Hatred has its uses

May 20, 2010

Dr Johnson once declared that he loved a good hater, but in "Drawing the venom from the poison pen of rancorous reviews" (13 May), Herminio Martins writes of the need for a code of practice in book reviewing. However, this overlooks the intimate historical relationship between critical reviewing and the traditions of English satire. Where some bad books are concerned, rancour, ridicule and venomous disdain are the only true and useful responses - the only appropriate service the reviewer can render the reader. And if a review is ignorant or petty-minded, then we credit the reader with the wit to notice.

Because the context is itself critical, there is no need for codes of consumer protection in this sphere. Readers make up their own minds about good and bad reviews. Hostile reviews promoting misunderstanding will be spotted by an academic public worth its salt. Cultural wars are precisely distinct from real wars because no blood is shed, but all reviewers risk feeling the heat in their turn. "Symmetry", if it is required, is achieved within a field of combat more extensive than the civil and legal relations between author and reviewer.

A constraint needs to be placed on the greedy advances of libel law into areas where it has no business. Martins' programme would anaesthetise cultural exchange and extinguish the vital necessity of good hating.

Philip Smallwood, School of English, Birmingham City University.

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