Recursions, Part 6: Christopher Hitchens’s “Unacknowledged Legislation”

Spice, no meal

This is the sixth in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a week, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

Christopher Hitchens’s “Unacknowledged Legislation”

I finished Christopher Hitchens’s Unacknowledged Legislation a few days ago, and I have but one question: is there anyone who has ever written in English that Hitchens actually likes? Besides Gore Vidal, of course. And, somewhat oddly, Patrick O’Brian and his excellent historical sea stories, which do have their political complexities. Hitchens’s main theme is the political import of writers and writing, but he seems to use the political involvements of his subjects as a war horse from which to shoot his darts of sarcasm.

I enjoy sarcasm and wit as much as anyone else, and Hitchens is almost as good at it as many of the writers he so jovially deprecates (though it’s hard to compete with Oscar Wilde), but still: one ought not to make a meal of nothing but black pepper. Hitchens is a good writer and an even better needler, but the grace of phrasing was not quite enough to redeem what came to seem like reflexive complaining after a while.

The stuff seems well-researched, and sometimes he slips up and makes a serious point, but all too often he meanders off in search of wasps’ nests to kick at, preferably in the vicinity of irritating children. In small doses this would be fine–and he does usually get back to the point before the clever closing quip–but in book length it is all a bit much.

Also, since most of these pieces are lightly-edited drafts of speeches and presentations, and many attack the same subject, there’s a bit of repetition of both points and puns.

I guess I can say that I found it enjoyable but not satisfying–a sort of one-course meal, really perfectly cooked but with too much spice, presented in large quantities, with no sides or drinks.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg