of bad book reviewers and writerly cults

A book can go wrong in a nearly infinite number of ways, but a book review has a narrower range of ways to fail. In what follows I’ll be writing about book reviews that are published in professional venues, not what people write on their blogs and on social media. (Those reviews tend to be more honest.)

The chief modes of book-review failure are as follows:

Reviewer A didn’t read the book at all. This happens more often than most people think, especially now that information about a book can be searched for online. I’d say maybe 10% of book reviews are written by people who haven’t read the book they’re reviewing.

Reviewer B read the book only in part or cursorily, and is aware of his or her limited knowledge and consequently is careful and measured in criticism. This kind of reviewer thinks you may have failed to mention something X, but realizes that you may well have done so, somewhere in your too-long-to-read book, and so says something like “More attention to X would have been welcome.”

Reviewer C read the book only in part or cursorily but is unaware of or indifferent to his or her carelessness. This is the kind of reviewer who asserts with breezy confidence that the author failed to acknowledge X, when in fact the author at five different points in the book – all of which are findable in the index – acknowledged X. This is the kind of reviewer who gathers some vague sense that the author probably believes Z and then flatly asserts that the author said Z. (And if the author replies “I never said Z!” this kind of reviewer says “Well, you implied it.”)

Reviewer D has an axe to grind and either isn’t sufficiently self-aware to know it or deliberately obscures it – and the “or” there indicates that I’m putting into this one category attitudes and approaches that perhaps could be separated into different categories. Axe-grinding could be seen as a single flaw, but there are many and various axes. Maybe the reviewer has a personal hostility to the author that has nothing to do with the book, but the book provides a convenient outlet for that hostility. Maybe the reviewer thinks that he should have been asked to write the book, or is angry that his own book on a similar subject didn’t get widely reviewed. Maybe the reviewer has turf to protect.

Reviewer E just wants to show off. Auden: “Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.” And if you want to show off, then you will contrive to say a book is bad even when it’s not. 

I have these thoughts in mind because I just read my old friend Charles Marsh’s brief book Resisting the Bonhoeffer Brand, in which he responds to some critics of his powerful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory. Now, this immediately raises the question: Should a writer respond to negative reviews at all? Many writers say no, but opinions vary. My own feeling is that when the reviewer says something that is just factually wrong, and can be shown to be factually wrong, then it’s fine for the writer to say so – in some cases it’s necessary to say so. But you can’t effectively contest someone’s judgments about your work.

The matter gets complicated, though, when a critic combines factual errors with implausible judgments. That’s the case with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, who seems recently to have made a career of criticizing Marsh’s biography, largely on the Bulverist logic that since Americans can’t really understand Bonhoeffer and Charles Marsh is an American, Marsh’s biography must be wrong – it remains only to discover how it is wrong. Schlingensiepen takes his task seriously enough that when he discovers that Marsh has misnamed a Berlin department store, he cries that such an error is “grotesque.” Can you really answer someone who thinks that way? I doubt it.

But Marsh’s attempt to do so leads into some really interesting reflections on – here’s where the book’s title comes in – how a certain kind of author can become the object of a branding exercise, in a way that blurs the boundaries between a brand and a cult.

I’ve written before about the pleasure of working with Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, who has consistently aided and abetted Auden scholars, extending the same courtesy to those whose views of Auden he strongly disagrees with as to those whose views resemble his own. That is to say, Mendelson has refused to be the custodian of a cult. This attitude is rarer than it should be. For instance, it’s clear that there is a strong network of Bonhoeffer scholars, centered in Germany but not confined there, for whom Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge is the one authoritative Keeper of the Bonhoeffer Flame, whose judgments must be acknowledged correct and thus made the grounding of all future scholarship on Bonhoeffer. Marsh knew and greatly admires Bethge but does not take quite that view. (How American of him!) And even mild dissent from the Authorized View – Strange Glory is certainly no “revisionist” biography of Bonhoeffer, though it has many new insights – must be policed by (see Reviewer D above) the protectors of turf. Thus: turf protection as brand management; and book reviews as an instrument of brand management.

ALl this interests me because precisely the same kind of behavior can be seen in the world of C.S. Lewis scholarship. Here Walter Hooper plays the role that Bethge plays for Bonhoeffer: the officially designated custodian of the Cult. The majority of Lewis scholars, I think, see themselves as continuing and extending the work of Hooper, and are typically not happy with work that dissents from Hooper’s understanding of Lewis. (Everyone who reads deeply in Lewis is indebted to Hooper for his energetic editorial labors, but his interpretations of Lewis are another matter.) Thus A. N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis – which is to some degree a revisionist one – was generally excoriated by the Lewisites, though it is in fact a mixed bag, deeply insightful in some ways and grossly mistaken in others. My own biography of Lewis has been largely ignored by the disciples of Hooper, I think because I am neither fish nor fowl: by no means a revisionist or skeptic, but also not following in Hooper’s interpretative footsteps. I am outside the Cult, but the way in which I am outside the Cult is not legible to them.

The interesting question for me is this: Is there a specific kind of thinker who generates a cult, a cult that then creates and manages a brand? There are certainly thinkers who intend to build a cult around themselves – Ayn Rand comes first to mind – but that’s not something that Bonhoeffer or Lewis would ever have done. Yet readers’ devotion to them is so intense that cults happen, as it were. By contrast, though Auden is just as celebrated as Bonhoeffer and Lewis, it is impossible to imagine a cult growing up around him. Perhaps this is because he saw one starting to grow when he was a young writers and took measures to prevent it from happening.

In any event, Marsh’s little book is a really interesting one – and I haven’t even mentioned the thing that mosts interests me, which is its meditations on the relationship between theology and biography. I’ll come to that another day, another way.