The other day, I made an ass of myself. Which is not unusual, actually. I’m a promiscuous reader: a magazine junkie, a blog hopper, a fiction addict. The danger of this is when, instead of answering a simple question, I start quoting, at length, something I’ve read that explains it much better than I would.
I was being interviewed by phone by a journalist who’s writing an article about book reviewing and I was babbling on in my charming way when she asked me something about negative reviews. I’m not even sure what the question was. Maybe something like: Do they work? Are they necessary? or even Why are they so much more interesting than reviews of praise?
I just happened to have read the article that elucidated the answer to this puzzling question perfectly, in Atlantic Monthly’s recent fiction issue. I started telling her this, and she said she’d have to get the magazine, and I said, “oh wait, I’ve got the article right here.” Scissored from the magazine, stapled, and highlighted, in fact. It was an archive piece by James Atlas on disparagement.
Below are the parts I highlighted, all of which I read in a tone of rushed wonder to the journalist.
“In 1981, the author and literary critiic James Atlas explained why the most powerful and engaging book reviews tend to be scathing.”
(I think I underlined that part just for the word “scathing.”)
“The language of disparagement,” Atlas says, “is simply more vivid than the language of praise.”
(I should have stopped right there, but no, I kept going like a runaway train on a bad hair day.)
“It is the dismissive review that we remember, the clever deflation, the impudent reappraisal of an honored name…”
(Still couldn’t shut up. One more fascinating bit.)
“Why is a stern critical denunciation so invigorating? It appeals, I think, to the punitive, grudging, envious impulses we generally suppress in our daily social transactions, gives expression to hostile, aggressive instincts through a sanctioned mode of discourse.”
I’m pretty sure she wasn’t writing any of this down. I’ve been an interviewer myself and I know that in general, people talk too fast for me to get every word. And as I said, I was quoting at lightening speed, perhaps in an attempt to get it all in before she hung up on me.
We talked a little more. In an apologetic tone, she said she’d be interviewing Mrs. Giggles next.