the ego and the negative review

The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture. I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity. But listening — real listening — requires that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go. As such, it is an activity requiring much more effort than the activity of proclaiming our selves through speaking our views. For we are a culture, perhaps a species, drunk on a narrow notion of assertiveness and virility. We are also a culture, perhaps a species, many of whose individuals are obsessed with rank — to the extent that knowing one is on the bottom rung is felt to be preferable to there being no rungs at all. These twin addictions, as visible in the contemporary university as in the military, lead us to suspect those with a gift for listening as ‘soft,’ and to celebrate those with a taste for volubly dispensing judgement as ‘tough.’ My suggestion is that it is those who insist on listening nonetheless who are really tough: they have the courage to continue to serve art when everything around them is making it easy not to.

- Jan Zwicky, from her 2003 essay "The Ethics of the Negative Review", originally published in The Malahat Review, and republished at the new Canadian Women in the Literary Arts website. You can read the whole thing here.

Zwicky says that the harshest judgment a critic can pass on a work is silence, and that we should “keep our mouths shut” about books we don’t like. Very true. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” But if you regard this vow of silence within the framework of Zwicky’s argument, you start to realize—or at least I do—that it rubs against the grain of earlier statements she has made. Think back on her admonition that we make sure what we say stands the test of time. If we ignore certain books altogether, how can we possibly know if our opinions, or the works to which they pertain, have lasting merit? Is it not the height of egotism to not review a book because one doesn’t like it, and let it slip into obscurity without comment? Does one not owe it to one’s art to give everything that aspires towards it a fair shake?

- Zach Wells, in his 2004 response to Zwicky's article, "Strawman Dialectics", originally published in Books in Canada. You can read his whole rebuttal here.

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