What’s the Point of a Review?

I’ve been writing reviews since the days way before blogs, when we had to chisel words by hand on individual monitor screens. That means I occasionally write about reviews, as in this piece from early last year. Even as a published author, I still see a need for bad reviews!

My Friday Reviews are the descendant of one of the features of my original, hand crank operated, web page I had while I was in college and law school.  There I’d do reviews of just about every album I got, as part of a regular process of listening and figuring out what I thought about it.  I stopped doing those, largely because my reviews were winding up in one of two formats – gushing praise or harsh scorn.  If I didn’t really “feel” one of those, I didn’t even write up.  I’d like to think I do better now, but it’s helpful to be able to pick and choose.

I bring all this up because of an interesting two-person article in the upcoming issue of the New York Time Sunday Book Review which asks the question, “do we really need negative book reviews?”

Now, as a struggling writer, I kind of like the idea of doing away with negative reviews. Who wants to see their work torn to shreds, after all?  But I’m not certain that would really be the best thing.

Francine Prose makes the case for not writing negative reviews.  It’s pretty simple:

Even so, I stopped [writing negative reviews]. I began returning books I didn’t like to editors. I thought, Life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn’t seem like a crime deserving the sort of punitive public humiliation (witch-dunking, pillorying) that our Puritan forefathers so spiritedly administered.

From my reading of professional critics, that seems to be the best part of the job – when they find something in need of a champion, a book or film that won’t reach a wider audience without some cheerleading.  It must be more rewarding that writing what shit the latest Transformers movie is or whatever.  So I see the point.

On the other hand, however, that seems a bit too touchy-feely, doesn’t it?  To be fair, Prose (good name for a writer!) doesn’t argue for lying about the quality of books, just not writing reviews of bad things at all.  Which, come to think about it, might be even worse – being ripped apart is one thing, being ignored quite another.

Zoe Heller makes the case for negative reviews and it is, as well, pretty simple:

most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published. Being sentient creatures, they are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. I know of no self-respecting authors who would ask to be given points for ‘effort’ or for the fact that they are going to die one day.

Part of being an artist, at least one who shares his work with other people, is the need to deal with criticism.  My father is a first rate grammar-Nazi.  I have him read my fiction, even though it’s not the kind of thing he normally reads, because he will be precise and vicious with a red pen.  When my mother asked if I really wanted him to do that, I said, “because editors and agents will be kind and not point out those things?”  Being criticized is part and parcel of being a creative person.

Further, as Heller points out, reviews come with bylines and, hopefully, supporting argument as to whether a book is good or bad.  Real criticism goes miles beyond “it sucks” or even “it’s great!”  Critics who are savage just for the fun of it won’t garner a lot of respect or readers.

After all, as Prose admits, trying not to write a negative review is like trying not to eat too much at Thanksgiving.  You’re bound to find something that rubs you the wrong way, doesn’ work, and compels you to write about it.  Even if, as she also points out, in the end, nobody will really pay attention to what you have to say.

These days, when I write a review, I try to have something interesting to say about whatever the subject is. That’s why there isn’t a review posted every Friday.  Something’s got to strike my fancy somehow, either by being brilliant or flawed, but I won’t think twice about saying I think something sucks.  I just hope I have good enough reasons to make somebody else think, “yeah, all right.”  Agreement, of course, is not required.

So I think the answer is yes, we do need negative book reviews.  Whether we need “bad” reviews is, of course, a completely different question.

NOTE: This post was originally published on February 13, 2014.

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