Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Why So Critical All of a Sudden?

Since my Sunday posting about the value of nasty reviews, I’ve come across two more ink spills on the topic. One was in last week’s New Yorker (October 6), where Rachel Cohen delves into John Churton Collins, who wrote a 41 page takedown of Edmund Gosse’s book -- From Shakespeare to Pope – back in 1886. (It’s an occasionally funny article that ruins itself with an intentionally opaque intro and a somewhat disappointing conclusion). The second was in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (October 5), where Laura Miller responds to Clive James responding to Dale Peck and Heidi Julavits. Miller wanders all over the place, making a few good points, the best being:

And although there's no point in wasting column inches in slamming an obscure work, it is sometimes necessary to quarrel with an author's reputation. In fact, most readers don't see the contemporary book review as suffering from too much free-floating bile; instead they think today's critics are too soft, trafficking in toothless puffery, glorified plot summary and unearned praise. As a result, readers pay less and less attention to reviews, and the question of whether those reviews are fair or not becomes increasingly moot. Negative reviews, however painful to the individuals who receive them, benefit the overall ecology of literary journalism by maintaining some balance of good faith.

(In searching for the Miller article online, I discovered that Neal Pollack recently squawked on the topic too.)

Given that the debate decibel level on this topic continues to rise, I humbly suggest you need wait only another week before the hipper Toronto columnists start to magpie the various snark threads and inelegantly weave their own little thought nests.