Criticism's vocabulary of cruelty

Mary McCarthy "I can do 'funny negative' rather well", the biographer and reviewer Jeremy Treglown mused at Pencilfest earlier this month, "but it's much more difficult to praise interestingly". Part of a genial and perceptive discussion about "writers and responsibilities" with the novelist and TLS arts editor Will Eaves, Treglown's observation will resonate with anyone who has found themselves laying into a novel they actually quite enjoyed with the toxic wit of a self-styled Oscar Wilde.

Literary criticism is famously red in tooth and claw. Terry EagletonMary McCarthy and Dale Peck are just a few reviewers who have made their names with funny and often frankly showy cruelty. With the book market more crowded than ever before, a bracing and briny critique can be just the thing to cut through the prettily packaged chaff. As Eaves pointed out, critics are brokers, advising readers where to invest their time and money with a duty to the often less-than-lenient truth - an image that is especially appealing to bloggers, avowedly fearless mouthpieces for the common man. Moreover, in his article this week on the notoriously prickly VS Naipaul's new work of criticism, A Writer's People, Radhakrishan Nayar reminds us that a clever tongue-lash can be a defining symptom of uncompromising and idiosyncratic literary brilliance. "Great writers can be impatient, quirky, rudely iconoclastic literary critics," he says. "It is almost a professional deformity. They achieve greatness through a stern commitment to sharply individual visions of the world."