The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

Criticism’s vocabulary of cruelty

Thanks to Short Reviewer Mark for drawing my attention to this fascinating article by Molly Flatt on The Guardian’s Book’s Blog. Entitled “Criticism’s Vocabulary of Cruelty”, her premise is that reviewers seem to find it easier to write “funny negative” book reviews than, in the words of one critic she quotes, to “praise interestingly”. She notes that online reviews tend to achieve more popularity if they tend towards the funny negative; generous and positive reviews do not get cited so often. But, she cautions reviewers, would you say everything you write in a review to the author’s face? If not, perhaps you might want to rethink.

Despite our native savagery, surely there is nothing quite so pleasing as a balanced, sensitive and generous review that manages to capture the spirit of a beloved book? Maybe the problem is that the texts that really touch us engage our emotions and our passions, so that in describing them we must also reveal something of ourselves, whereas a clever slating distances us through self-consciously crafted irony and wit.

Food for thought for any reviewer. The full article is here.

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4 comments on “Criticism’s vocabulary of cruelty

  1. Nik's Blog
    May 19, 2008

    What a good article, thanks for the link. I suppose it’s a question of the reviewer being more important that the book.Nik


  2. Anonymous
    May 19, 2008

    What I hear is often the opposite: that due to ever-more limited space dedicated to book reviews in newspapers and magazines, only books that reviewers really want to promote get reviewed. That is, no one wants to waste valuable space on something not worth reading. So I suppose bloggers, with their unlimited space, are picking up the lack.


  3. Petra
    May 19, 2008

    I didn’t much like the last book I reviewed for ‘Short review’ but a friend assured me the review was balanced, although ‘damning with faint praise’. The phrase is taken from a quote attributed to Alexander Pope: ‘Damn with faint praise, assent with civil sneer,/And without sneering teach the rest to sneer’ (Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot, I think). Balance is good, yes? But I’d like to avoid the sneering, in fact I try to avoid reviewing books I don’t like – cowardly? Perhaps, but I can’t help feeling for the author and I agree – write only what you would say to an author’s face. Besides, it’s subjective, my opinion only, someone else might love the book. And anyway, a good book, one I’ve really enjoyed, inspires my best writing and I tend to respond with a well written (often witty) review that reflects positively on both the book and myself. But I am not advocating a wishy-washy approach to reviewing, just an honest one that doesn’t set out to make the reviewer look ‘clever’ at the book’s expense.Petra


  4. Yael
    May 20, 2008

    I think also that when a person who is actually a writer – as opposed to just a critic – reviews someone else’s writing, s/he is much more aware of how difficult it is to produce really good writing, and more likely to give credit where credit is due. It is much easier to nitpick than to praise judiciously. Then again, if s/he is an unsuccessful or insecure writer, then there might be a motivation of kicking another writer down to make oneself feel better. Kudos to those writers who are generous and fair with their praise (Tania is a good example! 🙂 )


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This entry was posted on May 19, 2008 by in books, reviewing.
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