Bad books, good reviews: How mean should a critic be?


First aired on Q (04/09/12)

"A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the public with his pants down," said the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. So it makes sense that a writer faced with a bad review of their book would feel doubly exposed. A few weeks back the New York Times published a scathing review of two novels by Canadian author Alix Olin, including Inside, which was named to the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist this week.

Reviewer William Giraldi called her writing "by turns stenographic and saccharine," "transplanted from the desiccated pages of Danielle Steel" and "insufferable schmaltz." The review hit a nerve with dozens of writers and readers who flocked to Twitter to defend Olin and her work; many people lambasted Giraldi for taking such a nasty and personal tone in his review.

Among Giraldi's critics was novelist and book reviewer J. Robert Lennon, who posted an essay about literary criticism on his blog, and who maintains that there are good and bad ways to write a negative review. Lennon spoke with Jian Ghomeshi on Q earlier this week about how to write a good review of a bad book.

Giraldi's review was particularly mean-spirited, said Lennon, who also admitted that there is certainly a public appetite for that sort of viciousness. "But the thing that bothered me about [the review] was that it was not very informative," he said. "I think when a review, especially a negative review, seems overwhelmingly emotional in its criticism, we get a feeling that the reviewer has a bone to pick, and we start to doubt the veracity of his claims about it."

Lennon himself recently wrote a negative review, eviscerating a memoir by Paul Auster. He called it "self-indulgent, ill-conceived, and a poorly edited disaster." Nasty stuff: so is Lennon no better than the proverbial pot calling the kettle black? "The Giraldi review made me feel a little bad about my Auster review," he admitted. "But I got thinking about why I thought I was legitimately criticizing Auster, and why Giraldi had perhaps gone too far in his review. There are several reasons. First, Auster is pretty far into his career and nothing I say about him is going to affect the sales of his books...and after 30 years or so publishing novels, he can be held to a certain standard."

Lennon said that in his Auster review, he tried to create some context for the reader about who Auster is as a writer. "I try to say why his most successful work is successful, and I read his previous two books of memoir and talked about what made them interesting," he said. "And the things that made them interesting and the things that made him a good writer were not, in my opinion, evident [in the new book]." (Lennon did admit, however, that he "laid on the snark a little heavily.")

In Salon magazine recently, Lennon published a six-point guide about how to write a good bad review. So what's the most important thing for critics to keep in mind when reviewing a book that wasn't their cup of tea -- or worse? Don't review friends or enemies -- it's unethical.

Still, there's an argument to be made that most North American book reviews are more descriptive than opinionated, which makes for a soft, feel-good and ultimately boring cultural discourse. Some would argue that it's a critic's responsibility to step up and make a strong argument for a book's quality, whether it's good or bad, and even that it's the more extreme reviews (even if they are negative) that engage readers.

How much do reviews matter to you when choosing a book to read? Does a scathing review put you off?