‘Bile Flows More Easily Than The Milk Of Kindness’

Molly Flatt writes about books but her questions apply to reviewers of all stripes.

…why is it so difficult to “praise interestingly”? Despite our native savagery, surely there is nothing quite so pleasing as a balanced, sensitive and generous review that manages to capture the spirit of a beloved book? Maybe the problem is that the texts that really touch us engage our emotions and our passions, so that in describing them we must also reveal something of ourselves, whereas a clever slating distances us through self-consciously crafted irony and wit.

And the language of praise is more difficult to wield; bile flows more easily than the milk of kindness. Admiring adjectives often seem too gushing, too pretentious or too fey; difficult to deploy without sounding like an Amazon spammer or a school book report. The vocabulary of cruelty is, on the other hand, deliciously diverse.

Very often when I hear a fantastic concert, I find myself without the words with which to describe it. This is problematic when you’re under contract to come up with 600 in very short order. All the adjectives, metaphors and analogies that come to mind don’t even begin to capture the feeling and are systematically rejected on the grounds that they are reductive, lazy tropes full of the clichés and PR-speak that make my skin crawl. Eventually some words are set to paper but the results are often not wholly satisfactory.

Resorting to snark when a more considered response is appropriate is infinitely more lazy but also more fun. On occasion, the allure of the witty one-liner or the clever zing! is too much to resist. Basking in my own cleverness is a factor, but mostly these little nuggets really do capture my thoughts on the matter at hand.

There is never an excuse for cruelty and genuine mean-spiritedness does no one any favours. That being said, the goalposts in this game change with every match, as does the line between a good bit of fun and meanness. The closer you cut, the bigger the payoff, but also the bigger the fallout if you misjudge. At the moment, it seems that all I can hope for is that getting it wrong happens less often than getting it right.


  1. Miss Mussel

    You’re right, my experience is the only truth I can relate. The tricky bit comes when deciding exactly how to relate that experience. In a community the size of mine, there is much more at stake than just my personal reputation when discussing the arts in public. If it was only about me, I wouldn’t be bothered so much, but it’s not and that’s what makes it a challenge.

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