by Benjamin Anastas
Once a year at my grammar school in Cambridge, MA they used to herd us into the gym, classroom by classroom, for an activity called “The 12-Minute Run.” When I use the word “gym,” I don’t mean one of the temples of fitness that we’re used to now, with ceilings so high you have to squint to see the pigeons roosting in the rafters, gleaming basketball courts and retractable stands for home games, the bright, buzzing lighting of a Mid-Atlantic Bingo Hall. Our gym at the Agassiz School was an all-purpose auditorium; there was a stage at one end where visitors would give speeches at assembly, a piano in one corner that we used for music class, a pair of Lilliputian basketball hoops that were wheeled out for games. Despite the wall of windows that faced out on the schoolyard, tall and mullioned, I remember the gym as being cramped and dark—the Agassiz School had been built in 1916, and it was scaled to the expectations of another time. The gym was a place for casting a paper ballot for Woodrow Wilson, or for holding a meeting of the Women’s Temperance Society—not for playing volleyball (which we did in gym class) or for setting 20 third-graders loose, in street clothes, to run laps until they were panting and ragged.
That was the goal of the 12-minute run: to run without stopping. For 12 minutes. Our gym teacher, as I recall, paced the center of the gym with a stopwatch, yelling out encouragement, especially to the out-of-shape kids who had to ease up a little and walk. The minutes trampled by. We ran our little circles in the auditorium. And when we were finished and had caught our breath, we all got an orange ribbon: I FINISHED THE 12-MINUTE RUN, it read in gold. I brought mine home every year with a childhood precursor to contempt. What did my ribbon mean if every single kid in my class got one too? If we all finished the run with the exact same time: 12 minutes? They decided baseball games based on runs scored, not the number of innings played; sprinters at the Olympics won medals for being faster than their competition instead of running aimless laps until the time was up. I treated that ribbon for finishing the 12-minute run like the puffery it was, and this was long before childhood in America had become an endless trophy-giving ceremony.
I always think of the 12-minute run when the debate about negative book reviewing spouts up again with the regularity of Old Faithful. This September, the New York Times Book Review devoted the first session of its new “Bookends” column to the question of “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?” (The answer was a high-minded “yes.” Sort of.) Later that same month the critic Lee Siegel declared the end of his days of hatchet work on The New Yorker magazine’s Page-Turner blog, lamenting his former allegiance to “the dark art of the takedown” and confessing that, now that he has seasoned a little and written books of his own, “mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity.” Authority is in flux, thanks to the internet; the audience for criticism has expanded exponentially; standards of judgment that once seemed fixed for eternity are now irrelevant. “[W]riting an inferior book,” Siegel claimed, “might well be a superior way of living.”
In others words: It doesn’t matter how fast or how far, only that you’re running.
I have to admit that I’ve never had any patience for most arguments against the negative book review. Maybe it’s the power of that meaningless ribbon back in Cambridge; maybe it’s my experience as a reviewer myself, and the gnawing feeling leftover from the ones that I just mailed in, or the books I resorted to professional gymnastics to praise because it was easier that way; maybe it’s my own revolt against mortality, the discovery that anything done halfway or with an absence of spine is a waste of spirit, a squandering of time. Yes, negative reviewing can be corrosive, and it’s not valuable for its own sake—quite the opposite. That’s literary trolling, fancy snark. Yes, it can make life complicated (I once arrived at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire to find that not one but two writers I’d reviewed negatively would be walking the same paths in wintertime; I’m still surprised they didn’t jump me and leave me to die in the woods), but the task is more important than our temporary comfort.
For anyone thinking about reviewing, whether it’s for a print publication or a books blog, I’d encourage you to read Rebecca West’s essay, from 1914, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism.” It is bracing stuff. Europe had just gone to war. New soldiers were drilling on the green, preparing for the trenches. The “undrained marshes of human thought” had “emitted some … monstrous beast” over the landscape, and surrender was not an option. Least of all the surrender of the mind.
“Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practice and rejoice in art. For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”
Or, you can satisfy yourself with bestowing ribbons for every book that comes your way. CONGRATULATIONS! they’ll read in gold. YOU WROTE SOMETHING.