Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Reviews and emotional language

An addendum on reviews stimulated by Dominik Wujastyk's comment on a previous post (see here):

A literary man of my acquaintance, on reading an unfavourable reference to his own works, called it vulgar. The charge brought against him was one that only highly educated people ever bring; the tone of the passage not otherwise offensive than by being unfavourable; the phrasing perfectly good English. If he had called it false, unintelligent, or malicious, I could have understood, though I might have disagreed. But why vulgar? Clearly, this word was selected solely because the speaker thought it was the one that the enemy, if he could hear it, would most dislike. It was the equivalent of an oath or a growl. But that was concealed from the speaker because "This is vulgar" sounds like a judgement.

C.S. Lewis, At the fringe of language, 1960, pp. 325--326

In other words, if you read in a review words which only express the reviewer's disgust and are the equivalent of "damn!", what you are reading is a personal attack, not a negative review. Unfortunately, in some cases you might need to have a look at the reviewed book to tell the difference (as in the example discussed by Lewis). Conversely, if you write a review, you might want to follow Lewis' advice:
When we write criticism we have to be continually on our guard against this sort of thing. If we honestly believe a work to be very bad we cannot help hating it. The function of criticism, however, is 'to get ourselves out of the way and let humanity decide'; not to discharge our hatred but to expouse the grounds for it (p. 326).

On reviews, see this post and the ones linked from it.

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