In an article in the New York Times, critic Dwight Garner says authors have been too defensive about negative reviews, turning on the critics and, as David Eggers once did, pleading for reviewers to be nicer. He said, in a 2000 interview:
“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back, because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”
Garner responds with this:
Eggers is arguing in uplifting tones for mass intellectual suicide. When a work of art makes you feel or think things, he suggests, keep those things to yourself. He is proposing a zombie nation, where wit and disputation go to die.
Critic J. Robert Lennon in Salon points out that most reviewers are writers and vice versa. He says, “We could maybe all comfortably occupy Madison, Wisc. And so a book review is not being read in a vacuum: when you angrily eviscerate somebody’s work, you are shitting where you eat.”
Lennon’s article is called “How to Write a Bad Book Review”, and it’s a great collection of tips on writing a balanced, open-minded and modest review of a book you didn’t like (tips range from “have a little humility” to “don’t be a dick”).
Garner blames Twitter and blogs, in part, for the problem of “relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful.” And he’s got a point. On the other hand, we’re not professionals. We read what we love, and we review for fun. So clearly that’s a different world from the big-publication professional review.
I definitely want professional book critics to write negative reviews, as long as those reviews are thoughtful (and don’t tell me too much). While I don’t assume I’m going to share the reviewer’s opinion, I have to believe they have their job for a reason.
And for bloggers? I think it’s worth talking about when and how we should write negative book reviews. My husband thinks my reviews are too nice, although I say they’re balanced. I always make some negative points and I always say when a book disappointed me. Do I tear it to shreds? No. Do I recognize that other people may really enjoy the book? Yes.
When I’m reviewing for an author who’s contacted me, I’m especially mindful of balancing the good with the bad. Unlike a professional reviewer, I really try to choose books I think I’ll like, even reading a first chapter before I commit. But once I’m in, I try to be fair and constructive.
Still, I know other bloggers have a policy of not posting negative reviews, and I have to say I disagree with that. I choose books based on your recommendations, so I want to hear what you didn’t like just as much as I want to hear what you did like. I can’t be the only person in the world who hated The Passage, right?
“The Case for Positive Book Reviews” in Salon (“no one needs middling reviews of mediocre books”) disagrees with the idea that literary criticism has gotten too nice. Laura Miller says too-nice is just a complaint that arises when people read a positive review of a book and then are disappointed by it. She goes on to suggest that because the modern reader barely knows who most literary authors are, literary critics should go out of their way to point out the positive aspects of literary works (I’m paraphrasing but you should read for yourself). I find that attitude amazingly condescending. So we’re all reading “Fifty Shades of Gray” and we personally need your help to push us towards books that have literary merit? Even worse, Miller also seems to be arguing that only the literary fiction that rises to the very highest level of publicity should be reviewed, whether positively or negatively. Readers don’t want to read about books they might not have heard of. So if it’s not by Jonathan Franzen, we just shouldn’t bother?
I agree that no one should write a mean, spiteful review that trashes the book just for the sake of trashing it. Similarly, authors need to stop criticizing fair but negative reviews of their work. They are lucky enough to be published authors, they can live with the criticism.
Can’t we discuss books like adults?
And I do think that bloggers should gush a little less and critique a little more. After two plus years of writing reviews, I feel like I’m “loving” everything I read just a little too much. It’s hard to come up with original and genuine criticisms of each book I read. I do try, and these articles will have me trying a little bit harder.
What do you think? What makes a good book review? Do you write negative reviews? What makes a good “bad” book review?