On Writing Negative Book Reviews

ThumbsDownI posted a negative review of The Friday Night Knitting Club on Tuesday. It was a Bad Book. It was a waste of time to read. The characters were trite and the plot was cheap and cliché. The review got me thinking about an article I read recently in The New York Times in BookEnds: “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?” In the article, two writers provide commentary on the value of a negative review.

It’s not news that the publishing industry is suffering. Less people are reading novels than ever before. (Remember how the Pew Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of American adults didn’t read a single book last year? Tear.) People, especially young folks, increasingly prefer to get their entertainment in quick, frequent doses – tweets, 3-minute YouTube videos, Reddit threads, Upworthy commentary, etc. The novel requires a significant time commitment, which contradicts our fast-pace lifestyle. It’s a quiet, slow, and humble art form, but is deeply rewarding for exactly those reasons. In light of these issues, why would someone write a bad book review? Is that just putting the nail in the coffin of a dying art?

The first writer, Francine Prose, confesses that she wrote negative book reviews when she was young:

I admit that it provided a wicked sort of fun, especially when I was writing for an editor-friend who delighted in sending me books that weren’t exactly “serious” but got under my skin. Sadly, it’s easier to be witty when one is being unkind.

Why does bashing things, in particular creative work, provide us with such guilty pleasure? And why do bad writing, poor plot, and weak characters get under our skin? First, we love controversy and things that get us talking. Second, in a vain and dark way, I think people secretly enjoy seeing others fail, particularly in creative endeavors that take so much effort and are so exposing. Prose mentioned that her negative reviews got the most attention:

Friends would say, “Oh, I just adored your hilarious essay on that celebrity’s memoir about her fabulous million-dollar face-lift.” And what would they say when I praised a book? Nothing.

The second author in the commentary, Zoë Heller, makes two notable mentions: Lee Siegel’s lengthy blog post in The New Yorker about how he will no longer write negative book reviews, and Isaac Fitzgerald, the new Buzzfeed books editor, who is instituting a positive-only book review policy. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”

I understand the hesitation in critiquing this waning art form. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would hurt the literary/publishing environment even more. But at the end of the day, the novel is exactly that: an art form. And we, as a society, have critiqued art since, well, art was first made.

Just because some people view the novel as a dying art does not mean that we should disregard the work, or sugarcoat it, or stroke the egos of questionably famous or mediocre authors. Heller notes that writers write for others – they know that they are presenting their work to an audience and that they will receive feedback, criticism, and praise:

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.

My love affair with novels started when I was very young. There are many fantastic books that I’ve read and have yet to read. There are great classic novels and there is groundbreaking, tremendous work on the shelves now. I also know that there will be strong literary work in the future. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the fact that there are so many good books and that I’ll never get to them all. So why should we waste our time reading garbage? For every literary gem, there are dozens of forgettable, trite, bad books. Shouldn’t someone warn us against them?

I believe in the power of the novel and in the power of the reader to enjoy a book with depth, intelligence, and soul. I think it is unfair, and further, insulting to readers to give a false review of a bad book, or to merely keep silent when a bad book hits the shelves.

That being said, I think the saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” applies to books. Some people love Nicholas Sparks and want to spend all their time reading books like A Walk to Remember or Message in a Bottle. Who am I to judge those people? But I can judge the work itself, objectively. I think it’s vitally important to the craft, and to the reading community, to do so.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *