Artillery Row

Criticising the critic

Criticism is a valuable art but it should never end up as a tool for bullying

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short review of the paperback release of a new novel by a well-known writer. Having enjoyed her previous books, I had been looking forward to reading this one, especially as it had won a prestigious award, but I found it disappointing. During my brief critique, I asked whether the award it had received was merited for books of this nature: I hoped that my irritation was directed more towards the negligent judges of the prize than the author herself, or her book. I filed my piece, mentioned in passing to my editor that I hadn’t especially rated what I’d written about, and got on with my week. And then things went awry.

I realised, on the day of the review’s publication, that it had elicited an unusual amount of attention when I received concerned messages from friends asking if I was alright, which baffled me. Then a glance at social media revealed the reason for their concern. The outraged author, who had contented herself with posting an image of a disappointed face on my own feed, had made a comment that suggested that, because of my educational background and gender, I was unable to understand the feminine perspective, or, in her more evocative words, ‘to know one end of a vagina from another.’

As a well-known writer, she has a substantial following on social media, and it wasn’t very long until the criticism began. Although she hadn’t named me directly, it didn’t take long to find out who she was referring to, and so I started to receive messages of varying degrees of abuse, directly or as comments appended to her statement. My own favourite was the accusation that ‘I bet he’s no fun in the pub’. As someone who prides himself as being ebullient company in the alehouse, this stung, but I made a joke out of it, remarking that I would have to sue for slander if such a comment was to be repeated. I have, after all, a reputation to maintain for jollity. 

Nobody wants to spend their weekends having to defend their thoughts or opinions to strangers on the internet

In the end, the row blew over because of social justice issues. Several people noted that to attack a critic for his or her gender and background was somewhat uncalled for, introducing an ad hominem element into what should have been straightforwardly professional dealing, and at least one person complained that, had the situation consisted of a man telling a woman that she was unfit to review his work because of her sex, there would have been an outcry. Eventually, the writer deleted her incendiary comment, and everyone moved on from the argument. I doubt I’ll read (and certainly won’t review) any of her books again, and I’m sure that she won’t read any more of my writing. Except, possibly, this piece. 

Yet this little spat, inconsequential and trivial though it ultimately was, proved to be an unexpectedly illuminating insight into the world of the contemporary critic. As DJ Taylor wrote in this magazine recently, ‘we inhabit a world in which most books are not so much reviewed as endorsed and where it is not uncommon to open, say, the Guardian Saturday Review and find that every single item mentioned is being patted on the back.’ Taylor suggests that reasons for this apparently cosy world of mutual appreciation are an unwillingness to cover bad books, a reluctance to give unnecessary offence and an increased awareness of issues of cultural inclusivity. I would add simple self-preservation. Nobody wants to spend their weekends having to defend their thoughts or opinions to strangers on the internet, nor does one want to pin a target to one’s chest if one is a writer who expects to be reviewed themselves at some point. It would be good to believe that someone who has received a poor review from a peer would be able to judge their own critic’s work without fear or favour, but few forget or forgive a bad notice. I certainly haven’t. 

Traditionally, the recipient of a stinker has been expected to remember Kingsley Amis’s dictum that ‘A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn’t allow it to spoil your lunch’ and rise above making any sort of public response. This, generations of writers have been assured, is the classy way of dealing with a disappointing response to one’s book, rather than getting into a public spat with the offending critic. Yet, with social media resembling a ravenous beast that feeds on disappointment, anger and conflict – preferably wittily and pithily expressed – it has become increasingly easy for the recipient of a bad review to fight back. 

Whether this is desirable or not remains uncertain. It is relatively rare that a bad review is remembered for more than a day too, and exacerbating an argument can often have the side-effect of the poor notice reaching a vastly wider audience than it might have done otherwise. And there are classier ways to convey dissatisfaction. An aggrieved writer might once have attempted to find some error of fact in their tormentor’s critique, which could then be patronisingly laid bare in a letter to the title’s literary editor. On a good day, this letter might be printed, offering a much-desired right to reply; on a really good day, a literary editor might even think twice about using the services of an especially divisive or inaccurate critic in the future. These were hard-won but real victories, with their own time-honoured place in the literary firmament. 

Now, the field is different. Often, reviews, stuck as they are in the back of a paper or its supplement, are simply ignored altogether. No British literary critic, or other cultural reviewer, has the power to make or break a career any more. There is no equivalent of the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley, whose thumbs up or thumbs down determines the success of a new play overnight. Instead, while critical mass might be achieved by a plethora of good or bad reviews, only a spectacular hatchet job will cut through into popular consciousness. Recently, books by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Will Self were both subjected to ritual disembowelment in the national literary pages, although the neutral reader might have wondered if some of the more vitriolic critics were motivated as much by personal (or reputational) dislike of the writers as they were by the books themselves. But the pieces were entertaining, and vicious, and attracted plenty of attention on social media, so the job was done. 

If the critic can only make a difference at their most venomous, then, there will be a steady increase in outraged public responses from the offended recipients of their hyperbole. It is all too easy to suggest that a poor review was dictated by some psychological flaw or social bias on the part of its creator, and all but impossible to prove that it was not. If this continues, then the role of the critic will evolve. Rather than being expected to offer a definitive, informed opinion as an arbiter, their task will instead be to provide a context for conversation in a public sphere, rather like a moderator in a discussion. Their view will be useful, perhaps, but of no particular significance. Instead, a plethora of voices will be allowed to offer comments, and every view will have equal weight. 

This democratisation of criticism is, some might argue, valuable and egalitarian. Few writers ignore the comments made on such websites as Amazon and Goodreads, much as they might wish to, and they know that a run of good reviews on the former begins to trigger an algorithm in a favourable direction for their creation, just as a series of bad notices can make their job of selling their work considerably harder, both now and in the future. Yet there is little they can do if ‘NetReviewer101’ or any other pseudonymous armchair critic decides to give their efforts one star and condemn them merely as ‘boring’, just as – in a strange flaw in the system that has never been adequately dealt with – a negative Amazon rating that criticises the company or the book’s binder for a late or poorly produced copy is just as valid as a carefully considered thousand-word critique.  

It was the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting

At a time when paid professional critics are something of an endangered species, it is galling to think that one’s small fee for a review now includes the possibility of arguing about one’s intentions with the work’s creator and their admirers. Of course, most people are not thick-skinned enough to be able to shrug off criticism entirely, and it is undeniably disappointing to see a work that one has invested considerable time and emotional interest in simply be dismissed by someone in the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting. And for those of us privileged to make our living, wholly or partially, by the pen, or the laptop, arguments and disagreements, however irksome they might be, are hardly the same as undertaking onerous and dangerous work for a living.  

Nonetheless, as someone publishing a new book in a few months, I now make the following plea to anyone who reads it. If you enjoy it, shout your adulation from the rooftops, come to my house and get me to sign as many copies as you would like inscribed to as many relatives or friends as you possess, and write as many long and considered reviews on as many blogs or review websites as exist. But if you don’t enjoy it, then either keep your opinions to yourself, or share them in a considered, balanced and, above all, fair fashion, so that I might be able to learn from any mistakes I’ve made in future works.

Criticism is a valuable art, and a necessary one. But what it should never end up becoming is simply a tool for bullying, on either side. If that happens, the whole industry is debased, and it is hard not to have sympathy with the German composer Max Reger’s famous remark to a critic that ‘I am in the smallest room of the house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.’

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