Rotten reviews

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Oy. There are so many books. We all know that feeling of walking into a two-story bookstore and feeling overwhelmed. Ecclesiastes long, long ago observed that there was no limit to book production, at that was in the days of hand-written manuscripts. And then, of course, there is the reading of them all that Ecclesiastes calls the wearying of the flesh. At least students get the summer off. The rest of us keep drudging on, page after page, encountering our inadequacies in the vast sea of knowledge.

But there is another wearying of the flesh related to books and that is their reviews, especially when they are unnecessarily biting and painful. It makes us cringe to read the joy of a merciless critic who takes apart and humiliates a writer. John Updike, who published 60 books in his 76 years, in Bech at Bay has the protagonist murder his critics, an unusual approach to handling criticism.

Bill Henderson collected bad reviews in his book, Rotten Reviews, seemingly as an act of revenge. He himself wrote a review of a book as a favor to a friend who now no longer speaks to him. There I learned that The New York Times said of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that “one is left at the end with nothing to digest" and of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “It gasps for want of craft and sensibility.” The Saturday Review panned Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (a personal favorite) and said The Great Gatsby was absurd. After Madame Bovary came out, Le Figuro claimed: “Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.”

Even though A Passage to India was deemed “lacking in insight,” E.M. Forster was not philosophically troubled by a bad review. While he acknowledged that some reviews give pain, he claimed that no author “has the right to whine.” Why? “He was not obligated to be an author. He invited publicity, and he must take the publicity that comes along.” When you put yourself out there, others have the right to criticize.

But sometimes it’s not about the substance of the criticism but the sharp and acerbic way in which it is delivered. This has been a recent issue in the universe of Jewish books. During these three summer weeks when we mourn the destruction of both our Temples to hatred external and internal, it is a good time to reflect internally on humiliation and humility.  

It is all too easy to defend the right of the reviewer without asking if there is a Jewish way to review a book, one in which making oneself chief judge and arbiter of a genre or a discipline is undertaken with great care lest intellectual snobbery and pettiness dominate. Of course, we need guardians of ideas to keep us authentic, but Ecclesiastes, in the very same chapter that offers our aphorism, also states that the writer was a sage who “listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims,” seeking "to discover useful sayings and... genuinely truthful sayings.”

Genuine truthfulness is something to seek out and discover. It is not always apparent on the surface. Samuel Johnson said that, “It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised.” True. Reviewers keep writers honest. But they, too, must be honest about their motives in writing reviews and avoid personal attack. Surely there are ways to critique that help authors learn to be more self-reflective and there are ways that seek to diminish.

Reviews that destroy relationships are not the same as reviews that question ideas. Words build, and words destroy. In our tradition, we are mandated by the Bible to rebuke our neighbor, but only when our neighbor can hear it and when it serves to grow others, not demean them. Voltaire once said of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “...one would imagine this piece to be the work of a drunken savage.” Ouch. But then again, Shakespeare had the last laugh.  

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on July 19, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.