"The truth is that I intend never to write a negative book review again"
September 26, 2013 12:29 PM   Subscribe

The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim.
Lee Siegel buries the hatchet-job.
posted by RogerB (50 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Some things deserve a good hatchet job. Sometimes, not only does the emperor have no clothes, but his fangs are dripping with blood as well.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:03 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, but what does sprezzatura think of it?
posted by MartinWisse at 1:06 PM on September 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

Interesting essay. Two things that caught my eye:

"In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim."

This seems accurate, but part of high-visibility criticism is also exerting some kind of check on collective, uninformed opinion.

"You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living."

That's true, I think, and it must be considered in one's criticism. But ultimately this person may fail by meaningful standards in the expression of their art, and this is a good thing for the critic to point out, as he or she ideally has some insight or perspective others lack and for which they are valued.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:08 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great article! (Am I doing it right?)
posted by No Robots at 1:17 PM on September 26, 2013

An artist's craft is not honed through praise.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:18 PM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

This seems really right-headed to me (however drenched in Siegel's usual turgid prose). The internet has no shortage of pile-ons. No one needs to read another "Ten one-liners about how much this book sucks!" But people do need help finding the good stuff, or understanding what's good about challenging books, and that's where a critic can really contribute.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:18 PM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

An artist's craft is not honed through praise.

A critic serves the reader, not the artist.
posted by UncleBoomee at 1:28 PM on September 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

My friend once criticized me because my Goodreads page was filled with nothing but 4- and 5-star ratings and good reviews. "It makes you look like you just like everything," she said. My argument was why would I bother adding books I considered 1 or 2 stars, or wasting my time with a review of something I hated? I still stand by that, but then I am some bum with a Goodreads profile, and not, as grumpybear69 and BlackLeotardFront point out, a high-profile industry professional whose job it is to help authors hone their craft through constructive criticism or help inform the public.

But then, I guess honing authors' craft is actually what editors are for. I dunno. I just like it when people are nice.
posted by branduno at 1:29 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Weird. Negativity seems alive and well in every other aspect of human existence.
posted by mattbucher at 1:31 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem with "generous" reviews is that it turns the book pages into a collection of press releases. Sometimes "negativity", for example, listing the most James Franco-ish lines in a "novel" by James Franco, can create interest where there was none before.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:32 PM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have believed and practiced this for years as a critic of rock music, where similarly nobody really gives a crap so ignore what you don't like and it will disappear sooner rather than later.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:34 PM on September 26, 2013

Also, where has Lee been? The New Sincerity and the Believer magazine culture that it spawned are more than 10 years old. Get on board homey! It's the Love Train!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:37 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

We learn at the end that because he is now an author himself he would like to stop this negative review nonsense.

I appreciate his characterization of the Brits to savage reputation as blood sport.
posted by stbalbach at 1:40 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

A critic serves the reader, not the artist.

They also set the cultural tone of their environment. A wholesale rejection of negative opinions is an implicit endorsement of mediocrity. Artists in such an scenario will respond accordingly.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:45 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

An artist's craft is not honed through praise.

We shall never lack criticism. From everywhere.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

MetaFilter: disgusting and sometimes tiresome, often in the same places.
posted by The Bellman at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

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."
posted by jscalzi at 1:56 PM on September 26, 2013 [13 favorites]

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.

Sorry if I'm threadsitting, but this is one of the things I was hoping to discuss about Siegel's piece: the tension between on one hand how much he invites, almost demands, a defense of negativity (not in the sense of just being not-nice, you know, but the old Hegelian/Marxist sense where it's a defining element of any critique to measure what's been achieved against an ideal of what could have been) and on the other hand the sense that I, too, have a lot of the time as a reviewer, that "review what you like" is a really useful principle to keep in mind.

Or least it seems to work, pragmatically, as a guiding heuristic if not an ironclad no-exceptions policy, just the way that the New Sincerity folks meant it to; praise seems to lead to better and more interesting conversations, more of the time, than blame. And that's the other interesting part of Siegel's piece: that he sees this principle as a response to the weird fragmentariness and diversity of the cultural moment — that he seems to agree that the newness of sincerity, even if it's no longer quite as new as he thinks on certain corners of the cultural Interwebs, is an important thing about the present.

And his name-checks of N+1 and the New Inquiry seemed important in this vein to me too, as part of a certain fading of cultural authority from The New Yorker into a set of blogs at NewYorker.com. Almost like Siegel has in some way realized you can't unilaterally set the terms of an online cultural conversation the way he fantasizes, retrospectively (e.g. in his nostalgic opener), that The New Yorker and the NYRB once did.
posted by RogerB at 2:25 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I feel like negative reviews are fine, but they should be disappointed. Hatchet jobs are fun but ultimately corrosive, unless there's something seriously offensively wrong with what you're reviewing.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:41 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Back-in-the-day I did music reviews for a local mag. Granted I had complete choice on what I reviewed, but I never reviewed anything I didn't like. I figured there is enough crap, and enough stuff that I just don't care about that telling people why something is crap or why i don't care about it would be a never ending endeavor, it's better to advocate for something you like/love then degenerate something you dislike.

Now... if you are assigned things that you HAVE to review, then yeah you can't avoid the negativity.
posted by edgeways at 2:51 PM on September 26, 2013

An artist's craft is not honed through praise.

An artist should never listen to a random or paid or anonymous critic. Such criticism kills much more creativity than praise.
posted by edgeways at 2:55 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm definitely a big proponent of negative reviews, but in recent years I've become very frustrated with reviewers (mostly bloggers, just because the mainstream press wouldn't tolerate it) who mostly just say, "Twilight? It's pretty terrible! This random example of Extruded Paranormal Fantasy Product? It's pretty terrible! This random self-published book? It's pretty terrible!"

Yeah, I'm sure they're terrible, but how much of your reading and reviewing time and energy are being spent on books that you know are awful by the time you read the first five pages, and how much are being spent finding something obscure and terrific to tell people about? And which one will actually make the world a better place (at least for people who are looking hard for great books)?

It's fun to trash awful books, but there's a point where it's more about your ego than being a source of useful information.
posted by Jeanne at 3:01 PM on September 26, 2013

I remember John Barbour, the 'Film Critic' on L.A.'s channel 4 a million years ago whose 2-minute segments were pretty much all dismissive negative reviews, but with so many funny lines (not all 'gotchas', some just silly puns on names in the film) that you usually heard people in the studio breaking up. It was Pure Theater on its own but may have been a significant point in developing the "if you don't have anything nice to say, let's hear it!" school of criticizing EVERYTHING. I certainly see it as the origin of the Internet Troll whose personal justification for existence is punching upward, downward and just anywayward... The "Love Train" movement Potomac Avenue mentioned (rather dismissively) has such a long way to go, but that was why whenever I started a blog on a specific subject it was to celebrate the good ... and why my blog intended as a counterpoint to The Comics Curmudgeon was an unmitigated failure. I gave up the TV writing I got PAID for because I had run out of things to write positively about (at least that my markets would want written about).
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:13 PM on September 26, 2013

An artist should never listen to a random or paid or anonymous critic. Such criticism kills much more creativity than praise.

I agree that it is harmful to rest your sense of self-worth on the opinions of others - especially critics - and even worse to use reviews as a template for how to approach your next work. That doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned from what they're saying, especially in aggregate. We all have blind spots that could use some pointing out.

As for criticism killing creativity, if someone's will to create is squashed by a bad review then they don't have the constitution for professional artistry. The only review I've gotten that actually made me mad was one whose basic message was "eh, whatever."
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:18 PM on September 26, 2013

I have learned things from negative reviews I've received. I've learned things from negative reviews I've written.

Hugbox culture is not what literature needs.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:32 PM on September 26, 2013

My friend once criticized me because my Goodreads page was filled with nothing but 4- and 5-star ratings and good reviews.

I actually thought this through when I was deciding to port star ratings to my review blog from Goodreads. My conclusion was "I don’t give out star ratings here, and here’s why: after a few years and a couple hundred books on Goodreads, I discovered I mostly give out 4 stars, meaning I liked the book rather well. This isn’t evidence of “inflation” or what have you – it’s just that I read for pleasure, and I am tolerably good at picking out books I am going to like. If I were reading books according to some other editorial choice, maybe they’d mean something, but under the circumstances, they serve no real purpose."

That said, I do occasionally post negative reviews. The whole point of the exercise is for me to think through why something works or doesn't work for me, and there's no point if I don't actually do it. But I have also very recently started just fucking putting down books that don't work at all for me - I just read the first complete-Robert Jordan-ripoff chapter of an epic fantasy book, rolled my eyes, and put it on the stack to go back to the library. Life's too short. If I were getting paid to review stuff, or was under contract to review what I'd been given, then I'd write negative reviews.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:34 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

To me, negative reviews are worthwhile when they start from a point of recognizing and valuing the underlying project of the work being critiqued. But, perhaps due to what Siegel refers to as our living in a "critical" age, a lot of what goes on in negative reviews seems to be about shoring up the reviewer's own authority or reinforcing a boundary of cultural legitimacy against competing conceptions of merit, rather than judging how well fellow members of an intellectual community have attained a shared artistic ideal.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't have cultural critique, but don't dress it up as a book review if you have contempt not just for the individual book but also for all of its ilk and the readers who enjoy such things.
posted by unsub at 3:47 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think stuff should exist outside of criticism but that it should be sought out if desired rather then just being presented fait accompli. Too much criticism is "this is what I think and you should think it too". I mean for cripes sake, it's art, there is nothing more subjective then that. There is an audience for just about anything. It may be a small audience, but it's there. How much classic art nowadays that are considered masterpieces that bombed in it's day? All of van Gogh right? Moby Dick was a failure, as I'm sure was a lot of other stuff.
If you listen to the aggregate it seems like everything devolves to what the aggregate wants, which is sameness. To me, art shouldn't be about what other people want, or what other people feel is good or not, that seems more like assembly than art. Finnigans Wake and On The Road certainly would suffer from a present day aggregate criticism.

To be sure, one must be critical and use a critical eye when evaluating stuff you consume, but it doesn't make you right and the artist wrong, it just defines what isright for you.
posted by edgeways at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Web comments, Yelp reviews, etc. make you realize that being negative is easy. It's the easiest thing to write. Granted, you can say "this sucks" with more or less artistry, but it's harder to articulate why you should like something (intelligently, more than "awesome").
posted by bad grammar at 4:17 PM on September 26, 2013

I give books bad ratings on Goodreads fairly regularly, for many reasons. I can then remember that an author who has a new book that looks interesting is an author that I disliked once, or perhaps disliked more than once. I have friends to whom I recommend books, and instead of keeping in mind every single person to whom I suggest books, I know that most of them follow me on Goodreads or fb or twitter, so they can see my recommendation and use it to make their own decisions about it. And also because sometimes it's just fun to write a bad review. I give good ratings too, and good reviews, but I don't think it's weird to have 1 and 2 starred books around.
posted by jeather at 4:27 PM on September 26, 2013

I like this hits on a fundamental tenet of criticism - at least one I tried to hold by when I was being paid for my reviews (a corrosive and surefire to kill your love whatever it is you're reviewing for sure. Most movies are terrible).

That is: You have to crtique an piece of work on its own terms. Someone alludes to it above when they point out that ripping a new arsehole in a self-published slashfic novel that's free is a bit of a waste, but I think the application is much broader. You can't, fairly, assess a book/movie/whatever on what you want it to be, or what it could be, only on what it is (and in my opinion, what it's sold as because there's no betrayal so sharp as the book that lies about its genre, or the old synopsis-masquerading-as-blurb-so-reading-the-back-is-actually-reading-the-whole-book).

By this standard, there are far fewer texts that are resounding failures (and I've written about this before, but it really is depressing to review book after book that's just average and would appeal to someone who loved the genre [its intended audience] but really no one else. I mean what can you say about a book like that?), mostly texts are what they say they are. And in that setting, exceptional texts - that actually deliver more than they promise, or at least a very high quality version of what they promise - deserve to be called out.

Of course, there are still failures, texts that fail on their own terms, and I don't think criticism - or even denigration - is unwarranted in those cases.
posted by smoke at 4:30 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a reviewer, negative reviews are MUCH more fun to write.

As an artist, in my experience you learn almost nothing from positive reviews except how to repeat a circus trick. They are flattering but I'm always saying "yes, yes, but what DIDN'T you like?". A good excoriating review of your own work is a massively helpful thing. They may not be right about everything they hate but they surely will be right about some things, and often very important things.

(consequently I'm all for them)
posted by sweet mister at 4:50 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Right after reading that piece, I opened the New York Times and found this review, which to me borders on being a hatchet job.

I appreciated the historical context provided by Siegel. As a classics student, I became very sick of the tradition on horribly negative reviews within academia. I read that someone (may have been A.E. Housman) was discovered to have a whole stash of negative remarks that could be made about books he might potentially be called on to review. A lot of traditional hatchet jobs have a very canned quality.
posted by BibiRose at 5:09 PM on September 26, 2013

That is: You have to crtique an piece of work on its own terms.

This is exactly my giant pet peeve about a lot of negative reviews and criticism. It is completely, entirely useless to read a review that is not critiquing a work on its own terms. A review of a romance novel that excoriates romance is a review that offers nothing helpful or insightful for the reader or author. A review of a superhero movie that goes on about how illogical superheroes are is totally unhelpful, and completely besides the point. A review of a rap album by someone who hates rap and spends the whole review dissing the genre has no utility to either the rap fan or the casual listener who presumably is already aware of the album's genre. Such negative reviews that fail to engage a work on its own terms are basically just exercises in self-indulgence for the reviewer and like-minded readers.

There is still a place for critiquing a genre in a negative review of a work in that genre, but I think it's disingenuous to do so in the shallow way that exemplifies your average hatchet job or for the lolz negative review.
posted by yasaman at 5:36 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mr. Siegel presumably has the advantage of me professionally in being able to pick and choose his assignments. Most reviewers who are working for pay don't, and the editor who assigns you East Lynne doesn't want a review of Huckleberry Finn instead.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:44 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ha, I took this pledge personally a few years ago after writing a scathing review and regretting it. I advise my students the same way, never review a book unless you can at least pretend to like it.
posted by spitbull at 5:54 PM on September 26, 2013

I used to write reviews for an indie music site. I reviewed a mix of stuff I wanted to review, plus stuff that was sent in unsolicited. My policy was if I didn't like the album I just threw it away and went on with life. I didn't post negative reviews, but I did post some that reduced down to "meh."

I can't make music, and I never felt right about pissing on somebody else's effort, even if they did send us the CD and ask our opinion. I would write a negative review of something I purchased, but in 2013 how often does one buy an album without a damn good idea of what they are getting?
posted by COD at 7:35 PM on September 26, 2013

I gave up on reviewing things because my reviews always seem to end up with about 30% "helpful" votes, or less. I put thought into them, and express myself honestly, but I think I'm too negative for fanboys and too positive for haters.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:32 PM on September 26, 2013

You can't, fairly, assess a book/movie/whatever on what you want it to be, or what it could be, only on what it is.

Naah. That's just making excuses for shitty books.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:36 PM on September 26, 2013

To write a positive review the critic doesn't have to read the whole book. No one will attack a positive review. To write a negative review, or an honest review, the critic will have to be able to defend their views from a bunch of people, including the author & publicity people. That means a more careful reading, and probably a more useful review.
posted by chavenet at 1:32 AM on September 27, 2013

The Internet has a limitless supply of energetic, enthusiastic hatred. Believe it or not, before the Internet, you weren't constantly exposed to vitriolic hatred of particular media items, so it was kind of fun to pick up a book review and see such a thing.

Now though, energetic media hatred is everywhere. You don't want to shell out money or effort for an upmarket newspaper or magazine and get the same thing. What's rare is thoughtful, reasoned critique by somebody with deep knowledge of the field.

There are still negative reviews that stick out though. I liked Andrew Rawnsley's review of Damian McBride's autobiography recently, but it's interesting because it adds extra information and context, not because it just levels insults.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:27 AM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

To write a negative review, or an honest review, the critic will have to be able to defend their views from a bunch of people, including the author & publicity people. That means a more careful reading, and probably a more useful review.

I have almost literally never found this to be the case after more than two decades of being a professional critic.

I also don't typically bother with negative criticism anymore, although, as HL Menken once said, every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats. And it is useful to do so once in a while, just to show that you're capable of it and are not simply glad handing everything that came your way.

But there is such a large amount of culture being produced, and so much of it is so good, and there are so many amateur critics out there who see their primary role as rating things, or condemning things, that there isn't much need for the professional critic to do so. I feel like our time is better served asking trickier questions than "is it good or not," which is a question that is so often rooted in idiosyncratic tastes and too often hampered by an aesthetic conservatism that many of us don't know we have until confronted by art that challenges it.

I try to describe things very clearly and very plainly, so that people can make up their own minds about whether it is something they would like or not, and then I write about whatever I personally consider to be the most interesting thing about the piece of art. And that's idiosyncratic as well, but I think a worthwhile idiosyncrasy to indulge, because that's the sort of writing that is going to offer readers a particular and useful perspective on a thing. It may be an anecdote from the creation of the art, or the artists' life, or how audiences responded to the art, or even how critics responded to it. It may be an attempt to find some contexts for the art. It may be a look at the process by which the art was created. There are a million ways to write about art that don't involve simply declaring it worthwhile or not worthwhile. In fact, that's an approach that never made sense to me, as even terrible art is sometimes tremendously enjoyable and worth engaging.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:47 AM on September 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's sort of like the evolution of sports writing--it used to be all OUR TEAM IS GREAT or This Boxer is Virtuous, but now great sports writers take every series or season as an opportunity to figure something out about the game.

posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:19 AM on September 27, 2013

The most important thing in criticism, assuming the work is being viewed on its own terms, is to bring insight into the discussion. I learned in film history class years ago that a decent review has to engage with broader ideas in the world. Nothing wrong with just having an opinion, but it's not as interesting or satisfying.
posted by ovvl at 6:07 AM on September 27, 2013

"If you 're going to comment on a Lee Siegel piece, first you have to prove you're not Lee Siegel." -- sprezzatura
posted by homerica at 6:47 AM on September 27, 2013

I thought we had an unspoken understanding about not posting Lee Siegel pieces on The Blue.
posted by C.A.S. at 7:06 AM on September 27, 2013

The big, unspoken issue is that any review of anything is a vote for it in the public consciousness. Dan Brown rides the negative review limosine to his mansion bank every hour, on the hour.

Number of reviews is, for many kinds of books and novels, more important than the content of the reviews. People want to be able to comment on the things that matter, and if you're reviewing something, you're implying that somehow it matters.

I would love a world where terrible shit was simply ignored.

Hatchet jobs also tend to strike me as reading a vegan review of a steak house. It tells me a lot about the reviewer and their biases, and little of worth about the reviewed.
posted by jsturgill at 9:35 AM on September 27, 2013

A good, vicious hatchet job can make for an excellent read though. Check out "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" by Mark Twain, Grade-A stuff there.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:42 AM on September 27, 2013

I thought we had an unspoken understanding about not posting Lee Siegel pieces on The Blue.

Truth is I completely forgot about the sprezzatura thing. Sorry! If this discussion strikes you as inappropriately forgiving, do feel free to compose a hatchet job about Siegel's participation in online debate.
posted by RogerB at 10:17 AM on September 27, 2013

And I mean that call for a Siegel hatchet job sincerely, by the way — because a cry for sincerity coming from a man with such a long record of insincerity is an interesting phenomenon, one that seems worth a bit of analysis. Is this essay a sign of reform, or is it another disingenuous attempt to set the terms of the conversation around his own work? It's actually a more interesting essay (to me at least) against the backdrop of its author's own repeated failures to live up to its precepts.
posted by RogerB at 12:49 PM on September 27, 2013

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