I like Joel Brouwer's comment on my earlier post about reviews and criticism so much that I'm highlighting it here; I'd said that critics, like doctors, ought to know about the pathological as well as the healthful if their role is to help sustain well-being.
"I find the medical analogy creepy, Don; it has the potential to lead to a conception of criticism as a form of eugenics. I prefer the idea of criticism as jury duty. Everyone who publishes a book in a given year should be required to review five others published that year. And, as with jury duty, they should hate having to do it. Doing loathsome scut work for the greater good is just another way of saying civil society.
The whole negative/positive reviews conversation is so played. Orwell said everything that needed saying in "Confessions of a Book Reviewer" more than half a century ago. It's funny how everyone needs to re-agonize over it for themselves; I suspect people are just trying to avoid doing the dishes. Because we all already know the answer(s): Some reviews are useful and some aren't, and so shall it always be. No one with any sense would wish for all negative reviews, or all positive, or all "fair and balanced," or all partisan, or all highbrow or lowbrow or professional or amateur or etc. The usefulness/lessness is in the scrum. Anyone taking the time to say that reviews oughta x or or reviews oughta y is wasting time that could be spent writing one, or, perhaps even better, not."
To which I replied, "Well put, Joel: thank you. (Though the doing dishes analogy is creepy. Just kidding.) My only cavil is that I do think things need to be played and replayed, and see little harm in that. And I like the Orwell, but it's not necessarily the definitive statement (ignoring most books, as he proposes, is silly), and not everyone will have stumbled upon it."
Here's a link to the Orwell piece; his conclusion:
"The best practice, it has always seemed to me, would be simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews--1,000 words is a bare minimum--to the few that seem to matter. Short notes of a line or two on forthcoming books can be useful, but the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write it. Normally he doesn't want to write it, and the week-in, week-out production of snippets soon reduces him to the crushed figure in a dressing-gown whom I described at the beginning of this article. However, everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on, and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honour for a glass of inferior sherry."
Eugenics is a loaded word; to be clear, I'm not advocating weeding out the bad from the good in poetry or in anything else; my good is your bad, and vice versa. But one has to know the physiology nonetheless. That's my point, and in fact I've argued elsewhere for the great and enduring value of very bad poetry (which I read in enormous quantities). But I think there's much to assent to in Joel's remarks, particularly with regard to "civil society," which does seem to be vanishing (like sherry-drinking and dressing gowns)... assuming it ever existed, that is.
PICTURED: Pertinent entries from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary