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“A louse upon the locks of literature”

Winnie-the-Pooh: so whimsical it made Dorothy Parker “fwow up”

There are few things more satisfying than a “very good, very bad review”, says The Economist. They used to be common: in the Victorian era, the review pages were considered a form of “cultural hygiene”, and critics saw it as their “duty” to protect readers from bad texts. Alfred Tennyson called one book “a louse upon the locks of literature”. George Eliot, reviewing Jane Eyre, said she wished the characters “would talk a little less like the heroes and heroines of police reports”. Naturally, the targets of these hatchet jobs didn’t always respond well. After Dorothy Parker wrote that a Winnie-the-Pooh book was so full of whimsy that she had “fwowed up”, AA Milne never wrote another Pooh story.

“Literary life rarely offers such splendid spectacles today.” Rather than sticking the knife in, critics use a well-established lexicon of euphemisms: “detailed” (ie “boring”); “exhaustive” (“really boring”); “magisterial” (“boring but by a professor, and I did not finish it so cannot criticise it”). Buzzfeed has even announced that its books section will no longer do negative reviews at all. This “softening” is partly down to the internet: smaller newspapers mean fewer pages, so editors prioritise better titles, and reviewers are more cautious now that they can be found online and abused by an author’s die-hard fans. Either way, it’s a shame. Everyone in the industry knows that “most books are very bad indeed”. The least critics could do is tell us which ones are actually worth buying.