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Reviewers can be ruthless in their appraisals of a work’s worth. Wit, sarcasm and outright dismissal are to be expected in the most savage and devastating reviews.

Here’s what Clifton Fadiman had to say about William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) in The New Yorker: “The final impression left on my mind is that the whole thing is a mistake, and a rather laborious and unpleasant mistake.”

How about Dale Peck in The London Review of Books on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996):

“A bloated, boring, gratuitously overhyped mess.”

Or Salman Rushdie’s condemnation of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: “A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.”

Or Christopher Hitchens’s classic takedown of Bob Woodward’s Bush at War:

“The book does not try to be objective. It contains shifty untruths from those who collude and represses basic factual material, gleanable from aides or from the public record, from the side of those who do not. It despises history and, as a partially ironic consequence, is outpaced by the present.”

Writing a scathing review is easy: Use a sharp blade and don’t hold your punches. Malice, venom and spite are the standard tools of the trade. Be brutal, nasty and hurtful.

Here’s what The Observer had to say about Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho: “Numbingly boring and deeply and extremely disgusting.”

The New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review damned Moby-Dick with these withering words: “If there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.”

A 1922 review of Ulysses asserted that James Joyce’s novel “appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine.”

Sprinkle damning phrases throughout the review. Here are a few examples: “Clear as mud”—referring to a book by the transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. A “dull, insight-free doorstop”—describing Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk. “A 576-page monument to insignificance”—attacking Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “The dialogue frequently reads like someone ran the original English through a machine translator into a foreign language and back again”—about James Comey’s Central Park West.

Be sure to include a cutting, contemptuous attack on a book’s author or an artistic work’s creator: “dim-witted and delusional,” “clunky and self-indulgent,” and my favorite: “the completely unedited ramblings of an idiot.” Poor Meghan McCain.

Use nasty insults and inflammatory language to express scorn, derision and disdain at the work’s content. Phrases like “vapid and vaporous,” “tedious and overstuffed,” and “lame and unsatisfying” are particularly acerbic.

Yes, reviewing is, as George Orwell put it, a fool’s errand: “a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job.” No matter how positive, an author, a playwright, a director or a performer is unsatisfied. Yet, if you’re too effusive, readers are inevitably left bored stiff.

The sad fact is that vicious reviews are the most entertaining, memorable and clickworthy. Fifty years ago, I read a merciless assault on Erik Erikson in The New York Times Book Review which I’ve never forgotten. In a review entitled “The Man Who Invented Himself,” the reviewer, Marshall Berman, claimed that the psychoanalyst who argued that identity confusion lies at the heart of such mental health issues as depression and anxiety had an unresolved identity crisis of his own, refusing to acknowledge his Jewish ancestry.

What brings these thoughts about reviewers’ negativity to mind is a contemptuous, cutting, especially cruel review in The New York Times of a contemporary ballet that I consider brilliant. Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, with a score by Max Richter, is a ballet triptych inspired by the life and works of the English writer Virginia Woolf. First performed by the Royal Ballet in 2015 and now brought to New York for the first time by the American Ballet Theatre, the work is divided into three acts, each based on one of Woolf’s novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.

The first act, “I now, I then,” explores the way that past, present and future intermingle in human consciousness. It juxtaposes the inner and outer lives of Clarissa Dalloway, the novel’s protagonist, with reflections on Woolf’s own life and experiences.

Act II, “Becomings,” explores the theme of transformation and the fluidity of identity, exploring how gender identity can transform over time and with a person’s experience. It follows the journey of Orlando, a character who changes gender and lives for centuries.

The third act, “Tuesday,” focuses on the interconnected lives of six characters from childhood to old age, exploring themes of time, loss, shared human experiences and continuities and endings in life.

All three acts touch on issues related to mental health, drawing from Woolf’s own struggles with mental illness and exploring the complexities of the human psyche and the inner turmoil that people often suffer.

What’s especially striking is how successfully Woolf Works combines Virginia Woolf’s words (from a BBC recording and a reading of her suicide note by Gillian Anderson), video projections (which include textual elements from Woolf’s works), sound effects, electronic and orchestral music, minimalist costume and set design, laser lighting (to highlight emotional moments and transform the stage), and classical ballet and avant-garde and experimental choreography to evoke key elements in Woolf’s life and writings.

I thought the work effectively translated core elements of Woolf’s writings into an immersive experience. These include her:

  • Use of stream of consciousness to depict the flow of thoughts, feelings and memories passing through a character’s mind.
  • Experiments with structure and form and imbuing the ordinary with symbolic and emotional resonance.
  • Juggling multiple perspectives to capture the subjectivity of experience and the multiplicity of reality.
  • Focus on the profound meanings that can be found in the most ordinary events and interactions.
  • Emphasis on the fluid nature of memory and consciousness, moving back and forth between past, present and future.
  • Attention to gender and her critique of the limitations on women’s intellectual and personal freedom.

I felt the Times’ critic and I had seen two different shows. Was the score hackneyed and unmemorable? Not to my ears. Were the lighting and staging soporific? I certainly didn’t think so. Was the choreography expressively impoverished and the choreographer smug? I found the performance mesmerizing and haunting.

Which raises a question that I consider worth pondering: What should criticism be in the 21st century? Different historical eras have conceived of the reviewer or critic’s roles in disparate terms.

There is the view of the critic as evaluator and gatekeeper, providing judgments about the quality and significance of a work and assessing its technical proficiency, originality and emotional impact. Samuel Johnson emphasized moral and aesthetic judgment. He believed critics should guide readers towards works of true merit.

Then there is the critic as interpreter and context provider, whose job is to help audiences understand the deeper meanings, contexts and nuances of a work. T. S. Eliot saw criticism as a means to help readers understand and appreciate complex works. Critics here act as mediators between the work and the audience, providing historical, cultural or theoretical context.

Others take the position that critics should promote and support the arts, acting as advocates for emerging talents and important works that might otherwise be overlooked. The film critic Roger Ebert often drew attention to lesser-known films and directors and emerging artists or underrepresented voices, using his platform to boost the visibility of works he deemed valuable.

Critics can also assume the role of cultural and social commentator, analyzing how a work reflects, influences or critiques societal norms and cultural trends. These critics often situate works within the broader cultural and political landscape. Susan Sontag, in works like “Against Interpretation,” explored how art and criticism intersect with culture, urging critics to appreciate the form and experience of art rather than merely its content.

Still others take on the role of educator. They seek to offer insights into artistic techniques, historical contexts and theoretical frameworks. Harold Bloom, through his critical writings, sought to educate readers about the Western literary canon and its significance, acting as both a critic and a teacher.

Others embrace the role of provocateur, challenging audiences and artists to rethink their assumptions and pushing the boundaries of critical discourse. Pauline Kael, whose reviews I eagerly awaited every week, exemplified this approach, stimulating debate and discussion through her incisive and sometimes abrasive critiques.

In the mid-19th century, Matthew Arnold regarded himself as an arbiter of taste and a cultural custodian, tasked with elevating public standards. He emphasized the critic’s role in identifying and promoting the “best that is known and thought in the world.” This view sees the critic as someone who assesses the quality or merit of a work. Critics in this vein regard their role as helping audiences decide what’s worth their time and attention.

Oscar Wilde argued that criticism itself is—or ought to be—a creative act, with critics producing their own works of art through their reviews. This perspective values the critic’s style and insights as much as their evaluations.

In the early 20th century, the rise of modernism brought a shift in focus, with art critics like Clement Greenberg focusing on formalism and the intrinsic properties of the artwork, while new critics in literature emphasized close reading and interpretation over broader cultural analysis or judgment.

In contrast, Marxist critics like Walter Benjamin often combined cultural analysis with advocacy for socially progressive, politically conscious art. Benjamin adopted a materialist perspective, focusing on how material conditions and changes in technology and economic structures shape cultural production and affect art and literature. In works like “The Arcades Project,” Benjamin examined how capitalism transforms culture into commodities. But he also believed in art’s potential to reveal how bourgeois values are embedded in cultural artifacts, shock the viewer into a heightened awareness of social realities and promote revolutionary possibilities and social transformation. His essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” analyzes how mass production has resulted in the loss of art’s “aura,” or unique presence, increasing art’s democratizing potential while also reducing art’s ritualistic value.

bell hooks favored a form of engaged criticism that goes beyond analysis, interpretation and evaluation. She saw criticism as a tool for exposing and dismantling oppressive structures in culture and society and believed critics should be highly self-reflexive, exposing their own biases and positions and seeking to inspire critical thinking in their audience, not just offer opinions. She also argued that critics have a responsibility to amplify marginalized voices and perspectives and make their work relevant to everyday life and social struggles, revealing the emotional, spiritual, intellectual and political aspects of cultural works. She viewed criticism as a form of dialogue, not just with the work being critiqued but with the audience and broader society. Her criticism was not just about evaluating cultural products but about engaging in a broader project of social change and empowerment. She saw critics as having the power and responsibility to challenge oppressive systems, educate audiences and contribute to a more just and equitable society through their work.

Roland Barthes saw criticism as a way to analyze broader cultural trends and societal values. He wanted the critic to use individual works as entry points to discuss larger issues or themes in society. The critic is, then, a dialogue initiator whose role is to start a conversation about a work, rather than delivering a final verdict, to encourage engagement and debate among audiences.

I think it’s high time to rethink the reviewer’s mission. With the rise of digital media, everyone can be a critic, leading to a democratization of criticism but also raising questions about expertise and authority. Given the weakness of arts education, reviewers have a heightened responsibility to foster a more engaged and informed audience, enhancing public discourse around art and culture.

Contemporary critics must combine multiple roles, acting as evaluator, educator, elucidator and cultural commentator, providing their readers with insights that deepen their appreciation and understanding of a work.

Critics must rise above mere approval or disapproval. Their job is fundamentally about educating the audience, interpreting the work’s deeper meanings and elucidating its cultural and contextual significance. While critique is essential, the primary aim should be to deepen appreciation rather than merely casting judgment. For the true value of reviewers lies not in their critical verdicts, but their ability to educate the audience by explaining context, themes and artistic techniques and revealing the deeper meanings, connections and implications of a work.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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