Savage reviews

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people who are attracted to the mystery of the Voynich manuscript are enthusiastic amateurs – which is not to say that they are not also intelligent and skilled ones.

Over the past few years I have seen a number receive fairly severe treatment, chiefly in the second [now-defucnt] Voynich mailing list, where the format means that it isn’t a case of receiving one person’s negative view, but being confronted with what must feel like a hostile crowd.

The effect is compounded if criticisms are less directed against the proposed solution or translation, as they should have been, but aimed at the person.

Being impressed by this recent article by Allan Massie on the subject of savage literary reviews –  I thought I’d reprise the points he makes, but as they apply to Voynich studies and more generally, as  Massie puts it  “the whole question of savage reviewing, the ethics and propriety”.

It’s very easy to make fun of bad translations or theories; very easy and, one must confess, enjoyable. This is a somewhat shameful admission, but any reviewer who is honest with himself knows it is true. So are there any rules or guidelines?

Well, the first is the old rule given to children: you shouldn’t hit someone smaller than yourself. This means, for instance, that you shouldn’t tear the work of newbies to pieces.

Their first – and even second – theories and suggested solutions should be treated indulgently. ..

A savage review should have as its object something produced by a praised and established fellow-worker in this field, not a tender hopeful: an opponent, you might say, who should be at least your own size and quite possibly bigger.

The object of criticism must remain the theory, method, book or argument, and that should be always perfectly clear to everyone: to the reviewer, the author of the work, and anyone who might read or hear the criticisms.

To earn a savage review, the  method, historical scenario, proposed decipherment or translation should be bad in a distinctive way, not merely incompetent and slipshod, but pretentious or dishonest.

Pretentious, dishonest, badly written; any of these may make a legitimate target*.

Writing only savage reviews would be dishonest, since only a few books deserve such treatment. So it would be bad for your own character – but  it would be equally dishonest to pretend that one writes such reviews in sorrow rather than anger, or that one doesn’t get satisfaction and pleasure from letting fly, inserting the dagger, wielding the axe, or flooring your victim.

But that is a weakness in the reviewer, rather than in their argument against the theory or proposal that they attack.

As an afterthought: silence and indifference can be as powerful as discouragement for newbies as active criticism. I do not think that is the intention in most cases ~ rather than a majority already have their preferred ‘story’ for the Voynich manuscript, and to that extent have ceased to investigate its questions. It follows that really new ideas, or proposed translations, meet so little reaction that the person can take it quite as badly as if it were a verbalised attack.

Not everyone feels that way; for some the research is the aim and end of their interest so that group acceptance is very nearly an incidental issue. But not for newbies who may be ‘new’ but whose brains are not less keen for that.

And if you are the object of immoderate indifference or savage criticism, yourself, do as Massie tries to and

… remember Kingsley Amis’ advice that a bad review may spoil your breakfast but you shouldn’t let it spoil your lunch. ..


*  If pretentious and badly written justifies a savage review, I suppose I can expect one some time soon.  😀

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