Commentary Magazine

Literary Blog

The Ethics of Reviewing

Literature should never be left where sociologists can get their hands on it. They might hurt themselves. In the first issue of the new Toronto Review of Books, Phillipa Chong complains about “the professional norms of book reviewing.” A Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Toronto, Chong is worried about the tendency of critics to resort to “subjective reactions” when they really should be drawing upon “specialized literary knowledge when reviewing a novel.”

Thus critics may describe a writer as “pedantic” or “showing off,” and may admit to being “annoyed” or “irritated” while reading a book. Comments like these amount to “moral criticisms of writers.” They really should not “figure prominently in their critical assessments.”

Except, of course, that these are not “moral criticisms” in any way, and not criticisms of writers at all. They are criticisms of a style. And in talking about literature, a writer’s name is shorthand for her style, since her style is three-fourths of what anyone needs to know about her. Maybe it takes specialized literary knowledge to recognize this convention of literary criticism.

In my own reviewing, I’ve only used one of Chong’s proscribed phrases, and then only negatively. In a review of Madison Jones’s Adventures of Douglas Bragg, I wrote:

In his latest [book], Jones remains much the same as he has been since publishing his first novel The Innocent at the age of thirty-two. He is unpretentious; he is not interested in showing off his literary gifts; he respects the tradition of the novel.

These are not remarks about Madison Jones’s person, but about his literary practice and habits of mind. And while Chong suggests that such remarks are just fancy ways of dressing up “personal preferences” to make them seem more “professional,” pretty much the opposite is the case. A critic, if he’s any good, does not read a new book in a vacuum. He tries to place the book on the map of literature — whether the map refers to the novelist’s career or to a larger region in which several novelists have located themselves. A writer is “pedantic” or “showing off” in comparison to other writers with similar ambitions and methods, similar charms and satisfactions.

What is unethical is to judge an actual book against the imaginary book that a critic wishes had been published instead. If by saying he is “annoyed” or “irritated,” a critic is implying that “this isn’t how the book ideally should be written,” then he is merely being parasitical upon the published novel. He is using it as an occasion, in C. S. Lewis’s phrase, for writing fiction of his own.

Chong’s article in the Toronto Review of Books, entitled “Morals and Mean Reviews,” would be too silly even to chuckle at if it did not reflect a growing cultural tendency to confuse vigorous criticism (“mean reviews”) for personal attacks. My son Dov whines that I am being “mean” when I scold him for doing something wrong, but Dov is eight years old. Adults who care about books care whether they are good. Literature is more important than its authors’ feelings — except perhaps to sociologists like Phillipa Chong.