The question of the value of nasty reviews of cultural products has been in the news a lot lately, but it's an issue that has been debated for as long as I can remember. I remember publishing in The Globe and Mail in about 1990 an article discouraging the writing of negative reviews of books from tiny local presses. I can't remember exactly what my argument was and it seems like a silly idea now.
Just a few months ago the debate flared again in this country in a startlingly vitriolic way. A poet and professor of philosophy, Jan Zwicky, whose most recent book was shortlisted for the $75,000 Griffin Prize, wrote a thoughtful and mild-mannered essay on the issue that was published in a small literary quarterly. The essay argued against the publishing of negative reviews of poetry, for various reasons. The most compelling of those reasons was simply that there is very little space available for any reviews at all in literary media and that space would be wasted on articles that weren't about the very best work being produced. These are ideas that can certainly be disputed, but they have been made by many a cultured expert.
The essay was then reprinted on a feminist website where it attracted a response, from Michael Lista, poetry editor of The Walrus. Lista's disagreement with Zwicky took the form of a gleeful condescension that bordered on hysterical. He didn't just disagree, he mocked. He wrote precisely one of those amusingly withering put-downs – a bad review of an article about reviewing – that has made people in recent months so critical of critics.
Because Lista's target was female, his sneering tone invited predictable accusations of gender bias, and before long, the whole thing had derailed into angry gender wars, which put a screen over the whole interesting dispute. Lots of calmer people have made convincing arguments about the necessity for bad reviews in a healthy literary culture too. A lot of us remember with a shudder that apex of Canadian cultural nationalism, in the 1980s, when everyone got too smug and comfortable and every humourless small-press book about going through Mother's old things on the farm could count on a piously encouraging review by one of the author's acquaintances in even the major newspapers. That celebration of mediocrity only served to anger the young, who felt left out of it. (I was one of them, and boy, did I come out swinging when I got my chance.)
But how does one write a usefully critical analysis, without letting oneself and one's amusing turn of phrase look like a plea for attention? A book or restaurant review has to be an article worth reading in itself, for those without experience of the art in question, so it has to contain some charm. So it's hard to avoid showing off.
And it has to inform. Hence the importance of situating what's under review, placing it in its context – its genre, its audience, its aims, its creator's reputation, what it represents about its art form today. And the reviewer must judge a piece of art or even a restaurant only in terms of what it sets out to do. In other words, if a book's a western, a critic who says he simply doesn't like westerns is not giving us any useful information. We want to know if it succeeds as a western. John Updike expounded on this much more eloquently, in a piece that has been widely quoted in recent weeks: "Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind."
One of the best book reviews I have ever read was by that master of nasty, Martin Amis. It is a half-serious evaluation of an airport novel, Michael Crichton's second dinosaur novel, The Lost World. (The essay is reprinted in Amis's book, The War Against Cliché.) Of course it contains a delicious and hilarious dissection of Crichton's leaden prose style ("Out there, beyond the foliage, you see herds of clichés, roaming free"). But the piece begins and ends with genuinely appreciative wonderment at the role of dinosaurs in popular culture, and there is respect for the awe-inspiring power of Hollywood beneath the aesthete's jabs. It's an essay on aesthetics and sociology at once. It's sharp-edged in the most productive way.