The Positive Value of Negative Reviews
January 14, 2015 4:50 AM   Subscribe

I think a lot of fan coteries miss the fact, as they rally round their authors and go after the so-called bullies, that we all exercise critical judgements every day. Something as mundane as 'I prefer apples to oranges' is a critical judgement, but I've never noticed orange-lovers hounding apple-lovers because of it. There is a clear understanding that a preference for one fruit is not a judgement about the people who prefer another kind of fruit. And yet, these days even a slightly less than totally stellar review can have people behaving very oddly, trying to suppress reviews or silence an errant reviewer.
The Nerds of a Feather roundtable discusses negative reviews and the antipathy against them online.
posted by MartinWisse (35 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
As for apples vs. oranges, Sinfest has the definite word.
posted by bouvin at 5:18 AM on January 14, 2015


That wasn't terrible. I'm always a little surprised when that happens.

Did I just review the link to the review site?

Loved it! Hated it! It became a part of me!
posted by clvrmnky at 5:20 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


HYPERBOLE KILLS
posted by LogicalDash at 5:21 AM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


To this day, the most vilified thing I have ever written online is a bad review for a critically acclaimed novel, on Amazon. It has masses of comments, something like a 51/300 "helpfulness" rating, and from reading the discussion that stems from it, you'd think I am the worst person alive. It is also, as far as I can make it, a pretty clear, level-headed statement of the problems of the book (as I saw them). I hope that some people who haven't commented or voted found it helpful, as well.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:27 AM on January 14, 2015


Nobody gets upset about apples vs. oranges because nobody uses their affection for apples as a substitute for having an identity and thus loses track of the distinction between themselves and apples.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:43 AM on January 14, 2015 [24 favorites]


People are invested in all kinds of things - you don't drink tea or coffee - you're a "tea person" or a "coffee person" and go along with the culturally specific weirdness that goes with it (for example in Ireland is stereotypically a working class, on the go, comfort kind of drink, which isn't the case in America).

Somewhere in the world, right now, someone is having a passionate debate about how they're an "apple person", not like those awful orange people.
posted by kersplunk at 5:55 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Worst post ever.
posted by orme at 6:04 AM on January 14, 2015


Worst. Comment. Ever.

(Didn't even get the pop cultural reference right)
posted by MartinWisse at 6:09 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think they're overlooking one important element: on sites like goodreads or amazon, where reviews get aggregated, there's a very low barrier to entry. So, the "reviews" can end up looking like youtube comments, peppered with homophobia and misogyny. When you're faced with comments like that about a book you enjoyed, or a an artist you admire, it's natural to rally around them. Then, once you do, you've sort of invested yourself, and it's not as easy to jump off the train.
posted by tyllwin at 6:23 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Most people don't define their identities around their love of oranges or apples, so the analogy from fandom is like comparing apples to oranges... oh.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:38 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I like bananas.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:53 AM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


feckless fecal fear mongering, you are worse than Hitler.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:56 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


The inverse of this is, try to write a greater than one star review of Windows 8.1 on Amazon. Scroll through and you'll discover that every single one has been voted 'unhelpful' dozens of times. Somebody doesn't like Microsoft!

Online reviews are weird. Your brain always has to do a process of:

1. Does this person's complaint have substance?
2. Is it related to the actual product displayed? (Amazon is littered with one star reviews due to shipping)
3. Does the complaint affect my use case?
4. Is this person a lunatic?

Despite all this I still find the aggregate of user reviews more helpful than "pro" reviews in most cases.
posted by selfnoise at 7:15 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


A review can be a review, something to be read in order to decide whether you should read/buy/consume said product. But a review can also be a criticism, a wider ranging piece talking about why a thing is good/bad and what makes it so. In both cases, negative reviews have a purpose.

Sure, with all that's out there, you can choose to focus just on the positive. THIS is the stuff you should read. And yes, people can turn a negative review into performance art, or make it about them. Or just be awful. But a good negative review is so much more useful in deciding whether I will like a thing than a positive review. Why is this not a thing I want? Well, why is this not a thing you want/liked? Is that something that matters to me? If you didn't like a movie because it was a bombastic action movie and I like bombastic action movies then I can discount your review. But if you didn't like a bombastic action movie because the action scenes were incompetently done and the characterization nonexistent, then that's really good to know.

Negative reviews are even more important in longer criticism. There isn't necessarily a distinction between criticism and review, but let's say there is for sake of argument. Again, the important thing is not saying that something is bad, but why something is bad. What makes it bad? Is a story poorly written? But also, what does poorly written mean? Is a piece of music overproduced? What does overwritten mean? Can you compare the bad thing to a good thing and explain why the bad thing is bad and what makes it bad? By what mechanisms are Scary Movie et al. bad comedies? Well, they are a mix of simple gross-out jokes with references. Like Family Guy, just recognizing what is referenced doesn't make it a joke. Compare it to Airplane, which is riffing off of a specific genre of 70s-era disaster thrillers, especially a specific movie, while also making a lot of goofy jokes.

I actually find good negative criticism/reviews to be more interesting than a good positive criticism/review. That's partly because I'm one of nature's editors, I like breaking things down, I like understanding components, I like figuring out how and why something works. It's a lot easier, and oftentimes more useful to know why something DOESN'T work, and a lot more instructive. Something that is incredibly good, something sublime, is so much a single piece that it almost becomes ineffable. In the course of pulling apart why that thing is good, you can find it hard to explain. Because all the parts contribute to one whole, and trying to tease apart those parts can be a little bit like dissecting a unicorn.
posted by X-Himy at 7:34 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


One could argue that Family Guy is riffing on a specific kind of self-referential pop humour.

(I find my enjoyment of FG seriously problematic; ironic ____ism is still ____ism. And yet I laugh.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:40 AM on January 14, 2015


I don't think the apples and oranges comparison really makes sense. If I liked apples, I would not write a bad review for oranges. I would write a bad review for an apple that I felt failed to live up to its apple-ness. You might argue that I am simply moving the discussion from the type of fruit I prefer to the qualities I prefer in a fruit, and I am, but there is an important difference: By providing criticism of qualities, I hope to influence the cultural discussion of what makes a good apple. And if someone comes along and says that only mealy, bitter apples are good, then I am going to disagree with them, not simply in having a different preference, but about what an apple should be.
posted by Nothing at 7:42 AM on January 14, 2015


And if someone comes along and says that only mealy, bitter apples are good

Yes but that person is wrong and also worse than me.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:45 AM on January 14, 2015


FFFM, one could make that argument about Family Guy. I haven't seen the show in a long time, but I'd say that it's much more the vanguard and propagator of that type of humor than a parody of it. Unless they've become an orobouros, parodying their own selves. Family Guy made some jokes when I watched it (mostly the original run, a bit when it came back), but usually those were just incidental to stuffing in a bunch of semi-obscure pop culture references.
posted by X-Himy at 7:46 AM on January 14, 2015


I dunno, The Simpsons was doing that kind of popcult reference a long time before FG. Seinfeld, too. And only the smallest stretch includes Tarantino movies.

And yeah, FG has disappeared up its own fundament as far as ourobourosing goes. I think that started a couple seasons in, which was worse than the time when
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:54 AM on January 14, 2015


Context is important. If a bunch of people are talking about how much they like something and someone else comes in to say 'This sucks,' it's not just an opinion, it's also making sure to distract everyone from their enjoyment with a turd in the punch bowl.

That's also because it's brief. An 'I didn't like it so much or didn't get it, here's a few reasons why,' an articulated opinion without any particularly extreme ('I thought it was the worst thing in the universe'), incorrect ('I didn't understand why Jaws was about a giant bear; they don't live in the sea'), or disturbing ('I thought there were too many black people') opinions is less likely to cause a proper furore.

Of course, there's still going to be people who can't brook any criticism of something they love, just like there's some people who will always want to go into a place where people are sharing enjoyment and tell them why they're wrong, and possibly bad people as well, to do so. Ideally we could just get them to flame each other some place where none of us have to deal with them.

Me, I only get annoyed when someone writes a negative review of something I like if they are making mistakes about the content which suggest they didn't really pay attention to what they're reviewing, or if they're so consumed by ideology they start bending everything to the thesis that, say, 'Finding Nemo' is a neo-fascist fable about Mussolini and his son.

It's hard for an opinion to be wrong. It's easier for it just to be in the wrong place or the wrong form.
posted by gadge emeritus at 7:54 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


X-Himy: "But a good negative review is so much more useful in deciding whether I will like a thing than a positive review. Why is this not a thing I want? Well, why is this not a thing you want/liked? Is that something that matters to me?"

Well said!

When I stumble across something that I suspect I'll love, and all the reviews of it on amazon are positive, I hesitate to buy it, because that looks like all marketing, no substance. I always click to read at least the most helpful few negative reviews -- and obviously lots of people do that since amazon makes it a specific option! -- so that I can see why people dislike it and, exactly, whether those reasons matter to me or not.

I've been trying to be more diligent about clicking the "helpful/unhelpful" buttons after reviews because I have noticed people are getting more sophisticated about astroturfing amazon and bringing in hordes to drown out reviews they don't like, which has made the review system somewhat less useful in the last couple of years (particularly, for me, in SFF-genre stuff, especially if independently published -- probably because I read a lot further down the list, and am willing to take more chances on unknowns in SFF). Don't drown out the bad reviews, author! I need to read them to know that I can live with your flaws! If there aren't any bad reviews, I frequently assume that all the glowing 4- and 5-star reviews are bought-and-paid-for and the book must not be any good. There are millions of other books on amazon for me to look at, with more honest reviews; I've been burned too many times by fake positive reviews with no negatives mentioned anywhere. I buy something else.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:02 AM on January 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, sometimes the flaws are what makes something interesting. Salt in the cookies.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:05 AM on January 14, 2015


FFFM, salt is a necessary ingredient, not a flaw! That's not even counting a topping of sea salt or kosher salt on a chocolate chip cookie for added awesomeness. But if you make a cookie without salt in the dough, it's going to be awful.

I'd also say that the difference between the pop culture references and riffs in the Simpsons and those in Family Guy is that the former used those things as the basis for a joke, not as the joke itself. I'm not sure what modern day Simpsons is like, but older Simpsons would use something like referencing the fight scene from Raging Bull to add to the scene of Homer getting beaten, not as the only thing.
posted by X-Himy at 8:10 AM on January 14, 2015


X-Himy, I'm a trained chef, the comparison was deliberate--we think of sweet as being only sweet, but the contrast is needed for something to truly blossom.

And yeah, the Simpsons/FG thing you're saying there is exactly what I'm saying: FG at its best is referencing the idea of referencing as a joke, by making it entirely the joke.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:16 AM on January 14, 2015


Context is important. If a bunch of people are talking about how much they like something and someone else comes in to say 'This sucks,' it's not just an opinion, it's also making sure to distract everyone from their enjoyment with a turd in the punch bowl

I guess. But isn't the context here "the world" and/or "the Internet"? I'm not a member of SF fandom, but it seems like insofar as the people quoted in the piece are talking about why negative reviews are valuable --- why this has become a controversial enough opinion that it was even worth convening a round table to discuss it --- is because the "if you can't say anything nice" militants are trying to set new norms about how the objects of their worship should be discussed everywhere, full stop. I don't think any of the folks quoted in their piece were saying they should be allowed to post negative reviews on say, a Tumblr devoted to how awesome X is; they're arguing that they shouldn't face blowback for doing so in say, a general interest magazine or book forum or their own review blog.
posted by Diablevert at 8:46 AM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


they're arguing that they shouldn't face blowback for doing so in say, a general interest magazine or book forum or their own review blog

Yeah, I agree. I mentioned those who won't hear a word of criticism, I was just more referencing places like here or other threaded communities. I agree they shouldn't face blowback for doing a proper review, even if negative. Just that, y'know. Some people complain their review got them bad responses, and then you check out what they said and it's more 'This sucks and you all suck for liking it,' than 'Here's the reasons why I didn't enjoy this.'
posted by gadge emeritus at 9:09 AM on January 14, 2015


> Nobody gets upset about apples vs. oranges because nobody uses their affection for apples as a substitute for having an identity and thus loses track of the distinction between themselves and apples.

If you capitalized a few "A"s in that sentence, it would become false.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:32 AM on January 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Worst. Comment. Ever.

(Didn't even get the pop cultural reference right)
posted by MartinWisse


Quit bullying me!
posted by orme at 10:14 AM on January 14, 2015


The phrase ‘negative’ review implies a system of scoring that doesn’t actually exist. Ditto, for that matter, ‘positive’ reviews. There’s no great literary reddit, where the books with the highest total score make it to the front page of the collective consciousness. If someone says bad stuff about a book, it doesn’t counteract someone else saying something nice about it - they both exist simultaneously. I think this semantic jiggery-pokery reveals the way people think about negative reviews: that they’re contributing to some sort of overarching mean.

I loved this.

I'm also reminded of a review I once read on Amazon of a British book, in which the reviewer complained about the use of British vocabulary making the book seem pretentious. The weird thing is that a bunch of people said they found it helpful...
posted by teponaztli at 10:19 AM on January 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I didn't find the "literary criticism is not an upvote" line terribly persuasive, myself. I agree that thoughtful criticsm isn't necessarily quantifiable, reducible to a metacritic score. But life is short, and there were something on the order of a million books published last year. 90 percent of everything being crap, surely part of the function of criticism is to thresh out the 10 percent? There more people there are out there saying "x sucks" the less likely X is to be read, barring the occasional embrace by lovers of irony and camp. I think that's a good thing, really. Like I said, life is short; why spend it reading bad books? But it strikes me as disingenuous to pretend negative reviews have no influence, no power. If that's so why write them at all? My dislike of a book doesn't prevent you from liking it, true; but if nine out of ten reviwers think it's terrible it's surely less likely to be bought and read.
posted by Diablevert at 11:16 AM on January 14, 2015


It's not just not convincing, it's incorrect. You can, and I think many people do, sort search results by average rating. A negative review does in fact lower the average rating, which causes it to fall farther down the average-rating-sorted list
posted by I-Write-Essays at 1:55 PM on January 14, 2015


Sounds like comparing apples and oranges to me...

By which I mean, people don't get upset at "I prefer apples to oranges", or "I prefer author A to author B" or "I prefer genre A to genre B". Because those are all phrased as preferences. But reviews are phrased as objective statements about the thing being reviewed, not the reviewer's tastes. "Author A is better than author B", "Genre A is better than genre B", "Apples are better than oranges". And when you do that, it is totally implicit that if someone then prefers author B, genre B, or oranges, they are preferring the thing that is objectively worse. They are ignorant, or stupid, or crass, or have bad taste. And people take umbrage at that.

Just go into any MeFi thread about modern art, or pop music, or cilantro, and you'll see this played out over and over again. People who say "I prefer A to B" don't get attacked, and their comments don't start firestorms. People who say "A is better than B" do, and their comments do.
posted by Bugbread at 3:34 PM on January 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


But book reviews aren't a list of books this book is better or worse than. They're "this was good, because" or "this was bad, because". Or sometimes "I liked/didn't like this because". As long as you have the because in there's there's something to argue about. "Well, I liked it, therefore you're a jerk" is not a refutation of "The writing relies on well-worn cliches, such as..."

The fact that people tend to read "I thought the thing was bad" as having an attached, implicit "and therefore I think you're bad for liking the thing" is silly and ought to be combatted, I think.

I dunno, maybe it's impossible, people used to get in fights over opera. I mean, I agree that in debate, being quite careful to frame one's opinions as opinions is crucial to lowering the temperature. But surely it can be taken for granted that a book review is one person's opinion? I mean how thin-skinned and childish has literary culture gotten if "this book is not very good" is perceived as solely an insult? I just feel like, you go to the trouble of publishing something, you're implicitly making the argument that it is worthwhile. Arguments have to be won; someone disagreeing with you is not an insult.
posted by Diablevert at 4:00 PM on January 14, 2015


Diablevert: "They're "this was good, because" or "this was bad, because"."

That's what I'm saying. People don't fight about "I prefers", they fight over "This is bads". I'm not saying that they should fight about it, just that they do.

Diablevert: "But surely it can be taken for granted that a book review is one person's opinion?"

It should definitely be taken for granted. If I, personally, didn't take it for granted, I would assume that 99% of humanity were idiots who, based on what they said, actually believed that there was an objective difference in quality between country and hip-hop. But if we're talking about how we would fix things in an ideal (reviewing) world, I would start by getting people to stop phrasing their opinions in terms of qualities of the source material. If you don't like a book because you think the characters were thin, say, "I didn't enjoy the book because the characters were thin," don't say, "One of the book's weaknesses is the thinness of the characters". If you don't like a book because you don't like the writing style, say, "I didn't enjoy the writing style because of X, Y, and Z", don't say, "The writing was poor because of X, Y, and Z".

Right now, it's like "My name is spelled E-R-I-C but it's pronounced 'John'". 90% of reviews are written using objective statements ("X is weak because...", "Y is bad because...", "Z is terrible because...") and the reader of the review is supposed to mentally rephrase these all as subjective statements ("He meant 'X didn't work for me'", "She meant 'I didn't like Y'", "He meant 'I hated Z'"). So many arguments would disappear or become far less heated if, instead, the reviewer just phrased their opinions in the form of opinions from the very start, instead of couching them in the language of objective statements. I know this language change will never happen, which is why it's my pie-in-the-sky dream, but a boy can dream.
posted by Bugbread at 4:26 PM on January 14, 2015


on sites like goodreads or amazon, where reviews get aggregated, there's a very low barrier to entry. So, the "reviews" can end up looking like youtube comments

On the other hand, some of them are very helpful indeed and should serve as inspiration and model for online reviews everywhere.
posted by flabdablet at 12:06 AM on January 15, 2015


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