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Critical But Kind

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The importance of civility in reviewing

By Paula Marantz Cohen

October 23, 2012


 

I am always struck by how harshly the students in my review-writing class judge books, movies, and music in their weekly papers. They can be very mean. I understand this, having sometimes been mean myself. When I first began reviewing, some 25 years ago, I took pleasure in trashing a book or movie I didn’t like. But time has softened my approach, and today I advise my students to question what is fueling their animus. Is it the power of passing judgment? Jealousy? A challenge to their personal taste? Rarely is a very negative review justifiable. I still occasionally succumb to writing one, but always regret it later.

Writing an academic book is hard—months if not years of research often stand behind something that a reviewer can trash in a few sentences. Likewise, finishing a novel—simply getting to the end, even if awkwardly or foolishly—is an accomplishment. It makes me angry when people speak disparagingly of so-called “chick lit” or “beach books.” Do they have any idea what it takes to write one of these pleasant reads? And if books are hard to write, consider movies. Putting the creative aspect aside, you have to raise the money and work with an array of people who may or may not be willing to do your bidding. If the final product coheres at all, it is miraculous.

That said, I am not against exercising critical judgment. We need to support excellence by discriminating among the products of our culture, even as we understand that creative work is difficult and that those who engage in it are courageous even when they fail. It is possible to be both critical and kind, but it takes work. That’s what I try to relay to my students. Few of them are likely to become professional reviewers, but learning this skill will serve them well no matter what they become.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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