Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mean Critics

I am very late to this post (I had saved it awhile back to read and am only now getting to it), but I feel that it is well worth mentioning and commenting on a bit.

The post (from The Guardian) is about a common topic for discussion among those who read and/or write reviews of some sort—why is it so much easier to write a mean review—not just a negative review, but a malicious one—than it is to write a simply positive one? Or, in converse, "why is it so difficult to 'praise interestingly'?" The post offers its own ideas:
Literary criticism is famously red in tooth and claw. Terry Eagleton, Mary McCarthy and Dale Peck are just a few reviewers who have made their names with funny and often frankly showy cruelty. With the book market more crowded than ever before, a bracing and briny critique can be just the thing to cut through the prettily packaged chaff. As Eaves pointed out, critics are brokers, advising readers where to invest their time and money with a duty to the often less-than-lenient truth... a clever tongue-lash can be a defining symptom of uncompromising and idiosyncratic literary brilliance... Especially on the net, funny negatives are much more likely to go viral than gracious accolades, and bloggers seem particularly keen to avoid the smear of gentle amateurism by showcasing a rigorous vitriol... For readers, the "funny negative" combines the catharsis of gladiatorial evisceration with the pleasure of a laugh, not to mention the comforting authority of a reviewer who, metaphorical nostrils twitching like a literary Kenneth Williams, has adopted a persona as urbane and disdainful upholder of lofty aesthetic ideals. In short, it is tempting to write for readers of the review, not potential readers of the book. A critic has a duty to both, but must avoid making themselves, and not the text under discussion, the main event... Maybe the problem is that the texts that really touch us engage our emotions and our passions, so that in describing them we must also reveal something of ourselves, whereas a clever slating distances us through self-consciously crafted irony and wit. And the language of praise is more difficult to wield; bile flows more easily than the milk of kindness. Admiring adjectives often seem too gushing, too pretentious or too fey; difficult to deploy without sounding like an Amazon spammer or a school book report. The vocabulary of cruelty is, on the other hand, deliciously diverse. The likes of Eagleton and Naipaul may well be motivated by their "stern commitment" to truth. But in a society that relishes sensationalism, flippancy and, most of all, the vicious culling of tall poppies, I suspect that our funny negatives are too often motivated by laziness, egotism and commercial appeal.
So the answers are: a) ostentation, b) jealousy/schadenfreude, c) aggravation about time wasted on bad books, d) a specific aesthetic agenda to defend and promote, e) embarrassment at exposing their feelings, f) praise is tough to write, g) fear of appearing amateurish, and h) society reinforces these bad impulses.

First off, I don't think praise is difficult to write. It's not difficult to state gracefully and eloquently what you enjoyed and why, and talented reviewers find new and various ways of doing that all the time. What is difficult is making the book sound exciting, but making your review more exciting still. The critic wants his audience to remember the review even after they read the book, for his review to speak to them even while they're reading it. This is, or can be, a benevolent impulse, not just a selfish one—some critics (Edmund Wilson, for example) write because they wish others to get every small enjoyment that they themselves derived from the book, want you to notice the paragraph on page 115 with the beautiful description of a red wheelbarrow that you may have missed if you were skimming. This may be a selfish impulse anyway—I don't know.

Secondly, I think even more important than those reasons listed above is the simple fact that reviewers write because they wish to produce examples of prose they like. Few critics keep writing if they hate reading their own work. They wish to write to amuse themselves more than they write for their public or their publisher. They wish to, but they don't often get to. It is, I believe, the perception if not the reality that reviewers are given more latitude, are less encumbered by editorial suggestion, when the review they are turning in will be a scathing one. One looks around the literary world, and it seems like the most editorially independent writers are the most vicious, and that the critics who both praise and rant well are writing most autonomously when they are writing most savagely.

And critics feel most free themselves when they are resisting the proffered charms of their text and its author. Let's put a review in context—you've just finished enveloping yourself in someone else's words, their style, their verbal idiosyncrasies and tendencies. If you like the way you write better than the way other people write (and this is true for most critics), you feel most confined, least free to indulge in your style when you've just emerged from the sauna of someone else's. You need to hit out a bit to shake yourself back into form.

Thirdly, most critics like books, or at least like to think that they like books—they like to think of themselves as book-lovers, even (or especially) if they rarely read a book they actually do like. Moreover, the perception that others have of them as book-lovers, as literary persons, is very important to them. Their liking books is crucial to their identity. To be a person who likes books—to be known as a person who likes books—it is necessary to be active about this process of liking books, to select books to like rather than have them thrust at you. How often do you hear someone who feels very self-important about their bibliomania say, "I just discovered this new author—you have to read her!" Now, how often do you hear them say, "My father gave me this great book to read—I'm so glad he introduced me to it!" Passionate readers discover new books; dilettantes are introduced to them.

Critics are a special, highly acute case of this condition. They are simply never comfortable with getting books shoveled at them like products to test; critics value themselves too highly to think of their job as quality control. But even more than that, it is slightly galling to think that their tastes—the basis of their job—could be forming passively based on their editor's selections. Critics rarely write—in praise or censure—with any open acknowledgment that they are reading someone else's selections. They are taste-makers, not taste-retailers, after all.

These last two characteristics work together to produce a person who, after reading a book—even one they enjoyed at times—is not at ease, is, in fact, distinctly aggravated, even aggressive. One needs to lash out a bit just to reinforce the reasons you supposedly had for writing reviews in the first place—you like books, you have good taste, and you write well. The sad irony is that the critic's situation—beholden to the author's words and the editor's reading selections—challenges these basic reasons for writing with every review undertaken. It's actually quite surprising that, given all of this resentment and frustration, there aren't more mean reviews out there.

However, although there is a difference between telling people not to bother with a novel and trying to embarrass the author, and that difference almost always rests on the reviewer's motives and not the book's (or even the author's) merit, I would argue that meanness is not something which should be removed from reviewing. Just because the reasons behind critical cruelty are neither noble nor aesthetic (but personal and often petty) does not mean bile does not have its uses within the literary community, that it cannot be critically constructive.

Vicious reviews often backfire and actually do a better job of convincing people to read the book in question than the book's own promotional campaigns, but that is not what I mean. Anyway, it is naive to believe that all critics who write nasty reviews really intend to convince all their readers that the book is not worth reading or even, more grandiosely, to convince the writer to write differently (B.R. Myers, it seems, suffers from this delusion)—sometimes the critic just wants the recognition of writing a widely-discussed review. And some people say literary feuds are good for sales, or that they encourage readers to decide for themselves (the same thing, really), but I don't care about those possibilities.

No, I mean something different entirely. To inject actual cruelty into a review is to establish a new context for the work in question, or rather that broadens the context for the work and even its author. Cruelty is by its very nature excessive and cannot be confined to the particular case; no genuinely mean review I've ever read was satisfied with merely making fun of that singular author, much less that singular work. The general is the domain of the cruel; when a critic sets out to be vicious, he wants to be vicious about something larger than the book he just read. The book or the author exemplifies a trend—it may be the nadir of that trend and deserve four or seven paragraphs of unremitting, hyperbolic criticism of an often personal nature and sanguine hue, but it is indicative of or indexical to a contagiously awful social condition or movement.

Why is this inevitable descent into the general case a positive thing? For anyone? Well, it helps to define terms for further, more civil critique; when done well, it consolidates cavils into a coherent understanding of broad artistic tendencies and the coarsening of those tendencies into conventions. When done really well, it actually does get to the social movements and conditions at the back of these tendencies and conventions.

One should never make one's case with an example which one has to qualify, but I must excuse myself for doing so here and plead a lack of imagination or memory which leads me to break this very rule. In his essay on "hysterical realism," which wasn't meant to be cruel but was read as such (there's the qualification), James Wood actually bit through the proliferation of Ambitious Social Novels with Vaguely Improbable Elements and identified certain characteristics and flaws these novels had in common and demonstrated why these characteristics and flaws undermined the power of these works and their authors.

Can most critics bring this kind of thing off? Not by a long shot. Should we stop trying?

No.

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