The problem with leniency: Reviewers need to take a stand and save the praise for the truly deserving
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 July 2004)

When Andy Lamey was books editor at the National Post he learned an uncomfortable truth about the pusillanimity of renowned Canadian authors. While many agreed to write reviews, most of them absolutely refused to review Canadian fiction. Some gave complicated and implausible reasons ("I would spend all my time saying why Michael Ondaatje's dialogue isn't as good as mine") but others told what Lamey considers the truth: They were afraid.

They feared that a negative review might lose them a government grant if an author they criticized got appointed to a grant-giving committee; or they might have to endure a tit-for-tat evisceration of their own work. It was just too scary. The world of Canadian letters is small, as Lamey sympathetically suggests, and honesty isn't necessarily admired or even tolerated. (People start out on a career in literature and only later discover they're also in politics.) Lamey remains angry at hypocrites who turned him down and later declared elsewhere that Canada needs higher standards in reviewing. Even so, he refrains from naming the guilty, perhaps out of typical Canadian compassion.

Lamey's views appear in the summer issue of The Walrus, where he discusses the books of two tough critics, Hatchet Jobs: Cutting Through Contemporary Culture, by the odious and untalented Dale Peck, and The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, by the excellent James Wood.

Nine decades ago, as Lamey notes, Rebecca West denounced English reviewers for surrendering to "the vice of amiability"; she said England needed instead an honestly abusive criticism. That's been said often since, and nowhere more than in Canada. Almost everyone involved in Canadian letters declares at some point that our reviewers are too easy on our authors.

Actually, I find Canadian movie critics much more indulgent, but it's book reviewers who routinely draw criticism. Two standard complaints are directed at them:

(1) They flagrantly over-praise Canadian writers, either to advance their careers by currying favour or out of falsely optimistic patriotism. (2) They grossly under-appreciate Canadian writing, out of a cringing colonial inferiority complex ("nothing good can come out of this wretched country") or because of an envy-fed cut-down-the-tall-poppies syndrome.

Someone unaccustomed to high-level discussion of Canadian culture might find these generalizations mutually contradictory, but I've frequently heard both of them from the same people. Moreover, these sins are often wrongly identified as peculiarly Canadian; in truth, people complain about both of them in most countries most of the time.

It's not hard to guess why we exaggerate the fruits of our culture; we want to make ourselves larger in the world than we are. But shying away from honest criticism in favour of facile amiability has a more complicated motive than Lamey allows. All writers know that a negative review, even from an ignoramus, hurts. Most authors also learn, quite early, that a hostile notice leaves 10 times the emotional residue of enthusiastic praise (some might say 100 times). That's not a purely literary matter. It appears that among most humans, praise and blame never produce equivalent effects.

Jock Abra, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, claims that we can find the explanation for this phenomenon in evolution. Our prehistoric ancestors had to become experts in survival (otherwise they wouldn't have lived to be our ancestors). This meant that when they surveyed their environment they took much more careful note of hostility than of any positive force. Evolution has hardwired us to react with passionate anger to anything resembling danger. That's why, in student evaluations, professors remember one student's harsh comment over a chorus of approval from others. And authors take all criticism personally because it's a personal threat. To them, Abra says, "Even the odd act of censure by a generally encouraging critic" feels like a vicious attack. Writers avoid reviewing books by people they know because they understand the astonishing depth of this feeling.

Still, even writers who fear and resent critics know that they're essential. Few readers have the time or inclination to page through the publishers' catalogues to find, among thousands of new books, the few that are interesting or attractive. Critics do their job best when they direct readers toward books that deserve attention. W.H. Auden called that the first of critical duties: "Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware." This implies, of course, that the critic has the sense to recognize an exceptional book and the ability to explain why it matters.

Writers find it hard to accept that reviews of their books are not written for their benefit. Some even complain that they learn nothing from reading their reviews. This is expecting too much. No sensible reviewer writes to educate the author. Authors already know what's in their books, they think they understand the context of their work, and they have a firm idea of how important their books are (very). Reviews are written for people who don't know any of these things but want to know them.

Then who should write reviews? Lamey discovered that novelists find it a daunting task, and many book editors long ago decided not to use academics as reviewers; they can avoid writing for the authors but with rare exceptions they write for other professors. Reviewers can come from almost anywhere. There's no school or accreditation; they prove themselves only through what they write.

The late Donald Creighton, in his day the most eminent of Canadian historians, was a world-class hater who flew into a rage whenever he thought of Canadian book reviewers, not all of whom showed him the proper respect. Reviewing, he wrote, is a foreign art which never took root in Canada. He heaped on Canadian reviewers the grossest insult he could draw from his large imagination: He said they wrote like reporters. It seemed to him likely that literary editors and critics got their jobs as rewards for competent reporting of police courts and town councils.

Quelle horreur! It happens that Creighton's words could describe the early career of H.L. Mencken, but that's not who came into my mind when I read them. Because, dear reader, before I began my apparently endless career as a reviewer of books I myself covered courts and city hall. Still, I tried not to take Creighton's remark personally.

Tried, and of course failed.

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