Don't Bury the Hatchet Just Yet

Book reviewer Lee Siegel says that negative criticism has no place in today's cultural milieu. But in doing so, he too readily cedes authority.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to review a book. The book is by a famous author; the book's editor is somewhat famous, too. I have loved the author's previous work, but I do not love this book. In fact, I think it is no good. But I cannot put it aside, because I have been tasked with the review. And simply not reviewing the book would be a statement of its own for the publication in question — condemnation by silence. I could be dishonest and say the book is better than it really is. That's not how I work, though. So, reluctantly, out comes the hatchet.

As I am sharpening mine, critic Lee Siegel is burying his. In an essay for The New Yorker's book blog, Page-Turner, Siegel writes, "I intend never to write a negative book review again." His reasons are manifold, and many of them are laudable, even if I do not quite agree. His argument, very briefly, is that the rise of postwar middlebrow culture tempered the oft-savage bent of American literary criticism; the Internet further reduced the role of the professional critic by giving rise to the amateur one, sprinkling the digital ether with Amazon stars and blog posts. In other words, the critic of thundering judgement is about as relevant as the crazy man on the corner shouting about false flags.

Instead, Siegel advocates for criticism that servers as "positive critique of the genre’s social possibilities," which sounds like a vaguely Soviet injunction. Somewhat more trenchant is his point that so many books are published today that there is no need to take one down; simply ignore it, meanwhile celebrating those you love:

the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim

This is a fair point, though as my colleague Eric Levenson pointed out yesterday, Heidi Julavits made it ten years ago in The Believer, in her essay against snark. It was made, also, in response to the highly negative reviews published by Dale Peck (pictured above) in The New Republic.

I've enjoyed Siegel's hatchet jobs, as I imagine have many other readers. I am sad to see him put the blade away. But I wonder if the image of the hatchet is part of the problem, based as it is on the early-20th century notion of the hatchet man, a Chinese assassin dispatching his victims with quick viciousness in the crooked byways of Chinatown. Ugly racial stereotypes aside, I don't think that's how critics ought to think of themselves.

And, yes, I know I used the very same image above. That was sort of the point. In fact, I have previously written about my own regret about having penned overly negative reviews. But that recognition has hardly made me a cheerleader for every book that comes across my desk. After all, you can be book reviewer or a book publicist. I'm afraid you can't be both.

Rather than the hatchet-wielding warrior, the critic should ideally be a cop, with several tools at his or her disposal: the ticket as admonition, the handcuffs as restraint, the bullet for those most flagrant offenses. But to simply say, as Siegel does, that "writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living" is sort of like an officer saying she won't arrest a cocaine dealer because, well, at least he's not peddling heroin.

If the critic's goal is not to push for superior books, then what it is? The book review is dead, Siegel says — yet, every time Michiko Kakutani pans a book (cf. her on Norman Rush) or James Wood takes down an author (cf. him on Paul Auster), the Internet issues a collective howl of indignation. The opprobrium seems to support Siegel's general sentiment, yet misses the point. The critic ought to demand that writers write better books, ought to tell them — and potential readers — when they have failed, and how. Otherwise, we're just peddling marshmallows.

Actually, Siegel's essay is as much a brief intellectual history as it is an essay on his own book reviews. And it is a good intellectual history; the man is not a hack, far from it. But in an ironic turn, Siegel says that we live in an age without authority, and so, accordingly, he will not exercise whatever problematic authority his perch as a critic has endowed him with. Yet to make a sweeping announcement about the age — which may be accurate, for all I know — requires enormous authority of its own. In the end, Siegel's essay is a weird exercise in self-negation, an attempt to convince himself that his own criticism does not matter, at least in its current form. I hope he unearths that hatchet, at least once in a while.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.