Thursday, September 08, 2005

Taking the Sting Out of Reviews

In the foreword to his collection of essays and reviews, The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis writes:

You hope to get more relaxed and confident over time; and you should certainly get (or seem to get) kinder, simply by avoiding the stuff you are unlikely to warm to. Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember […] Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age. I have often wondered why this spectacle seems so undignified. Now I know: it’s mutton dressed as lamb. (xv)

Putting aside the irony of Amis using a clichéd phrase like “mutton dressed as lamb” in the foreword to a book titled The War Against Cliché, the above paragraph has given me something to ponder. I’m reading it against the backdrop of the recent debate sparked by an article in which Jack Shafer opined: “The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces.” A number of litbloggers disagreed (see, for example, Conversational Reading and The Reading Experience). It won’t surprise readers of this blog to hear that given a choice between a fair review of a worthy book and a “good piece,” I’d opt for the former. But the former doesn’t have to exclude the latter. Can’t we have both at once? Are the reviews of the kinder, gentler Martin Amis any less interesting to read than his youthful pronouncements? I’ll have to work my way through his collection chronologically to find out.

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