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This Guy Thinks We Shouldn't Have Negative Book Reviews. Two Thumbs Down!

In a strange and unconvincing essay in The New Yorker, Lee Siegel, who made his name as a slashing and smart critic (for a time at The New Republic), writes that he is through with negative book reviews. He mentions a Clive James essay from several months back which lamented the lack of nasty reviews in American publications. But Siegel notes, correctly, that politeness has not been a permanent feature of American reviewing, and goes on to mention the harsh pieces that appeared in the inagural issue of The New York Review of Books fifty years ago. Then Siegel turns to his own case:

The insular, hothouse atmosphere of postwar intellectual combat is where, about twenty years after it disappeared, I schooled myself in the dark art of the takedown. I can now see the irony of my situation—or, as those bygone critics would have said, my "position." My awareness of my own ineffectuality in the world also led me to seek out the power conferred by words. But the world had changed. I was not practicing a shared style. I was cultivating an idiosyncrasy: I was one of the few critics who carried a hatchet.

I fail to see how this constitutes an irony, but Siegel does have a point about a broader cultural change. But then he tries to explain how we should respond to it, and utterly fails to make his case. First, he argues, that unlike in the Cold War era, "everyone [shares] the same literary-intellectual-commercial space" and thus that negative reviews "could, for the first time, have real-life consequences." He adds:

They are necessarily modest because, unlike a positive review, a negative one implies authority, and authority has become something ambiguous in our age of quick, teeming Internet response, where all the old critical standards and parameters are in the process of vanishing and being reinvented.

This seems both undeniably true as a description of reality, and also deeply misguided as a philosophy. Okay, so an internet critic who no one has heard of does not have the "authority" of Dwight Macdonald. But what an abysmal way to read criticism! A review—or a book—stands or falls on what it says, not who says it. This seems like one of the first rules of engaging in any intellectual pursuit. I can understand why Siegel would be less likely to read a piece written with a byline he didn't recognize than a piece by James Wood or Joyce Carol Oates. But you should not actually read the piece differently. Moreover, this is an especially odd argument for Siegel to be making when one considers that he is a recognizable critic who has "authority," however absurd the concept may be.

Siegel then makes a slightly broader argument:

We are living in what the nineteenth-century French sociologist Auguste Comte called a "critical" age. Comte defined critical epochs as times of social and political disharmony, when values and traditions were in upheaval and there was no consensus on what society and culture should be. He opposed critical ages to "organic" ones, when harmony, consensus, and unity reigned....

I see, so we live in an age of disharmony, unlike fifty years ago when the world came the closest it ever has to extinction, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak, and when the women's movement had begun to upend American society in profound ways? And what does Siegel draw from this absurd distinction?

The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once. You might have, say, a review of a novel by Rachel Kushner that is also a reflection on "Girls," the art of Marina Abramović, the acting style of Jessica Chastain, and the commercial, theatrical, existential provocations of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Or not. In any case, it's worth a try.

This sounds like quite an essay, but would it have to be positive? And why is there necessarily a connection between being synthetic and being upbeat? No answers here. Siegel then ends his piece as follows:

Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people's efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.

Siegel should take a deep breath, re-read this paragraph, and ask himself if he really wants to live in a world without negative cultural criticism. He should also explain whether he is willing to review books at all, since accepting a book reviewing assignment should entail a willingness to be honest about the book. I am happy for Siegel that he has started writing books himself, and thus, according to his logic, begun wrestling with mortality. But people write books for all sorts of reasons, not all of them so wince-makingly self-serious. And since no one can read every book, it's worth having critics around to be honest about which ones are worth our time, and to help explain their larger importance, even if doing so makes those critics occasionally sound mean.

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