Thursday, 17 December 2015

Bad Books

CNQ's new editor, Emily Donaldson, wades into the discussion over negative reviewing:
I agree that positive reviews can be an art form (why wouldn’t they?) but I disagree with Jan Zwicky about bad reviews, which I think are necessary on a practical and cultural/intellectual level; especially if the alternative is ostracizing authors and their books, which people who take this position tend to advocate. That seems to me to be its own kind of awfulness, though it’s an approach that George Orwell, whose critical writing I admire a lot, supported. Orwell argued that we should “simply ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews—1,000 words is a bare minimum—to the few that seem to matter.” Mind you, I think he wasn’t trying to protect authors’ feelings, like I think Zwicky is, but to spare himself the pain of reading bad books.

But I really don’t get how ignoring bad, or just lame books fosters a healthy literary culture. Is it really better to say nothing at all than something negative, as many of our mothers have told us? I know several writers who’ve received negative reviews and been okay with it, who even took something away from them. There are a hell of a lot more books published now than there were even thirty years ago: shouldn’t we be allowed to vet them according to some kind of principle?

You never hear anyone making this argument about movie or music reviews, so why do we single out books for special protection—because they take so long to write? I think if we only ever say nice things about our books we infantilize both our culture and the people writing and publishing them. Admittedly, this is a harder reality for first-time authors, who might get only one shot at being reviewed, if at all. Is one bad review really worse than radio silence?

1 comment:

C said...

Frankly, this particular conversation needs a healthy dose of critical acumen applied to it. It's been carrying on like it matters for decades. A better question than "positive vs. negative" would be any question that doubles back on the review itself and asks what the value of judgment is in the evaluation of a book or a poem or any other text open for review. The judgment, for it to be of any value, needs to be founded on sound, credible, supported reading of the work or else the judgment itself is of more value in understanding the reviewer than the work being reviewed. Conversely, if the analysis and observations are sharp, relevant and clearly expressed with as little bias as possible, what does the reviewer's judgment actually add?

This conversation about positive and negative has kept us wallowing in a particular gutter for years when we could have been looking at ways to advance the practice of review culture in Canada. And it's been happening at a time when the visibility of reviews seems to me to be at an all time low. Something needs to change, not least because I'm so incredibly bored with this story.