Rating the Blighters in the Penny Press!

As we’ve so often noted about the Penny Press, the Lord giveth, and the Lord talketh out His ass. Such was certainly the case with last week’s TLS, in which the ‘debit’ column had an item that nearly made me spit up my Tatws Pum Munud in outrage. The offending piece was by Jonathan Benthall, a reviewer with whom I’m unfamiliar – and with whom I’m bloody well going to stay unfamiliar after the halting, hiccupy stupidity of this latest offering.

It’s a review of The Arab Awakening by the reprehensible Tariq Ramadan, and that’s plenty bad – that this intellectual charlatan’s latest scraps could pull down an entire-page review in the English-speaking world’s greatest literary review bespeaks an almost morbidly misguided yearning for topicality. But the review’s offenses went far beyond its mere existence, especially the paragraph that made me see red:

[Ramadan's] criticism of the American authorities for burying Osama bin Laden at sea, in defiance of all Islamic teaching, will seem sentimental to many readers, but spiritual leaders in other religions would agree that the bodies of even the most culpable human beings should be treated with traditional respect after death, and in common with Ramadan they would deplore the barbaric killings of Saddam Hussein and Muammer Gaddafi

‘Spiritual leaders’ might agree to such nonsense, but then, spiritual leaders are usually the type who would. That doesn’t excuse Ramadan – or Benthall – from agreeing with it. Beside the fact that bin Laden deserved not one iota of respectful treatment before or after his death (my decision would have been to leave the corpse naked in the road for a month), there’s also the fact that Saddam Hussein received his death sentence in a court of law, a place none of his half-million victims ever saw, and Muammer Gaddafi was savagely, mockingly murdered by his own people after years of treating them like playthings. Slathering this kind of revolting relativism over crimes and tyrannies is how Ramadan earns a living – but his literary critics ought to have other obligations.

Fortunately, the same TLS also contained, in the ‘credit’ column, that most illicit of treats: a first-rate author reviewing the work of a third-rate author in the same genre. Specifically, the mighty M. John Harrison reviewsStore of Worlds,┬áthe collected-stories volume of Robert Sheckely, inexplicably brought out by New York Review Books. Sheckley, he tells us,

seems to have arrived too late for the 1940s, too soon for the 1960s. Trapped like his audience between cultural periods, he signalled his anger and confusion by writing characters whose only major characteristic was that they couldn’t win. The fun of this was not shared with the butt of the joke – unless, of course, the reader can be said to be the butt of the joke.

Some of these lifeless stories are recounted, but the heat is never lessened:

In the hands of Sheckley’s contemporary, Alfred Bester, they [the stories] would have pulsed with linguistic energy, Freudian imagery, a kind of generous rage; Robert Silverberg would have told them with desiccated existential precision, against densely metaphorical landscapes. There would have been meat on the bone.

That makes up for any number of ‘spiritual leaders.’ And so the lunch was saved.

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