Oh thanks Steph, that’s good to hear, especially after those awful reviews on Amazon’. I hadn’t seen these reviews, so I had a gander after he referred to them.
He only has ten, six of which are written by seemingly illiterate people. I told him that he should know better than agonise over a moron who spells plagiarism as pleggiarism and yet I understand his deflation, because putting your work out there for the thrashing makes one feel figuratively naked and completely vulnerable. And how do you respond to criticism without sounding like an embittered lunatic that just cannot let it rest? You don't, that's how, which means that you seethe over it instead.
But if my friend was worrying about a couple of misplaced comments left online by someone who is, and will remain, a nobody, in the grand scheme of his life, he will probably feel better once he stumbles on this entry. Today I was writing about one of the most scathing pieces of criticism ever to make it into print and one that can sink AA Gill’s remarks without even trying. It makes my own criticisms, literary or otherwise, sound like the strangled cry of a three year-old that pricked her finger on a hairslide.
I am referring to Hazlitt’s review of Coleridge’s BioLit, as quoted by Richard Holmes in the second volume of Coleridge’s biography, Darker Reflections. Think your life as a misunderstood writer is so hard? You’ll feel better after reading this one.
The reviews of Coleridge’s new books began to appear in the autumn of 1817. They were as bad as he feared, or rather worse. Hazlitt immediately set about the Biographia in an enormous 10,000-word assault in the August issue of the Edinburgh Review, calling it a “garrulous” production from “the maggots of his brain”. Hazlitt concentrated his fire on what he regarded as Coleridge’s well-established weaknesses: obscurity of style, shifts of political opinion, “maudlin egotism”, “garrulous” reminiscences, and above all the passion for metaphysics which “have been a dead weight on the wings of his imagination”. Hazlitt simply did not engage with the great strengths of the Biographia. The story of the philosophical pilgrimage was a “long-winding metaphysical march”. The emerging theory of the Imagination was “unintelligible”. The superb critical dialogue with Wordsworth was “not very remarkable either for clearness or candour”. The memorable psychological accounts of how a poet’s mind works, and how poetry is actually composed (with all its arresting imagery) were “mawkish spleen in fulsome eulogies of his own virtue”. It was the most unrelenting of Hazlitt’s attacks, giving no quarter, and returning again and again to the charge of intellectual charlatanism and political apostasy. His old mentor was now “a disappointed demagogue” who kept up, in vain, “that pleasurable poetic fervour which has been the cordial and bane of his existence”. “Till he can do something better, we would rather hear no more of him”.