The Value of Negative Reviews
Over at Metafilter they’re talking about this New Yorker article, in which book critic Lee Siegel explains why he doesn’t want to write negative book reviews anymore (here’s the MF thread). I posted my thoughts on the matter there, but it’s worth posting them here too. Here’s what I said.
I was a professional critic of film and music for a number of years and I didn’t shy away from giving negative reviews when I felt negative about the work. But it’s worth noting that when I was doing that work, I wasn’t given the option of what work to review; particularly with film, my job was to review every film that came into town. With music, what I reviewed was mostly assigned, not chosen.
These days people are interested in knowing my reviews of books (particularly in science fiction and fantasy). By and large with books I publicly offer only positive reviews. Reasons for that: One, I am on my own remit in what I choose to read and am under no obligation to make reviews, so I’m allowed to review only what I want, when I want; two, at this particular moment in time, if I were to be offering negative reviews of SF/F I would be mostly be punching downward. To the extent I want to trade in my notability in the field, I would prefer to use it to build up, not tear down. And again, that’s my choice to make.
With that said, I don’t think it’s beneficial to have all published criticism be positive. I think criticism should (generally) be honest and explanatory — if the critic finds something to be bad (or poorly made) then an examination of that is useful, even if it initially hurts the author’s feelings. One of my favorite reviews I’ve gotten as an author was from Russell Letson in Locus, when in the reviewing of Old Man’s War he noted that he kept throwing the book against the wall in irritation… and then picking it back up again right after to keep on reading. The review was not positive, but it was honest and it was fair, in the sense that Letson explained why he felt what he did. It was good criticism, if not positive criticism.
As an author I generally prefer to get positive reviews (welcome to the human ego), but I’m not lying when I say I would rather get a thoughtful negative review than a thoughtless positive one. It’s easy to say “oh, I liked that.” It’s harder to say, “I did not like it, and here are all the reasons why.” Whether I agree with the reasoning (or whether my feelings are hurt, or even whether the review might damage my commercial prospects) is immaterial — the criticism isn’t for me specifically. It’s for readers (in the case of reviews, which ask the commercial question of whether the work is worth the money) or for observers of the field ( in the case of literary criticism, which asks whether the work has existential value).
So while I understand Lee Siegel’s reasoning for not offering negative reviews, and indeed follow it for myself in the field in which I work, I hope not everyone agrees with him. There is value in negative reviews. Sometimes critics need to plant their flag and say “this is simply bad. And here’s why.”