I believe that if one is going to say cruel things in print, particularly if one is being paid for such writing, that the cruelty should be leavened by wit or, at least, elegance. Consider the case of the infamous New York critic John Simon whose was tendency to dislike all that he saw and to denigrate performers based on their personal appearance. Of him fellow critic Roger Ebert remarked, “I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.” He is said to have an abiding concern for the elevation of the art of criticism and the use of the English language but one struggles to find that concern in remarks like these:
Built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses. – John Simon on Diana Rigg as a naked Heloïse
What is one to make of that metaphor? Mausoleums never came equipped with flying buttresses and his description of the sublime Dianna Rigg does not match with her svelte reality. A poor attempt at a medieval reference.
She looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun. – John Simon on Barbra Streisand
The mind struggles to conceive of the fruit of an aardvark-rat union. Another failed metaphor made no better by the incongruous addition of a metallic horse puck. Simon just plain didn’t like Streisand and it looks like he threw a bunch of bad-sounding animal names in a sentence and hoped for the best.
Here is another failed figure of speech from the animal kingdom. Ask yourself if constipated gazelles sulk.
Christopher Duva, as Valère, Mariane’s lover, seems to have just drifted in from the nearest gay bar, and often sulks and postures like a constipated gazelle. – John Simon on a performance of Tartuffe
The British do nastiness much better.
Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff. – Clive James on Barbara Cartland
He looks like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts. – Clive James on Arnold Schwarzenegger
Whenever Clare Short wrestles with her conscience, she wins. – Ben Macintyre on a Labour politician
Randolph Churchill went into the hospital . . . to have a lung removed. It was announced that the trouble was not “malignant.”. .. I remarked that it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it. – Evelyn Waugh on a friend
He reduced everything to politics… He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry. – Cyril Connolly on George Orwell
In the Dally Telegraph not long ago, A. Wilson produced one of those short but seemingly interminable opinion columns at which he so often excels, this one putatively in praise of the present Archbishop of Canterbury. The panegyric, however, was somewhat overwhelmed by the comical dolorousness of the prose. No fewer than sixteen-hundred times (at least, if the impression lingering in my memory Is to be believed), Wilson departed from his theme to inform us that we are living In the waning days of the Christian religion, that it will kindle not be long before the last church is closed, and that hence we may not see the likes of the good Archbishop very often again. Surely, I thought as I was reading, this is a man in whom parochialism has metastasized into a psychosis. Here we are living In an age when Christianity is spreading more rapidly and more widely than at any other point in the two millennia of its history throughout the global South and East and yet, because the Church languishes in the senile cultures of a small geological apophysis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia, Wilson concludes that the faith is in its death throes. Of course, being morbidly tiresome is part of Wilson’s special post-Christian style: the air of weary, sage solemnity and flaccid resignation, the boring declarations of religious disenchantment, the bleak glimpses he affords us into the empty closets of his soul, the oracular intimations of the fate he has suffered for all of us in advance. – David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments