I've been following with interest a debate among writers and critics about the responsibility of book reviewers to be kind. The argument started years ago, when literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, in an interview with the Harvard Advocate, urged students to re-think the impulse to reject a book (or essay, or story) too easily: “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.” Other writers took up the cause, and soon the "anti-snark" movement was born ("snark" meaning, more or less, the cynical habit of sarcasm and easy insults, which the novelist Heidi Julavits called a "reflexive disorder"). Then, of course, an "anti-anti-snark" chorus began shouting back, arguing for the right, and the responsibility, to tell the truth, regardless of whether the truth is flattering or cruel.
The debate flared up again recently when Buzz Feed's new book editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, announced his intention in an interview to post only positive reviews of new books. In response, screens across America lit up with outrage and ridicule, culminating in "On Smarm" a powerful and widely read essay by Tom Scocca of Gawker. Malcolm Gladwell riposted with "Being Nice Isn't Really So Awful," and yesterday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd - she of the sharp tongue and the scathing put-down - weighed in with "Bigger than Bambi."
Dowd, of course, is disgusted by "nice," especially as she appears to understand it: mounds of sugary syrup, false flattery, avoidance of difficult truths, all-out wimpiness. If that's what nice is, I feel the same way. Who wants to be doused in syrup? Who wants to be lied to? (Well, I might, when I ask if you like my new haircut. But how about I spare you that question?) I also agree that it's ridiculous to ban opinions unless they are informed by identical experience. I haven't written a history of the Crusades, but I can say what I think about someone who has. But here's the thing: Eggers didn't suggest having no opinion. He didn't say we should abolish thinking clearly or speaking truthfully. He used the word "dismiss," and that, it seems, is the distinction Dowd misses. To flat-out dismiss something, no matter how wittily you do so, is the opposite of giving it thoughtful critical consideration; it's just easy meanness. And to nonsensically flatter is the opposite of kindness; it's cowardice.
I argue for a "niceness" (don't hate me, Maureen!) based on honest engagement, on keeping the best interest of both the writer and her potential readers in mind. I think we should give every new work we're asked to read serious and deep consideration. Respect the author's efforts. Try to see what her intentions were, not what you think she should have done. Don't put her down if the work isn't up to your standards. Make every effort to understand what informed her choices. And when you tell your truth, remember that it is just that, yours, not a universal truth. By all means, tell difficult truths, especially if that is your job and people depend on you to do so. If something is sloppy, say so. If it's nonsense, call it out. But do it with regard for the humanity of the writer. Do it with your heart as well as your critical mind. That's not pouring syrup, it's practicing intelligent compassion. And there's nothing smarmy about that.