“Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the 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.” — W. H. Auden


  1. Depends on how influential the book is. It may be useful if you think you can counter said influence meaningfully for a given audience. Otherwise, fully agree. Life is short.

  2. This is true of a bad movie, if by "bad" we mean an artistic failure. As someone who used to be a professional film critic, there was no review more fun to write than a pan of a terrible film (I think Ebert said that the worse the film, the easier a review is to write; I know I certainly found it far more difficult to explain what it was about a great film that made it great). I think it's necessary to criticize a "bad" film if by "bad" we mean a film that is likely to be taken seriously as a guide to art and moral behavior. But most bad films — like most bad books — come and go without making a mark, and should probably be left alone. But it sure was fun to show off trashing a crap movie entertainingly.

  3. I confess that I greatly enjoy reading the witty trashing of a bad book or movie, while strongly suspecting that this is a sinful pleasure, one that tempts me to become a less humble and less compassionate person.

    So go ahead, put that millstone around your neck and write that snarky review.

  4. This reminds me of an essay that Auden co-wrote with Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun about Finnegan's Wake — the essence of it that it was much, much better to write about a book that was a work of genius to which you were nevertheless opposed. The three critics all thought Finnegan's Wake was a dazzling achievement — yet to Auden and co., it was also a profound mistake, the wrong direction for literature, etc.

  5. Auden has a soft spot for the Wake because his name is in it (page 279). Also, in one of the two great concluding speeches in The Age of Anxiety there's a wonderful echo-in-verse of a passage from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section, which indicates that he read at least some of it.

    Learn more in my forthcoming critical edition of The Age of Anxiety.

    (Sorry, I had to do that.)

  6. I posted this very quote above my desk for two years, as I was writing up part of my PhD. I was working with some material that fits Auden's description, and I was not always sure it was right to address it at all. But some really bad books are really widely read. In my case it had to be done.

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