After posting last Friday’s negative review of House of Leaves, I almost took it down immediately. As a struggling blogger (and as someone whose name is linked to said blog), is it really a good idea to bash a novel that thousands of people love? Or for that matter, who am I to criticize? Shouldn’t I just post reviews of books I love?
In short, no. I am a literary critic by trade and a book lover by heart. My job is to critique books-and I should note that critique is not the same thing as criticize. And because it is my job to critique books, I always find something that doesn’t quite work, even in books that I love.
I think there is a productive way to write negative reviews. I’m still learning how to create that delicate balance.
As far as negative reviews go, there are a few ways to go about it. On the one hand, I am reminded of Francis Jeffrey’s infamous review of Wordsworth’s long poem The Excursion (1814). Jeffrey began his review by stating “This will never do.” If ever there was a poetry slap-down bitch fight, this was it. Now, Romantic poets are notoriously known for their fragile egos (Keats, anyone?). So perhaps it is not surprising that Jeffrey has become equivocal with the evil reviewer.
I would argue that Jeffrey wrote the review, not to hurt Wordsworth’s feelings (though there might have been some personal animosity), but because he loved poetry. He loved poetry so much that he got super pissed off when he read “bad” poetry. After reading some non-canonical Romantic poetry, I think Jeffrey could have picked his fight with someone else. Nonetheless, I think you get where I’m going.
On the other hand, a colleague who writes food reviews on the side said that her newspaper’s policy is to reward bad service/bad food/bad restaurants with silence. That is to say, they only publish positive reviews of restaurants that deserve it. I can see how that might be a useful practice for the food industry (for bad reviews, go to Yelp). But I don’t see how it easily translates to books.
Books are complex. There are several reasons why they could “fail”: plot, characters, writing style, etc. I’m not suggesting that a restaurant experience is any less complex, but to me, if you have a bad experience, you can always complain to the manager. To whom do you complain if a book sucks? The writer? The editor? The publisher?
Book reviews describe the complexity of the experience for the reader so that the reader can decide for himself if he will like the book. A reviewer may not like the character development, but his description may convince a reader that it is in fact his cup of tea. Likewise, a reviewer may love the literary literariness of a text, but a reader who only wants something light may hate it.
Reviews may describe a book and pronounce judgment, but they’re actually quite flexible. And that’s why I decided to leave my review as it stands. You may love the things I hate, and vice versa. And if you don’t agree with my review, leave a comment. I’m always interested to read other people’s opinions.