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From the concluding chapter to C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words (2d ed, Cambridge University Press, 1990):

Adverse criticism, far from being the easiest, is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. . . .

Reviews filled with venom have often been condemned socially for their bad manners, or ethically for their spite. I am not prepared to defend them from either charge; but I prefer to stress their inutility. . . . Automatically, without thinking about it one’s mind discounts everything [the venomous critic] says, as it does when we are listening to a drunk or delirious man. The critic rivets our attention on himself. When we get to the end we find that the critic has told us everything about himself and nothing about the book. Thus in criticism, as in vocabulary, hatred over-reaches itself. Willingness to wound, too intense and naked, becomes impotent to do the desired mischief.

Of course, if we are to be critics, we must condemn as well as praise; we must sometimes condemn totally and severely. But we must obviously be very careful. . . . I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues. The very desire is a danger signal. . . . The strength of our dislike is itself a probable symptom that all is not well within; that some raw place in our psychology has been touched, or else that some personal or partisan motive is secretly at work. . . . If we do speak, we shall almost certainly make fools of ourselves. Continence in this matter is no doubt painful. But, after all, you can always write your slashing review now and drop it into the wastepaper basket a day or so later. A few re-readings in cold blood will often make this quite easy.

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5 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on the Psychology of a Scathing Book Review”

  1. Clarification Dave says:

    Would this apply to Rob Bell book reviews? And would Lewis ask that the book be read first?

    By the way, I’ve never read Bell and thus won’t review any of his books until I do so.

    1. David says:

      May God bless you with all wisdom and discernment. He is the mighty, living God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. May His everlasting love encourage and build you up as you seek to faithfully serve Him and minister to His people and the lost, that all your words be for building up and bearing with the weak. May His greatness be made known because of your evidence of good fruit for feeding the nations around you. I pray this prayer for you encouraged you today!


    2. Justin Taylor says:

      Dave: Yes to both. (I know your questions were rhetorical. For the record, I didn’t write a book review of Bell and I simply raised questions about what he might right, acknowledging that we’d have to wait till his book appeared to see. My main critique was of the video. By the time I posted Kevin DeYoung’s review I had already read the book. Hope that helps.)

  2. Thank you for posting this. I was not familiar with the work or the quoted extract. These are wise words that hit home, and embrace several important Biblical principles. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but if others were hit by this post as I was, we are squirming together! Guilty as charged! Sad, but true. Wastebaskets are for our “wood, hay and stubble”. So are the “delete” keys on our keyboards, and the “Recycle Bins” on our hard drives.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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