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In Spanking Company

In response to:

The Powers of Dr. Johnson from the October 8, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

…Andrew O’Hagan’s notice of my life of Samuel Johnson [NYR, October 8, 2009] is an egregious example of an ill-informed piece. His would-be clever opening on the word “nice” fails to hook the reader and his attempt to parade the ideas in the books as if they were his own also falls flat. He adds nothing to our knowledge of Johnson, descends to the lowbrow level of The New York Times Book Review, and offers a prissy opinion that is worth no more than the “four legs good, two legs bad” of Animal Farm.

In his very long review of several thousand words, O’Hagan devotes only one paragraph to my book—runner-up for the PEN award for the best biography published in 2008—and then reduces my serious work to one ludicrous phrase: “a litany of unjolly spankings.” In fact, it’s not at all a litany. I devote six pages out of 528 to this episode. It’s not “unjolly,” but tragic. It’s not “spankings,” but whippings. If you continue to distort the arguments and print this sort of rubbish, you’ll soon lose both prestige and readers. You might as well hire the most influential literary critic of our time, Oprah Winfrey, and let her loose on a subject about which she knows nothing. The books under review deserve more thoughtful consideration. As Gertrude Stein observed of a superficial work, “remarks are not literature.”

Jeffrey Meyers
Kensington, California

Andrew O’Hagan replies:

It would probably never occur to the prize-winning Mr. Meyers that the shortness of my review of his book was short out of kindness. Had I dwelled with him longer, it would doubtless have been to the detriment of his latest biography, which is no less sensationalist and no less bitter than a great many of his forty-seven books. I’m sorry I said spankings instead of whippings, though not very sorry: it led to my being spanked by Jeffrey Meyers, an outcome that puts me in the company of some very august writers indeed.

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