Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thoughts on Negative Reviews

I love being a book reviewer. Not only do I get free books out of it, but I also get to read them and then tell people what I thought. And really, reading and having opinions are two of the things I do best (not necessarily in that order).
Being a book reviewer is, well, it's like someone gives you a piece of cake, asks you to eat the cake, then asks you what your opinion about the cake is, and then applauds you for giving your opinion on the cake (if you do it well enough and fairly often).
Of course, it's not all cake. Sometimes you are given brussel sprouts and lima beans, and you have to review those too. There are books that it's good for us to read, even if they're not completely enjoyable.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we're given cardboard. It's not good for you, but you can eat it and it won't kill you.
But every once in a while, someone hands you a plate with a giant, steaming pile of horse droppings on it. Which often raises a difficult problem for a reviewer? What do we do when that happens? Do we try to find the positive, no matter how obscure ("It looks like it was a good year for alfalfa and oats!" "My, the color scheme certainly matches the smell in just the right way!")? Or do we unleash our inner honesty and give a negative review?

Micah Mattix over at The American Conservative gives five reasons why negative reviews are good things:
(I'll summarize here, but the whole article is worth your time)

  1. "First, it’s called criticism for a reason because you’re, like, supposed to think and, like, evaluate the quality of something?... If a book is ugly, a critic needs to explain clearly why and support his or her judgment with proof, not hide behind veiled criticisms.
  2. Second, and related to the above, writing or publishing only positive reviews is impractical and encourages an unhelpful kind prejudice (pre-judging) because it would seem to require either the suppression of negative reviews or a misguided attempt to determine whether a book is good or bad before reading it.
  3. Third, bad books are harmful. There seems to be the attitude amongst the only-positive-review crowd that bad books are really not that harmful to culture, and that, therefore, they should simply be ignored.
  4. Fourth, only publishing good reviews is harmful to the critic and to criticism. The value of criticism is in large part related to trust. If readers don’t trust a critic to provide them with honest and reliable criticism, why would they read his or her reviews? And if a critic or a book section never publishes a negative review, how can readers determine if either the critic or the book section is honest and reliable?
  5. Last, negative reviews are fun to read. "

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