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C.S. Lewis On Angry Book Reviews

Justin Taylor quotes C.S. Lewis on the psychology of scathing book reviews:

Reviews filled with venom have often been condemned socially for their bad manners, or ethically for their spite. I am not prepared to defend them from either charge; but I prefer to stress their inutility. . . . Automatically, without thinking about it one’s mind discounts everything [the venomous critic] says, as it does when we are listening to a drunk or delirious man. The critic rivets our attention on himself. When we get to the end we find that the critic has told us everything about himself and nothing about the book. Thus in criticism, as in vocabulary, hatred over-reaches itself. Willingness to wound, too intense and naked, becomes impotent to do the desired mischief.

Of course, if we are to be critics, we must condemn as well as praise; we must sometimes condemn totally and severely. But we must obviously be very careful. . . . I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues. The very desire is a danger signal. . . . The strength of our dislike is itself a probable symptom that all is not well within; that some raw place in our psychology has been touched, or else that some personal or partisan motive is secretly at work. . . . If we do speak, we shall almost certainly make fools of ourselves. Continence in this matter is no doubt painful. But, after all, you can always write your slashing review now and drop it into the wastepaper basket a day or so later. A few re-readings in cold blood will often make this quite easy.

This is a good reminder that the goal of criticism is not to make much of ourselves, but to persuade. And the most effective method of persuasion is, usually, irenic in nature.

By Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.