January 1, 2002

Bad reviews

Jill Walker savages van Looy's overwrought critique of We Descend.

A review should take a work seriously and consider it on its own terms. That doesn't mean not being critical. I'm happy for a reviewer to decide that the work's premises are flawed, or that it doesn't fulfil what it's trying to do.

That's the key point: reviewers need to do the work. Sitting back and inventing fun wisecracks is easy work, and it produces something that looks like a review. But something that looks like criticism, but isn't, is actively harmful: it crowds out good criticism, debases discussion, and replaces serious scholarship with cheap thrills.

It's easy, when a critic gets worked up, to go overboard and lose perspective. Writers reaching for an unfamiliar voice (and I suppose van Looy is trying to do Dorothy Parker, not his usual mode, in a second language -- quite a challenge!) can stumble. I've done it lots. That's why editors matter, and shouldn't be scared to do their work.