The Ethics of the Negative Review by Jan Zwicky

This essay is reprinted with the kind permission of The Malahat Review.

The critics killed Keats.  What writer has ever had a bad review and not felt the truth of Byron’s claim? That squelching of self and creativity. It’s one of the reasons that, when I was review editor for The Fiddlehead in the early nineties, I made a point of requesting that a review be written only if the reviewer was genuinely enthusiastic about the book. I had other motives, too. One was that I hoped, in this way, to get writing that was engaged with its subject-matter, and not simply sleepwalking its way to another line in someone’s CV. Secondly, as a poet, I was only too aware how many excellent books were published each year to no public notice of any sort: it seemed perverse to kill trees to complain about the bad ones. But mostly I thought there was no need to sharpen the hatchets when a deathly critical silence would do all the public work that needed doing. It’s this motive on which I want to dwell because I know my views are not universally shared. I’ve heard writers say — in defence of a negative review they’ve given another writer — that they ‘had a duty to tell it like it is.’ —A duty!  The philosopher in me sits up at this suggestion, because it implies that those of us who don’t do ‘our duty’ in this regard, or even agitate against doing it, are pursuing a morally degenerate course. So I want to spend a while reflecting on whether or not we do have a duty of some sort, at least on occasion, to say publicly that someone has written a bad book. Could it be Keats’ assassins were being better moral citizens than we think?

Some may feel that, in putting the question this way, I’m trying to cheat: we all know Keats belongs in the canon, so whoever thumped him shouldn’t have. But this objection actually brings me to my first observation: if we’re going to accept that we have a duty to offer public negative criticism of a work, then, given the potential seriousness of the consequences for the work’s creator, we also have a duty to be pretty sure we’re right. Many readers now feel that the critics who killed Keats shouldna done what they done done. But at the time, those critics were presumably just saying it like it was — or, at least like it seemed. So the first lesson I want to draw is this: we need to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt, each time we take up the rhetorical cudgels, that our judgement is going to stand the test of time. And frankly, at least in certain cases, I don’t think we can be that sure.

Here, though, a host of questions and objections rears its head. “Wait a minute — are you just assuming there’s a canon? And on the other hand, are you also suggesting that all critical opinion is merely subjective? Are you trying to tell people they shouldn’t express their opinions? Isn’t that anti-democratic? And you can’t seriously think there aren’t ever any bad books — so what’re we supposed to do about them? Lie? Besides, really, don’t you think John was being a bit too sensitive?” Let me take these questions one at a time, because each raises a serious point. And let me add, before I do, that in trying to trace the currents of objection and counter-objection here, I don’t mean to be taking a ‘me vs. them’ stance. Some years ago — it was actually my first journal publication — I wrote a negative review, which I now heartily regret. I make this confession not to try to put the past behind me, but to make it clear that I know, from the inside, where the arguments for negative reviewing come from, and that in my analysis of the issues I’m talking as much to myself as to others.

Defenders of the Faith

The first worry, then — because of my remarks about Keats — is that my argument must be assuming the existence of a canon. Is it? On the contrary. I’m suggesting that it is the idea that we have a duty to be negative (once we’re sure the book really is a bad book . . .) that assumes the existence of a canon or at least a standard of excellence. If there were no such standard to uphold, we couldn’t be imagining that we owed it to the reading public to tell it that some work or other had failed to measure up. “Well, okay then,” the negative reviewer might respond, “who’s to say there isn’t a canon?” No one. I am, myself, convinced that there is such a thing as great literature — literature, that is, whose imaginative depth and energy allow it to span cultures, classes, and epochs. But what’s interesting is that this belief doesn’t entail a duty to trash stuff. Saying there’s a duty to denounce failures means there has to be a standard to measure the failures by; but saying there’s a standard doesn’t, by itself, prove there’s a duty to denounce. To prove there’s a duty to denounce, you’d have to add that potential misdemeanors are somehow a threat to the standard’s existence. (“We must be vigilant!”)  In other words, even though it might look like the existence of the canon is the issue here, it’s not. The issue is whether — just supposing for a moment that it exists — any such canon would need a cohort of hit-persons in each generation to maintain its authority. The suggestion strikes me as worse than silly: I think it’s incoherent. Great literature — as I’ve defined it and if it exists — couldn’t require boundary police to insure a readership. Its greatness lies precisely in its ongoing ability to move, provoke, and inspire an audience. So, to reiterate, whether a canon exists or not is not actually the point here. If it doesn’t exist, pretending to defend it is just a power grab; and if it does, pretending to defend it is like getting prissy about God — it’s going to survive regardless of our efforts to save it or run it out of town.

Some reviewers, especially those who are writers themselves, might agree that it’s not really the canon that’s at stake, but they’ll urge that there’s something far more important that is: craft. They believe that if someone doesn’t take the trouble to point out when publishers, and subsequently readers, are being duped by authors who can’t tell a line of iambic pentameter from a clog dance, then the whole business of literature might just end up going to hell in a handcart. Near and dear though craft is to my heart, I think this worry, too, is ultimately a red herring. Writers tend to be self-educators: by flooding the market with bad books, you might conceivably slow down the process by which they come to recognize the importance of craft, but you won’t be able to stop them from wondering what’s in the library. I have watched too many beginning poets discover Donne, or Dickinson, or Moore, or Larkin for themselves to doubt that the capacity to recognize technical virtuosity springs eternal. A reviewer who’s really concerned about craft, then, might seek out opportunities to assist in such discoveries; but they’ll know that grousing about poorly executed work is usually counterproductive. In literature as in the grade school classroom, it engenders surliness rather than excitement. It also engenders the suspicion that the friends of craft are grumpy, didactic snobs — not true, of course (at least, not true of all of them), but it’s a reputation those of us who cherish craft should work to avoid.

I Know What I Like! And Nobody’s Going to Tell Me Different

Above, I said I think that —at least in some cases — we can’t be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that our critical judgement is going to stand the test of time. How can this be consistent with my view that there really is such a thing as great — or at least good — literature? Am I really saying literary taste is ultimately subjective — that no one can actually tell good books from bad ones? No. Or at least not exactly. What I want to emphasize is that some cases — often the ones most likely to call forth critical invective (or hyperbolic praise) — are difficult to decide. They’re cases where the writer is doing something novel, something we’re not used to hearing — and maybe it’s just crap, or maybe they’re a genius, but it’s very hard, with that new and not-fully-savoured taste still in our mouths, to rightly say. To trust an immediate impulse to reject such writing (or an immediate impulse to turn it into a craze) is to consign ourselves to eternal literary childhood, pouting or wailing when we’re not offered a certain sort of lollipop. (Or making ourselves insufferable over our infatuation with some New Taste Sensation.) It is to deprive ourselves of one of the signal benefits of learning to read widely: the chance to grow up.

It’s a Free Country, Isn’t It?

“But what happens if the project isn’t novel?” the negative reviewer now objects. “What if it is, indeed, the same old same old and, as all your friends and even your enemies are saying — in private — badly done to boot? Why shouldn’t a person express their opinion? It’s a free country (mostly). What’s wrong with saying what you think?” This argument is interesting, in part because it shifts the ground of debate away from the performance of a duty to the exercise of a privilege. Now the negative reviewer is not saying they ought to say a book is bad; they’re saying something weaker — that they have a right to say it’s bad if they want to. I’ll return to this point in a moment. First, I want to focus on another feature of this response: that it assumes all expression of ‘opinion’ is like the expression of political opinion.

Here’s the negative reviewer’s argument: “If I say, publicly, ‘Gutting the Fisheries Act is criminal as well as stupid!’, I don’t expect Stephen Harper to quit politics because I’ve spoken my mind and my view is different from his. So if I say, ‘I don’t think Q should have published this book!’, what’s the difference?” But this, I think, importantly misconstrues the analogy with reviewing. Debate is indeed a crucial part of politics in a democratic society — and this means one needs to be tolerant, and also able to take one’s knocks in the political arena. But theses and arguments — the stuff of politics — are rarely the building materials of artistic insight; and opinions about theses and arguments are qualitatively different from opinions about artistic achievement. For one thing, there is no culture of ‘equal time for the opposition’. Writers who’ve been attacked are not encouraged to ‘get in there’ and defend their work. They are in fact encouraged to ‘rise above it’ — advice that would make no sense in a political context unless the attack were pointedly and pointlessly personal.

Another indication that political success and artistic merit don’t occupy the same arena is that it is possible to be appalled by a writer’s politics and nonetheless respect, admire, even be attracted to, their work as art. (Forster is a prime example in my case.) Yes, art can be intensely political, both in the sense of giving expression to a political ethos and in the sense of being riddled by politics. And where a work of literature gives expression to political views, or where its reception is clearly being affected by the political views of its readers, those views might well be made the subject of public debate. So, for example, we might want to discuss, as politics, the class snobbery that appears to have informed Lockhart’s vicious review of Endymion. But to say “Lockhart was an elitist” isn’t to say “Lockhart couldn’t write”. That is: in many cases, we can tell the difference between a person’s politics and their artistic ability. There are indeed huge questions about the relation of rhetoric to meaning, about the Always Already political dimension of every communicative gesture. But to acknowledge this does not mean it makes sense to bring the rhetorical style of the campaign trail into every encounter. Pounding a writer in print for their lack of talent is not good reviewing practice just because it’s an exercise in free speech. To suggest it is is to miss ways in which art and politics can in fact be distinguished.

I’d like to turn now to the argumentative shift from performing a duty (“Negative reviews ought to be written”) to the exercise of a privilege (“I have a right to say whatever I want”). Apart from the fact that this argument no longer makes negative reviewing a duty, two things are worth noting. The first is that, while we may indeed have a right to say whatever we want, we often choose not to exercise it. (It may, in truth, be your opinion that your friend is fat. Do you tell her this? Why not?— And here I think the analogy with reviewing is quite close; more on this later.) The second is that the ideal we’re appealing to is one in which individuals are also quite clear that the opinions are theirs: political debate (at least ideally) is conducted in the first person. A great deal of negative reviewing, on the other hand, is conducted in the amorphous non-person favoured by departments of English — as though eschewing the word ‘I’ might actually relieve the writer of a merely human perspective on the universe. What it achieves, of course, is nothing of the sort: it produces needlessly cumbersome constructions and the illusion of authority. In my experience, frequent and explicit use of the first person produces, by contrast, a ‘situated’ voice. (Unless, of course, the ‘I’ is always in italics — “I think . . .” — in which case the sneer quotient can reach unbearable proportions.) Where it’s not in italics, the use of ‘I’ focalizes the reviewer; it allows the question “Who are you to be saying this?” to cross the reader’s mind, and with it, the thought that the reader’s own view might be different.

Does this mean I think negative reviewing would be acceptable if only it were written in the first person? No. It’s just that I think what’s problematic about it would be more easily discerned. Just as what’s problematic about telling someone they’re fat is made clearer if you imagine doing it in the first person as opposed to the ‘telling’ done by the non-persons of advertising, Hollywood, and the fashion industry.

What About Bad Books?

But first, let me return to one of the most pressing questions surrounding the practice of negative reviewing, and with it, to the view that we have a duty to ‘tell it like it is’: What do we do about bad books? (Or books that we think are bad.) Am I suggesting we’re supposed to lie about them? 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. Most reviewers who write for literary periodicals are given some choice; and I cannot think of a case where, in print, a reviewer has been asked to respond to the question: “Oh, don’t you think Q’s new book is just lovely? I just think it’s lovely! Don’t you think it’s lovely?” (—in response to which, it’s conceivable, silence might be mistaken for assent). Often, reviewers can negotiate the books they are going to review — at least within limits; and frequently enough, the space taken up by a negative review precludes any notice being given to a book the reviewer likes. This, I think, harms the reading public instead of serving it. It’s not as though readers who are warned off will then rush out and order books they don’t even know exist. Most small press Canadian poetry, for example, doesn’t even show up on the shelves of most Canadian bookstores.

“Ah! That’s your problem!” the response may come. “You’re thinking about all this in terms of that non-market genre, poetry. But what about fiction? Big money to be made there. What about authors with big reps whose bad books would otherwise be bought by the shelfful just because of the name on the spine? And don’t you think it’s unfair that Q gets all the money and gigs when P writes better books?”

Sure it’s unfair; but I don’t think reviewers should take it upon themselves to right such wrongs by slinging invective at Q’s work. Far more effective to use the column space to draw attention to the great stuff P has been producing. And I think reviewers are just kidding themselves if they imagine dumping on a famous novelist is actually going to crimp sales. (As far as publicists are concerned, any review is a good review.) Again, the reviewer who’s feeling truly spiteful could probably do much more damage by drawing the public’s attention to Moderately-Well-Known Author P and saying almost nothing about Famous Author Q, than by fuming about Q in public.

“But you’re still not getting it,” the negative reviewer will sigh. “If you’ve got a gig writing a review column for some paper, there are books you just can’t ignore. If you don’t review Famous Author Q’s new book (or New and Much-Hyped First Author X’s), you’re out of a job because your editor knows readers will switch to the paper that does review it. And, let’s face it, review readers sometimes like it a little rough. That sells papers, too.”

—Well, now we’re getting down to it, aren’t we? This reply has, I think, a great deal of credibility. But notice it says nothing about a reviewer’s duty, or even their rights. It says that the publication of fiction and journalistic non-fiction have become market enterprises, and as such are subject to the perversions with which market capitalism has made us only too familiar. Here, then, I have no quarrel with the negative reviewer: if the claim is that in order to supplement a meagre income a struggling writer is sometimes forced by the system to review a book that should be ignored, and to review it in a way that serves no genuine literary purpose, then, it seems to me, the negative reviewer is probably telling it like it is. The question now is: is there an alternative?

The Art of the Review

Look at the word itself: re-view. To take a second look; or a third. To look again. But to what purpose? The OED suggests it’s often “with a view to correction or improvement.” That’s an effortful version of the style we’ve been considering: “this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong, and here, Q, is what you should have done . . .” The OED does offer us another perspective, though, in a later definition: the aim of the second look can be to further “appreciation.” The reviewer who understands their task in these terms, then, would be one who has taken the trouble to listen again, to listen with care, curiosity, and respect, in an attempt to give genuine attention to what is being said. And who can help the rest of us begin to listen attentively, too. This is a portrait of the reviewer as a kind of literary naturalist, someone with sharp ears and a good memory, who’s willing to tarry alongside both us and the literary world, for whom any item is of potential interest (some less, some more, to be sure), and who, instead of seeing an award culture’s hierarchy of achievement, hears a living chorus of voices, talking, murmuring, singing to themselves and to others.

There will be voices any such reviewer will prefer not to dwell on, as poor exemplars or as diseased. Such a reviewer may also be called to speak out against depredations that are deforming an ecosystem or threatening the health of certain species. And they will have to earn a living: sometimes by means that, given the spread of global corporate capitalism, will involve doing things that go against their conscience. But they will be trying, at all times, to do their best to cultivate the appreciation of books and of literature in general, to help the rest of us listen with enthusiasm, delight, puzzlement, and wonder.

Given market pressures, what is the chance we might find our way to the general practice of appreciative reviewing? I think the outlook is not as grim as some might think. There are whole books of such criticism by writers like Helen Vendler, Robert Hass, and, here in Canada, Stan Dragland, which show just how much can be done in this genre. Historically, Woolf provides us with some excellent models. There is also the gesture that Dragland made in founding the review journal Brick, which took as its motto Rilke’s claim: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go. As such, it is an activity requiring much more effort than the activity of proclaiming our selves through speaking our views. For we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility. We are also a culture, perhaps a species, many of whose individuals are obsessed with rank — to the extent that knowing one is on the bottom rung is felt to be preferable to there being no rungs at all.  These twin addictions, as visible in the contemporary university as in the military, lead us to suspect those with a gift for listening as ‘soft,’ and to celebrate those with a taste for volubly dispensing judgement as ‘tough.’ My suggestion is that it is those who insist on listening nonetheless who are really tough: they have the courage to continue to serve art when everything around them is making it easy not to.

Earlier, I suggested that the analogy between reviewing and talking to a friend might bear a little elaboration. There are two dimensions in particular that I’d like to touch on. The first is the degree to which both friends and artists must make themselves vulnerable to our critical judgement. Thin skin can mean a couple of things. As prickliness, it is a social liability in politics or the workplace; as sensitivity, however, it is a necessity in both friendship and art. To be a friend, to be an artist, one must be willing to lay oneself open to some extent: one must be receptive, tuned to the play of emotion and perception, rather than one’s own defence. The analogy breaks down in that the artist must be open to the world in general, not the reviewer in particular — the reviewer enters as a third party, as it were. But the artist’s position, I believe, must still be construed as one of trust, one that requires of reviewers respect for the thin skin that is essential to creativity.

The second point of connection concerns how we — friends and reviewers — need to feel if our relationships are to flourish. In friendship, we refrain from making harshly negative comments about our friends as a matter of course. This is not only because we’re afraid they’ll stop liking us if we’re nasty or because we might be squeamish about hurting their feelings. Rather, we are motivated by genuine delight in our friends’ well-being. We are engaged by, and with, our friends’ virtues — those excellences which, on second, third, and fourth acquaintance, we have come to appreciate, and which we hope others will come to appreciate, too. These are what we will attend to, and what we will speak of — when called to speak. The same, I believe, holds for the relationships with books which are the foundation of an appreciative review. It’s what Rilke said: in art, as in friendship, the ear of love discerns more, and more truly, than the eye of judgement.


Jan Zwicky‘ most recent book of poetry is Forge. She has published eight collections of poetry including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1999, Robinson’s Crossing, which won the Dorothy Livesay Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2004, and Thirty-Seven Small Songs and Thirteen Silences. Her books of philosophy include Wisdom & Metaphor, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2004, Lyric Philosophy, now in a revised second edition, and Plato as Artist, a non-specialist celebration of Plato’s writerly talents. Zwicky has published widely as an essayist on issues in music, poetry, philosophy and the environment. A native of Alberta, she now lives on Quadra Island, off the coast of British Columbia.

Published May 18, 2012

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