Bad reviews and book police : REBUTTAL

Criticism need not be the same as censorship, says Natasha Walter
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The Independent Online
A new wave of demonic politically correct women are abroad, it seems. Rachel Cusk and myself dare accuse John Updike of misogyny. Maire Ni Bhrolchain dares remove some pictures at Southampton University. The whole edifice of Anglo-American culture is under attack, according to correspondents and journalists in this paper and others.

It is easy for those who are worried about the state of established culture to demonise all its critics and opponents in the same way. But the words "politically correct", "censorship", "book police" are often used sloppily. We have to remember the difference between a bad review and censorship; robust criticism and a culture of exclusion. I have been accused of censorship once before, when I was on The Late Show with DM Thomas, criticising his book Pictures at an Exhibition, which I found anti-Semitic as well as badly written. I was winded. It seemed to me that far from censoring, I was (unfortunately) adding oxygen and exposure to his book by discussing it seriously on television.

And this is the real distinction between critics: not what they like or dislike, but whether they feel censorship is ever the answer. In this way, myself and Maire Ni Bhrolchain are poles apart. From the viewpoint of those offended, there may be superficially attractive arguments for removing art. But they should not sway us: if the art doesn't suit us, we should say why, and try to add, next to it, art that does. If the book doesn't please us, we should loudly speak our reasons for disliking it, but never remove it from the shelves.

As far as I'm concerned, my review of Updike's latest book of short stories, which earned me the epithet of "book police" from Mark Lawson in this paper and from Harvey Porlock in the Sunday Times, was old-fashioned criticism, not new-fangled policing. At all times in the review I relied on close reading of Updike's stories to point up what I saw as various artistic failings: tinny poetic metaphors, a sloppy philosophical overlay and overuse of unexpected adverbs, as well as misogyny, which I qualified as being "a narrow artistic vision that empties and objectifies half his characters."

But yes, the charge of misogyny always has an ethical dimension, too. I feel strongly that ethics has a place in literary criticism, so long as it does not drown out aesthetic responses. One can disagree with either an aesthetic or a moral judgement, but both should be seen as legitimate approaches. If the critical establishment anathematises those who consider ethical ideas in their criticism, it will only create a shallower, less engaged kind of debate.

And - although I am reluctant to say it - we should be quietly aware of where the cultural power is still banked up. Mark Lawson claims that my review had a chilling effect on him when he went back to his own fiction. Please, Mr Lawson: my review was 1,000 words in a newspaper still dominated by male reviewers, journalists and editors. Updike has written millions of words which have been widely published, read, reviewed, and almost universally admired. The culture of complaint is a sad, embittered one; surely a privileged white male critic and broadcaster does not seriously want to start it up on his own behalf.

What we should aim for instead, especially in Britain, where arguments over race and gender have a freer and less monolithic quality than in the States, is always to aim to be more honest, robust, critical, and more inclusive. None of these need rule out the others, and this freedom is what will ensure that our artistic culture remains an alive and relevant part of our everyday culture.

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