On Negative Reviews, revisited

Back in the day I wrote a post about the usefulness of negative reviews.  Yesterday I was chastised by S. T. Coleridge, who in his Biographia Literaria had this to say:

“He who tells me that there are defects in a new work, tells me nothing which I should not have taken for granted without his information.  But he, who points out and elucidates the beauties of an original work, does indeed give me interesting information, such as experience would not have authorised me in anticipating.”
(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, The Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 62).

It seems I stand corrected.  According to Coleridge, readers are more likely to learn something useful about the book from a positive review rather than a negative.

I should add that many volumes have been written about the Romantics and their Reviewers and that Coleridge’s position is neither unique nor surprising in the canon of Romantic self-reflection.  But this is the first instance I’ve read of a poet talking specifically about the merits of reviews and what constitutes a good review.

What’s your stance on the positive/negative review debate?

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3 thoughts on “On Negative Reviews, revisited

  1. Amateur Reader says:

    I don't want to argue with Coleridge – he'll argue my ear off.So I'll grant that he's right about specific books. But he's wrong about books in general. Negative reviews can give me new ideas about what to look for in books, about how to read.Too bad if your book is the one picked as the instructive example!Another way to look at the Coleridge quote is that he is assuming that 99.99(99 etc.)% of books are garbage, so the only surprise comes when a reviewer can point to one of the extraordinarily rare good books, a book with at least one beauty.Your Novemeber post is fundamentally right, I think – reviews, + or -, can have many different useful functions.

  2. Anna says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, AR. I hadn't thought about interpreting Coleridge's quote in that way (that most books are terrible anyway, so negative reviews aren't very useful insofar that they tell us nothing new) but in the context of the Biographia it makes perfect sense. It always astonishes me how sensitive the Romantics could be when it came to reviews (e.g., when Shelley blames the reviewers for Keats's death in "Adonais") until I realize that modern writers are an equally sensitive bunch.

  3. Girl Friday says:

    I like honest, well-balanced, spoiler-free reviews, whether they're positive or negative. If I'm thinking about buying a book I'll often read the 3 star reviews on Amazon, as they tend to have both good and bad things to say and are more useful.

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