On the Ethics of the Negative Review

Ah, Jan Zwicky. Someone I would like to hear more from, more often and in various venues. Anne Carson too for that matter–but she seems unwilling to comment on anything, not even her own career, which has been impressive and of course, subject to great suspicion on the part of fellow Canadian poets–didn’t one critic call her our “national embarrassment”? And of course, when the essay I’ve excerpted below was published in the Malahat Review I recall much scorn being bandied about suggesting that she lacked balls and wanted to be soft. Evaluative criticism is inherently negative, so the thinking seems to go.

I’ve realized that the more hate I get the closer I am to doing something real.
This is particularly true for women. To be a public woman is to be a caricature. It’s to admit you aren’t easily controlled. You might bite. Sad, that reality, but there you go. To have opinions is to be difficult. Or, as the Cancer Society kindly informed Don Draper, folks appreciate you speaking the truth but they’ll never work with you–who can trust the hand that bites?

Unlike Zwicky, I do think there’s room for a hard-hitting review. Even a take-down when necessary. I usually don’t agree with what people call negative, but I can see mean-spirited from a mile away.

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 engagedwith 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 canbe that sure.

This essay is reprinted with the kind permission of The Malahat Review, and can be found online at the CWILA site. 

See Zwicky’s response to the 10 Questions on Reviewing as well.
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