Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Negative Reviews

At TNR Leon Wieseltier has a truly outstanding defense of negative book reviews.

My favorite paragraph:

I was not aware that it is a heresy to hold that Freedom is not a masterpiece. There is something churlish about my friend’s insistence upon critical unanimity. Franzen’s book, after all, is fantastically popular. It is commercially immune from literary criticism. I am pleased that Franzen’s profits will accrue to a company that may be counted upon to apply them to the production of serious books by serious writers that will not attain similarly to the proportions of a pandemic. But if it is indeed a heresy to differ about Freedom, then I confess to being inclined against it. In his slyly invigorating essay on “the pleasure of hating,” Hazlitt complained that “the reputation of some books is raw and unaired,” and noted that “the popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them.” Celebrity is not a literary value, and I do not believe in the wisdom of crowds. I think that crowds—well-read ones, too—are foolish and fickle. They are especially foolish when they regard themselves as a coterie. Their tastes need to be scrutinized with a hermeneutical hostility, because they are so easily invented and so easily manipulated. This is especially the case in a society consecrated supremely to promotion—that swoons over the pseudo-sagacity of Malcolm Gladwell, and regards people and the expressions of their souls as brands, and confuses techniques for marketing with techniques for living. The sales of Freedom say nothing about the qualities of Freedom. Has the book struck a chord? Of course. But that is anthropology, not literature; and nothing is more forgiving than anthropology.

I tend to write a whole lot more positive reviews than negative ones at least in part because there really are a lot of books that warrant more attention than they get. There is a myth that academic historians do not write well and that they focus only on arcane topics. This is silliness, but it is silliness that has not been able to puncture the myth. I avoid gratuitous negativity (in book reviews and also, more importantly, in the blind peer review process, which is riddled with flaws and ought to be reconsidered). And if I'm going to be more critical than not it is going to tend to be toward books that have gotten too much attention and thus have become overrated (see here for my personal favorite example).

Book reviewing is still important and books still matter and I suspect that even in a culture of handwringing about the alleged demise of both they will continue to flourish albeit in shifting mediums in the future. I'll happily place a bet that books, actual books with printed pages and alluring covers, will continue to endure even as other options emerge for consuming them in the much inferior downloaded form.

[We are off to Dallas for this. Hope to see some of you there.]

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