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On Reviewing Books

An interesting interview with literary critic Adam Kirsch (New Republic, New Yorker, etc.) in the UK Prospect.

A teaser:

Last year there was a lot of debate among critics like Laura Miller and Daniel Mendelsohn about whether literary critics should refrain from writing very negative reviews, especially given the notion that literary culture is “under threat.” That is, the idea that in the 21st century we should supposedly all band together to defend literature by drawing attention to good books, rather than slamming the bad ones. Where do you stand on this issue?

I think it is a problem if you pick out a book that isn’t particularly good from the 90 per cent of books that aren’t particularly good and then just devote the review to saying that it’s not good.  It may be true but it does seem a little unfair to the person you’re reviewing, as one could say that most books aren’t very good or memorable. I think that the books that deserve to be attacked are the very influential and highly regarded. So if you have a writer who you feel is exerting a malign influence on the world because so many people admire them then I think it’s worthwhile to say this is no good, people shouldn’t be admiring this.

I felt that way about Slavoj Zizek, that’s one person who I wrote about in a deliberately attacking way because I felt the cult of Zizek was intellectually dangerous. In those situations, I think negativity is quite helpful. We could do with more people who are prepared to pick fights about important issues.

Somewhat related: in the Virginia Quarterly Review, a short post on the relationship between book reviewing and book marketing.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

One reply on “On Reviewing Books”

[…] The recent interview with Adam Kirsch led me back to his stringent criticisms of Slavoj Žižek. The original and most systematic can be found in Mr. Kirsch’s review of Violence and In Defense of Lost Causes.  Žižek’s response to that review and then Mr. Kirsch’s rejoinder are also quite instructive. Finally, Mr. Kirsch gets in one last word, calling into question Žižek’s trustworthiness and overall credibility. Each of these are equal parts fascinating, important, and entertaining. […]

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