The Written World: Essays and Reviews
“Like the best critical essayists, Power recognises that a take-down is only valid if the object of critique is assessed – and found wanting – on its own terms.”
Kevin Power, best known for his acclaimed debut novel, Bad Day in Blackrock (2008), is not only an excellent fiction writer, but also a remarkably perceptive literary critic and essayist. Showcasing his many qualities is The Written World: Essays and Reviews, his first non-fiction collection, which includes an array of short book reviews – most of which appeared in Irish newspapers – and longer form essays on writers like Martin Amis, Susan Sontag and Zadie Smith, as well as cultural commentary on things Irish (Ross O’Carroll-Kelly) and international (Jordan Peterson, Greta Thunberg).
Let’s begin with Power the essayist. What’s striking about these pieces, perhaps above all, is their eminent sanity. Who’d have thought: one can skewer the ludicrous Jordan Peterson while also admiring – not without qualification, of course – distinctly unfashionable writers like Amis, Jonathan Franzen and even the loathsome Normal Mailer. As Power points out, to enjoy some of the latter’s insights, or at least to appreciate him as an untimely relic of a bygone cultural moment, is not to condone violent misogyny or racism. Moreover, those hurling opprobrium at ‘problematic’ writers have a tendency to convict themselves either of having not read their targets work or of having read them ineptly. On closer attention, he insists, you’ll find that Franzen-the-novelist is ‘at least as conflicted’ about, say, male sexuality as ‘the fieriest social justice warrior.’ Caricatures, in short, are, well, caricatures.
Perhaps one is already forming of Power: that of an apolitical aesthete penning apologias for the ‘cancelled’. Far from it, he arraigns Martin Amis on precisely these grounds, showing how his ‘sentence-fetishism’ is not without trade-offs (essentially: Amis doesn’t do analysis; ‘assent for an arguable proposition’ is won through ‘sheer linguistic prestidigitation’). Lucky for us, some welcome advice he does take from Amis is that writers ought to be good company. Power is nothing if this: contrarian, but not tediously so; sympathetic, but not indulgent; sceptical but rarely hostile (more on that below).
Take ‘Pretentiously Opaque’, his Dublin Review of Books essay on literary theory. Like many, Power declares a certain aversion to this field, whose alleged enormities are well documented: stylistic obscurity, faux radicalism, ethical nihilism etc. But he’s also aware that ‘mocking cherry-picked gobbets of fatuous prose is one of the cheapest tactics available to the enemy of Theory’. As such, it’s just another cliché (in Amis’s view, the most mortal of sins). Like the best critical essayists, Power recognises that a take-down is only valid if the object of critique is assessed – and found wanting – on its own terms.
That said, some of the collection’s shorter book reviews are remarkable – and often hilarious – in their brutal candour. Will Self’s pseudo-modernist Umbrella is dismissed as an unreadable anachronism; Paul Auster’s 4321 is a ‘factory farm of clichés; Ariana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution is ‘all banality.’
The Written World is a testament to Power’s well-deserved status as one of Ireland’s most reliably engaging writers. Oh, and did I mention he’s often hilarious, too?
Words: Luke Warde