In praise of negative reviews

Here’s a recent post by Rafia Zakaria: In praise of negative reviews

The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.

I don’t follow any newspaper-based professional critics, so I don’t know whether this is true. Every book a gem, every review an advertisement, really?

Does it matter, when participants in Goodreads and readers at Amazon leave plenty of negative reviews? Maybe it does. A thoughtful, critical review — I’m thinking here of the job Mari Ness does when reviewing Disney movies at, as for example here — is quite a lot more interesting and perhaps far more worthwhile than any one-sentence comment at Goodreads. But do that many people play that much attention to professional critics these days? Maybe libraries and so on when considering what to purchase, but ordinary people?

Not that I don’t prefer glowing reviews from the critics when I happen to get ’em.

Anyway, Zakaria’s post is possibly a tiny bit turgid…

Reviewers are neither arbiters of taste nor are they ushers doing the job of wheedling readers to get under a particular set of covers. Consideration of a book is an engagement with its context, and even more crucially an enunciation of the alchemy between its content and the inevitably subjective experience of reading it. In this sense, the unique subjectivity of every reader will inevitably interact differently with a book; this prismatic aspect of what individual readers “get” from literature is part of the intimacy of reading, its inherently individual aspect.

… I’m having trouble getting through that unique subjectivity sentence, for example. Still, the point Zakaria is making is perhaps correct, depending on whether you consider professional critics very important or not.

In this context, I had to laugh when I read Emily St. John Mandel’s post on negative reviews:

Publishers Weekly doesn’t like my work very much. Before you roll your eyes and/or get all excited at the prospect of a classic “I can’t believe I got a bad review!” hypersensitive-author meltdown, let me hasten to add that I have absolutely no interest in refuting anything they’ve ever written about my books. I mean, I believe in my work, and “reads like a barely-dressed-up B movie screenplay” does strike me as being a bit on the harsh side, but I’m hardly an objective party here. (Also, I kind of like B-movie screenplays.) There’s no such thing as a book that every reader will like.

Oh, yes, Publisher’s Weekly! There’s a professional critic’s venue that is not always on my personal top-ten list. It depends. Obviously I was pretty happy with their review of Winter, rather less so with their review of Mountain. I said something snarky to a writer-friend about that latter review, and she pointed me to a Pub Weekly review of one of hers that made the Mountain review look like a paean of praise.

St. John Mandel — if you are trying to remember, she is the one who wrote Station Eleven. I loved that one and in fact Pub Weekly also rather approved of it, so her post about negative reviews was written before that and she may feel differently now. Anyway, she goes on:

The repeated experience of being swiped at by PW’s nameless ghosts has made me think, though, about the phenomenon of lousy reviews in general: the perils of responding to them, and the pressures they impose on our work, and how difficult they are to ignore, and whether or not they actually matter.

And then a long meditation on that theme, well worth reading.

I spotted both posts about negative reviews via The Passive Voice blog.

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5 thoughts on “In praise of negative reviews”

  1. The only book reviews I read on a regular basis are Forever Young Adult (YA book reviews for grown up readers), but they’re not afraid to say what they didn’t like about a book. Granted, their review format and style is intentionally silly, but I never think they’re trying to advertise books.

  2. Whoops. Guess I better put the real link in …

    Okay, I do take issue with this one comment in your linked article: “Authors frequently bite back.” Obviously this doesn’t happen all that frequently, because wow do we all hear about it when an author makes an idiot of herself by losing it over a negative review.

    Well, or maybe we only hear about it when the author is particularly crazy.

    The article certainly provides a fine example of the losing-it-author. This is my favorite line in the article: She says: “Look AL, I’m not in the mood for playing snake with you, what I read above [Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance] has no flaws. My writing is fine.” Uh huh. The reviewer in this case is certainly right about this author’s dire need for editing.

  3. Asking out of curiosity – I’m not a writer – how do you go about getting feedback on how a story was written? Most reviews are very high level “loved it / didn’t love it.” But when I’m reading I frequently say to myself “I wish the pacing here was faster / slower”, “this character is too cardboardy”, ” why was Checkov’s gun there if it never got used” and that’s for books I love. The ones I don’t love don’t get finished.

  4. How do you go about getting feedback on how a story was written? Most reviews are very high level “loved it / didn’t love it.” But when I’m reading I frequently say to myself “I wish the pacing here was faster / slower”, “this character is too cardboardy”

    Well, it kind of depends. If something is aimed at traditional publication, my agent does all that part. She is an editorial type of agent and definitely looks for all that kind of thing. Then after some editor has acquired the book, the editor does that kind of critique again. This is where the greater part of revision comes from.

    If something is not aimed at traditional publishing, then I have certain people I ask for beta reads. They are the ones who read closely and critique. Other writers can be the best for beta reads because they know just what to look for — eg, pacing and cardboardy characters and so on. I take the opinions of beta readers very seriously.

    After the book is actually out, I don’t pay much attention to reviews that criticize pacing or characters or whatever unless the reviewer is someone who’s taste aligns closely with mine. Even then I don’t necessarily pay that much attention, other than to be happy when someone puts their finger on some aspect of my book that I worked hard on or thought worked especially well. There are two main reasons that I don’t take reader opinions all that seriously:

    a) It’s remarkable what a difference of opinion there will be about any book. Some readers criticize the slow pace of the beginning but say that the pace really picked up toward the end; others declare that the same book got off to such a great start but slowed down to a snail’s pace at the end. Same with any other aspect of the book. I am not exaggerating one bit. Diametrically opposed opinions are the rule, not the exception. I’ve seen this from acquiring editors who (sadly) reject one of my books: It’s too slow, too fast, too YA, too adult, too literary, too commercial, you name it.

    b) No book of mine has worked for every single reader whose blog I follow. Everybody dislikes at least one, even if they have loved other books of mine. I don’t expect universal acclaim (though it would be nice), so I just hope the next one will work better for them.

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