ANYONE WHO IMAGINES early-twenty-first-century literary culture to be unique in its antagonisms can correct this view by taking a look at the early-nineteenth-century equivalent. Quarrels were quarrels in those days, and an abusive reviewer could expect to be physically assaulted by his victims. James Fraser, the proprietor of Fraser's Magazine, was once flogged in its offices by the writer Grantley Berkeley, after printing a disobliging review of the latter's novel Berkeley Castle. Gender was no defence. Crofton Coker, having described the unfortunate Lady Morgan as 'a female Methuselah', went on to accuse her of licentiousness, profligacy, irreverence, blasphemy, libertinism, disloyalty and atheism. Set against this catalogue of vicious insult and outright violence, the spectacle of, say, Craig Raine taking a pot shot at one of his sworn enemies in the dusty pages of Areté can seem the smallest of small beer.
There is a place for the ad hominem review - not a very commodious place, but a place nonetheless. Some books are so awful and their authors so intolerable that the reviewer is failing in his professional duty if he neglects to make these points clear. Provided, that is, everybody