Friday, 29 June 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: A Special-Needs Ethics for Book Review Writing?

   On any given week I read scores of reviews. Music at Pitchfork; films, TV programs, and still more music via Metacritic; gadgets on Engadget, CNET, and Appleinsider; even fashion collections at (where Tim Blanks recently discerned in Prada's S/S '13 collection an unholy disaster of stripped-down androgyny).
   Collectively, these sites represent a volcanic eruption of heterogeneous opinion, bias, judgement, seemingly careful evaluation, and seemingly vindictive diatribe—a brutal review of X by one reviewer will receive a Meh by another and an interesting-but-flawed C+ by yet another. The sheer diversity of subjectivity is remarkable.
   One commonality between them, though, is the complete lack of agonized, should-we-or-shouldn't-we? introspection about the ethics writing of a review, an issue brought up today by Michael Lista, who was both championing his own stance about the necessity and value of writing hostile reviews and criticizing Jan Zwicky's 2003 defense of her policy of positive-only literary reviews, originally published in The Malahat Review.
   Simply put, Zwicky believes—or did nine years ago—that a collective silence about a bad literary work is sufficient criticism from the community, that ever-shrinking review space should be reserved for books about which the reviewer has friendly enthusiasm, and that "the artist’s position, I believe, must still be construed as one of trust, one that requires of reviewers respect for the thin skin that is essential to creativity."
   Lista, meanwhile, mocks Zwicky's logic and perceived sentimentality while asserting the following tough-love sermon:
   "The purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it. And when we write a negative review, we’re writing it about an adult, a professional, who of her own volition chose to publish poems, to share them with other human beings who have that pesky, intractable habit of thinking for themselves. No one is forcing these people, we who are too many, to publish; if you’re squeamish, put your poems in a goddamn drawer. And if you can’t stomach the occasional reader disclosing that she doesn’t like your poems, well: There’s always law school."

    Because I've read so many articles and blog posting about the ethics of book reviewing, and since no one mentions Michael Bay's thin skin or hurt feelings when yet one more dismissal is published upon the release of another of his Transformers blockbusters, and because nobody apparently publishes a thoughtful essay proclaiming that magazines should publish nothing but favourable reviews of stereos or automobiles or architecture (and that the pall of silence about poorly designed products will be sufficient information for consumers and adequate criticism for manufacturers), I'm left wondering about the categorical specialness of writers.
   Are they—hmm, I am writing, after all—are we so different from musicians, or filmmakers, or clothing designers that, like an endangered species or someone with a handicap, we require kid gloves management and special dispensations? And are our sensibilities so refined and our talents so orchid delicate that they need both constant protection and unending care?
   That latter question raises a different but not altogether unrelated phenomenon: bubble wrap kids and helicopter parenting. My understanding is that overprotective parenting is widely regarded as stunting, insofar is its protective ethos limits exposure to a real world in which any child (regardless of her diet of praise) must eventually become a participant.
   I'm not sure the analogy is an exact fit, but it seems that as a solution to a problem, habitual and legislated niceness complemented with a complete avoidance of slings and arrows is tantamount to a delusion.


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