As I find myself writing several book reviews these days, I always struggle with how to be critical when necessary. My general approach has been simply not to write a review of a book I despise. (I suppose this is a prototypically Midwestern approach to the subject.) Others—more experienced, professional ones—such as J. Robert Lennon, have different ideas. And perhaps they are worth considering. In How to Write a Bad Review, Lennon criticizes a recent evisceration of Alex Ohlin’s latest novel (and short story collation — it was a combo review) by William Giraldi. Lennon continues:
There is a good way to write a bad review of another writer, and I don’t think Giraldi is doing it. Whatever the shortcomings of Ohlin’s work might be, his review does its reader a disservice — his glee at eviscerating Ohlin overshadows his analysis, and casts doubt on its veracity. It isn’t trustworthy, which makes it no more valuable than the kind of swooning puff pieces most critics write.
For me, at least, a bad review’s “trustworthiness” seems almost always cast in doubt, since it’s often a function of the reviewer’s ego. My ineluctable impression from a bad review that he/she (the critic) thinks he/she could do better than the writer being reviewed. And what is a more understandable motivation for skewing/skewering than self-aggrandizement?
Regardless, after reading Giraldi’s review — and despite other critical praise she has received — I have no plans to read any Alex Ohlin.