My Open Letters Monthly colleague Rohan Maitzen recently alerted me to a brou-ha-ha boiling in the Canadian lit-scene, sparked by a well-written and near-disastrously wrong-headed article on the CWiL (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) website called “The Ethics of Negative Reviewing.” The piece is by Jan Zwicky, and in it, she covers a whole gamut of possible arguments for and against the writing of negative reviews. I get the impression she’s talking mostly about the world of poetry (and in that context, I’ve heard the case against writing negative reviews before, from many quarters), but I think Rohan was irritated because most of the attitudes Zwicky invokes apply equally well when our author brings up fiction books. I myself have certainly dealt with (and continue to deal with) editors who adhere to a strict “no negative reviews” policy, and when I was still foolish enough to question them on the point, they always said the same thing Zwicky does: that it’s far more effective to simply throw a “deathly critical silence” over bad books and instead spend our critical time and energy praising good ones.

Rohan sent me the links, accompanied by some eye-rolling about the extreme, almost morbid politeness of Canadians (a quality for which we’ve all had cause to be grateful, at one point or another!), and then we went back to our more customary email topics, like rating the new crop of boy-bands (iconoclast that she can be, she prefers The Wanted; I remain a One Direction die-hard).

But I wasn’t destined to get away from the ‘negative reviewing’ subject: it cropped up this week In the Penny Press, in no less a ground-zero publication than my beloved TLS. In J.C.’s “NB” column, one of my favorite contemporary novelists, Lionel Shriver, is taken to task for a comment she made recently in the Guardian: “American papers now pay so appallingly that some reviewers no longer feel it behoves them to actually read the book.” Reading the rest of her article, JC pounds away: “For any amateur critic hoping to turn professional, Ms. Shriver’s style presents a casebook of what not to do: stay on the safe side of vagueness; let hackneyed metaphors soak up the oxygen needed for original thinking.”

In fairness (and whether she had a lazy writing day or not), Shriver has a point – not about how poorly American newspapers pay for reviews (those that pay at all are often fairly generous, as I’ve had occasion to contend more than once this week), but about how strongly some reviewers can give the impression they haven’t read the book under their consideration. If that impression has irritated me as a reader, I can just imagine how much it must irritate the actual author of such a book. JC hectors that Shriver doesn’t provide concrete specifics, but how could she, absent spy-camera footage in some critic’s study? She’s writing about an impression, after all.

JC then quickly pivots to the acceptance speech given by Ruth Franklin for the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize in literary criticism: “If we speak only to praise, then praise itself becomes cheapened, and ultimately meaningless.”

This is very much true, and some of the biggest names in contemporary book reviewing have gradually

(not the current cover, which is one of those completely out-of-focus black and white photos the TLS periodically uses, but instead an adorable little monkey)

become exactly that meaningless. Rohan was right to roll her eyes; Franklin was right to call attention to the point; and Jan Zwicky, bless her kind, kind heart, was wrong, wrong, wrong. Confronting bad books with “deathly critical silence” is not only hypocritical in the extreme (“silence gives consent” has been a binding legal and social dogma for ten thousand years, and rightly so) but nonsensical. It’s like praising the passing fox but using “deadly critical silence” on the ones who have the bad manners to dash inside the chicken coop.

The simile implies a duty, and that word comes up in Zwicky’s essay, only to be dismissed with some of the most wishy-washy prose I’ve read since breakfast. This is, indeed, politeness run amok:

Am I suggesting we’re supposed to lie about them [bad books, that is]? Disown our considered judgements? Indeed not. I am suggesting simply that, in public, we keep our mouths shut. “But isn’t that hypocritical?” the critic will ask. “Isn’t it dishonest?” —It’s dishonest only if one has been asked a direct question and knows silence is likely to be taken for praise. But, of course, neither of these conditions usually obtains.

This is lunacy, of course. It might apply to an anonymous gathering of your wife’s friends for a cocktail party, but it can’t possibly apply professionally. Professions by their very nature carry around with them a small set of constantly-implied direct questions. Those questions need not be asked outright in order to be real. For the professional book-critic, the loudest of those implied questions is: “Is this book any good?” In public, we keep our mouths shut? That’s exactly the kind of abrogation of responsibility that allows writing careers like those of Alice Munro and John Updike flourish under the porch, like deadly nightshade. Zwicky seems completely unwilling to face the reality that the book-buying public is under siege in a decidedly losing fight.

Upwards of 200,000 new titles are published in the U.S. every year. Roughly the same number (but different books) are published in the U.K. every year. The number of new e-books published on top of all that is quickly moving to double those totals. Those e-books are lost to the wilds of unfindable cyberspace the instant they’re created; the physical books (the ones lucky enough to have promotion budgets) get blink-and-you-miss-it display-intervals at the front of the few (and dwindling) retail bookstores left in the Western world, then they’re returned to their publishers and pulped. It’s a wall-blasting torrent, and it’s endless.

A great many of those books are very prettily designed (you self-published folks can skip ahead – this part most certainly doesn’t apply to you), aimed at catching the eye and coercing the wallet. and thanks to the profusion of spurious awards out there in the world, many of them come festooned with little gold seals of approval – and every last one of them comes with at least one blurb from somebody.

Readers – your average, delightful, utterly earnest ‘common reader’ – face this onslaught almost entirely unarmed. Many of them don’t have much time to read for pleasure, and most of them not only don’t read critically but don’t know how to read critically. That’s an indelicate point, perhaps, and one not gauged to please pinky-polite cheerleaders like Zwicky, but it’s nonetheless true. Reading is a skill like anything else – the more you do it (especially competitively, as it were, for an audience), the better you get at it. Reading critically involves holding a book up in the air and slowly turning the whole thing around and around, examining every facet, comprehensively comparing its every aspect to all the books you’ve similarly held up in the air. It involves seeing the whole performance, keeping the more biddable parts of yourself in suspension so that you can assess every way in which this particular book works and doesn’t work. And none of this is done to show off (although some of us can’t help it!); it’s done for two reasons: 1) the paltry paycheck Lionel Shriver is so sour about, and 2) the very duty Zwicky would abandon.

That duty comes from one simple fact (not to incense JC with yet more hackneyed turns of phrase!): you can’t judge a book by its cover. Critics form a line of helmeted, baton-wielding guards between the common reader (and his overstrained book-buying budget) and the cresting tsunami of books that want to be bought. Critics help those common readers make crucial decisions not just about how to spend their money but how to spend their time – indeed, for those readers, utterly swamped by their choices and wanting somehow to find good stuff, critics are the ONLY help. And those critics are absolutely no help at all if they only do half their job.

Had Rohan wanted to wade in and start schooling her fellow Canadians, she’d have been eminently capable. All of us would, at Open Letters, although in hilariously different ways. We have an editor who so rarely attacks a book that when he does, the sidereal drift of his disapproval is almost gentle – the book is damned to hell without even being singed. Another editor, when he dislikes a book (also exceedingly rare – because in the real world, despite Zwicky’s stressed admonitions, most critics prefer to praise), often does the literary equivalent of giving it a firm but friendly talking-to across the street at the hotel bar, until the book is shamed and slightly blubbering, promising to do better next time. Yet another editor will go into Holly Hunter mode from the sublime movie Broadcast News, inexorably crushing the life out of a book not with barbed rhetoric (well, maybe a little) but with nineteen million, eight hundred and fifty seven thousand, four hundred and eleven facts, placed on the scale one after another so gradually that the poor victim often doesn’t know it’s been crushed until it tries to defend itself. I myself am a sweet little kitty-cat, opting as often as possible to offer words of criticism in direct proportion to words of praise (although if a book goes out of its way to displease me, its experience will be much the same as LBJ used to describe a Texas thunderstorm: you can’t hide, you can’t outrun it, and you can’t make it stop). Rohan’s favored method resembles a dissertation defense from Hell: careful, almost polite (!) questions and clarifications come at the hapless offender from all sides with increasing speed until finally the only alternative is community college.

And the reason it’s important to hone such skills is self-evident: because some books deserve to be mocked and shamed in the public square. Writers and publishers aren’t sharing photo albums from their hospice internship in Soweto, dammit – the ones who don’t primarily want money primarily want respect, and vice versa. Both money and respect should be earned, as I’m sure Zwicky would agree. If a biography of George Eliot contends that she wrote one of the greatest novels in the English language because she was compensating for not being pretty, that biography deserves to be pilloried, not smothered in deadly critical silence. Readers who pick it up wondering if it’s worth their money can’t hear deadly critical silence – because it’s silent! And they can’t do the pillorying, because they haven’t read all the previous Eliot biographies, or know beans about Eliot herself. Likewise with a bad translation, or a sloppy history, or an opportunistic novel – books aren’t like supermarket fruit: you can’t tell if they’re rotten just by looking at them. Faced with a mountain of possible choices, readers can use all the help they can get, and that most certainly includes a seasoned professional sidling up to them and saying, “That one may look enticing, but you should skip it – it’s not good enough to warrant your time.”

But saying nothing? Praising the stuff you like but just standing there in author-respecting silence while the reader contemplates something boring, misguided, or outright fraudulent? What the hell kind of critic is that?



  • Greg

    Yes! I second every word of this.

  • Rohan

    I guess I can at least be grateful you didn’t make me out to be a Justin Bieber fan. Then my eyes would have rolled straight back in my head.

    “Reading critically involves holding a book up in the air and slowly turning the whole thing around and around, examining every facet, comprehensively comparing its every aspect to all the books you’ve similarly held up in the air. It involves seeing the whole performance, keeping the more biddable parts of yourself in suspension so that you can assess every way in which this particular book works and doesn’t work.”

    That’s wonderful. And the process is so difficult — especially with books you don’t like at first, or at all. One of my concerns is that writing only about books you can readily applaud keeps you comfortable with your own preconceptions.

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