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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

Fire the Bastards !

Jack Green

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Title: Fire the Bastards !
Author: Jack Green
Genre: Criticism
Written: 1962
Length: 88 pages
Availability: Fire the Bastards !
Fire the Bastards ! - UK
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  • First published in three parts in newspaper, issues 12-14, 1962
  • Introduction by Steven Moore
  • Survey, analysis and criticism of the book reviews of William Gaddis' The Recognitions (see our review)

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Our Assessment:

B : well-done, useful criticism of the critics

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
ANQ . 4/1994 Steve Weisenburger
St. Louis Post-Dispatch . 11/4/1993 Peter Wolfe

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The complete review's Review:

       There are many malign influences that have been injurious to modern literature. The greatest scourge is, no doubt, translation -- few worse fates can befall a book than to be "translated" (a vile corruption all the worse because it is so common, so widely tolerated, and so uncritically accepted). Near as bad is what that terrible breed, "book reviewers" inflict on modern literature. Jack Green's book is one of the more famous rants against the profession.
       His call is to fire the bastards. Green uses the critical reception of William Gaddis' The Recognitions in 1955 to show that book-reviewers aren't doing their job. Accusing them of incompetence, laziness, and worse he too easily can cite a multitude of examples supporting all his charges. It's an angry, damning book -- but no less fun for that.
       Gaddis' book, published by Harcourt Brace, was actually reviewed by a large number of newspapers and magazines (55 at the first go round). As Green shows most of the coverage was superficial, misleading, wrongheaded, and filled with mistakes. Leaving aside questions of the book's literary merit, Green convincingly shows that most of the critics were in no way even qualified to make any sort of judgment regarding the novel. Two boasted of not having finished the book, others merely embellished the cover-blurb. Mistakes and misunderstandings crop up all over.
       Gaddis' fat book (near a thousand pages) is an ideal subject for an attack on the critics. Not the simplest of novels, it is very long (near 400,000 words) and quite demanding. In addition, Gaddis was a newcomer to the literary scene -- an unknown. The book mystified the book reviewing guild. As Green convincingly shows few actually did their job. All they had to do was read the book carefully and then review it, but that was clearly beyond them.
       Green's extensive quotes, comparisons, and lists of mistakes ("boners") are both entertaining and maddening. A student of the book itself, Green also offers a fairly useful discussion of how The Recognitions might properly be seen.
       Of how much interest can a book about reviewing practices in the 1950's be ? Actually, it stands up remarkably well. Steven Moore's excellent introduction, explaining the history of the pieces (including their publishing history and how the Dalkey Archive Press came to publish this volume), is also particularly useful in reminding readers of the value of Green's work.
       Early on Green acknowledges that "the worst review is no review". As Steven Moore points out, this is exactly the problem modern literature faces: serious new fiction is no longer widely reviewed. There were 55 reviews of The Recognitions -- an astonishing number. "A similar novel published today would be lucky to get a fourth of that number," Moore suggests. All the bastards were apparently fired -- and no one competent hired in their places. The lack of fora for serious literary discussion is one of the most pressing problems in the contemporary art world, and many an author will look wistfully at the list of reviews in Green's book and wish that their work would be similarly (mis)treated.
       As to the quality of the reviews, Green's complaints ring familiar. Only some of the bastards were fired, and those still doing the reviewing rarely rise above the level of mediocrity or outright incompetence that Green criticizes.
       Well presented, and with the happy-ending vindication of finding Gaddis' book universally acclaimed as one of the major American post-war novels, Jack Green's book makes for an excellent read. Our only suggestion/wish: an updating, showing how (and trying to understand why) the critical reception has shifted so towards acceptance and acclaim -- see for example The New York Times' continued revisionism, for example in Tony Tanner's 1974 re-view (when The Recognitions was re-released as a paperback), calling it "one of the most important American novels written since the last war", as well as in Cynthia Ozick's 1985 review of Carpenter's Gothic, in which she called The Recognitions "the most overlooked important work of the last several literary generations."
       As to a book reviewer reviewing a book so damning of the undertaking ? One argument would be to claim absolute professionalism, several cuts above the mediocrities Green deals with. The complete review might claim to have fired all the bastards and stuck only with those willing to do the job as the job should be done. But we won't delude ourselves, or try to delude our users. We don't and we can't give all the books all their due (though our failure tears us up in inside every day). In our defence we'll feebly claim that we are not your usual review forum, and that our purpose is as much informative as it is critical. We're a stepping stone and, given the number of books and authors under review which you'll find hardly a word about anywhere else, except in the deepest recesses of the largest libraries, we do seem to serve some purpose. Yes, we judge the books under review -- harshly, too, with those terrible grades, reducing long works to a single letter -- but it should be clear to all that our judgments are relative, not absolute. They are guides to help our users.
       But, given Jack Green's well-founded outrage we promise: we'll try and do better.
       Note that the complete review is one of the few review sites or publications that provides as many other opinions as possible -- a practise that regrettably often reaffirms Green's basic contention of general incompetence among reviewers. But, as in Green's book, it does have entertainment value .....

       Fire the Bastards ! is certainly recommended, a valuable and entertaining commentary on a very sad state of affairs, one that hasn't improved much in the decades that have passed since the work's initial publication.

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Fire the Bastards !: Reviews: Other books under review that might be of interest:
  • William Gaddis' The Recognitions
  • Don Foster's Author Unknown, describing some of Jack Green's exploits (as Foster explores whether Wanda Tinasky is actually Thomas Pynchon)

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About the Author:

       Jack Green is a pseudonym of John Carlisle. Born around 1928 he attended Princeton and later worked in insurance. After assuming the name Jack Green he started newspaper, producing seventeen issues of it between 1957 and 1965.

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