Christopher Hitchens, under siege from book reviewers
For all his reputed brilliance, Christopher Hitchens, the inexhaustible essayist, author and public contrarian who passed away Thursday, suffered some pretty brutal treatment from reviewers of his books in the pages of The Washington Post — most notably, for his views on religion and politics.
Hitchens, a warrior atheist, took it on the chin for his scathing attacks on religion in books such as “God Is Not Great” (2007) and “The Missionary Position” (1995). Of the former, reviewer Stephen Prothero said, “I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.” Prothero took issue with Hitchens’s portrayal of the religious mind as “literal and limited” and the atheistic mind as “ironic and inquiring,” adding that it was ironic the author was so “limited and literal in his own ill-prepared reduction of religion.” Of “The Missionary Position,” Hitchens’s take-down of Mother Teresa, reviewer David Greenberg said “unfortunately, Hitchens relishes a little too much the prospect of provoking outrage among his readers.” While Greenberg agreed that no one, even of Mother Teresa’s stature, should escape scrutiny, he found that Hitchens diminished his argument by including “unpersuasive charges alongside valid ones.”
On politics, Hitchens was knocked for putting forth posture over substance. Tom Carson, reviewing “Letters to a Young Contrarian” (2001) and Alan Dershowitz’s “Letters to a Young Lawyer,” (2001) described both authors as “veteran performers on the intellectual vaudeville circuit.” He saw Hitchens as a “court-jester leftist” and pictured him “stoutly manning a barricade made of hotel minibars.” He complained that the book was a blend of “the debonair and the moralizing” that was “well nigh insufferable,” though “it probably wows undergraduates.” Alan Wolfe, writing on “No One Left To Lie To,” (1999) Hitchens’s pillorying of Bill Clinton, called the author out for failing to distinguish between a man’s character and his capacity for governing well. “I love to read Christopher Hitchens,” Wolfe wrote, “except when he writes about politics.”
Did the reviewers have a universal loathing of the author, or did Hitchens’s penchant for exaggeration and outrage simply goad them into pounding him? In his 2010 memoir, “Hitch-22,” Hitchens offers a clue to his motivations when he recalls an early adage from his mother: “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.”
Steven Levingston is the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post.