I think Auden is correct when he writes, in The Dyer's Hand, that "one cannot review a bad book without showing off," that writing one is an opportunity for a display of intelligence and wit and malice, and I think that's what William Logan is doing pretty much all the time, especially in his review of Ocean Vuong's new book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. But I think Auden is wrong when he says attacking bad books is a waste of time.
Because I’m actually very thankful for Logan‘s extremely negative review of Vuong's book. I'm immensely relieved that he wrote it, that it was published, and that I found it. Talk about malice; here's the fist line: "Ocean Vuong’s dithery, soft-focus poems are so insufferably winsome they threaten the reader with tooth decay." Auden says that when he reads a reviewer who is trustworthy condemning a book, he thinks to himself "well here at least is one that I do not have to bother about," but Auden also says "but had he kept silent, it would’ve been the same." But that’s not quite true. There are differences of effect.
In this case, I’ve been hearing about the book in question from literally every corner. Every bookstore I go in has handwritten recommendations underneath it, every literary magazine shouts hosannas from the rooftops, but when I read it, I found absolutely nothing admirable in it. And then someone else suggested it to me, told me how much I would love it, so I tried again and found it not just dull, but insipid, insanely juvenile.
After a few of these encounters, one starts to wonder if there something wrong with his judgment. One can only have so many people tell him that Poke (or whatever the new rotten fish thing people are eating is) is the best food known to man before one suspects he lacks sophisticated breeding, or appropriately-tuned senses.
So to have the most notorious critic in the United States and one whose judgment has been dead-on so many times before (as in the case of Richard Kenney, or Gertrude Schnackenberg and many, many others) say the thing I’ve been thinking so long--that there is literally nothing to this book--dismissed me from the long encomium that the rest of the poetry world seems to have been lining up the offer. Once dismissed, how fresh it was outside! How brightly the sun shone, how frankly happy I was to step out of that auditorium with its air of chloroform and spitballs!