Dispatches | June 18, 2014

The_New_York_Times_building

By Bradley Babendir

I’m talking to you and your fancy building.

In the late parts of last year and the early parts of this one, there were a handful of articles and remarks from the most elite of literary publications–The New Yorker, The New York Times, and of course, Buzzfeed, among others–regarding the subject of the negativity in literary criticism, and the book review in particular. This came with a lot of finger-pointing, mocking, and general disagreement, as all conversations among adults eventually do.

When Isaac Fitzgerald, BuzzFeed’s Books editor, told Poynter that he did not plan on running negative reviews he was met with an almost nauseatingly smug piece from Gawker’s Tom Socca. Lee Siegel of The New Yorker wrote about why he, personally, was vowing to cease writing negative reviews. Finally, in February, The New York Times used its Bookends column to allow Zoe Heller (for) and Francine Prose (against) to discuss the condescending question “Do We Really Need Negative Reviews?”

Sometime after that, the conversation died down. This topic is one that I feel almost inexplicably strongly about, but I let it go because it seemed to lose its relevance once people with more clout than me deemed it so. However, in the last week, two pieces have been published that nursed my gentle outrage back to health. First, another piece in the Bookends section asking “What’s the Best Bad Book You’ve Ever Read?” and an incendiary, ludicrous piece on Slate, telling adults that they can do whatever they want, but they should be really embarrassed if they’re reading young adult fiction.

In November, Fitzgerald said he thought the critical tone of this era was a positive one. Unfortunately, that is clearly not the case. But it should be.

Still, I have to concede that it’s not a very good reason to not write negative reviews. People were not inherently wrong for disagreeing with that premise. What they were wrong for was criticizing the conclusion.

Those who defend the negative tone tend to stand on an array of soapboxes in order to do so. These tend to range from reasonable—it is not the job of the critic to protect the writer—to pedantic—why are we called critics if we cannot criticize? The most obvious and also the most legitimate idea from the negative crowd is that if a book is bad, they should say so. They argue that praising a book that should be lamented is counterproductive. This is also true, and it’s still not a good reason to write a negative review.

Why?

Because in 2012, according to Bowker data, there were a little over 690,000 books published in the United States. For the few that might argue that 690,000 books isn’t that many, here’s a reference point: IMDB has 309,179 feature films in its database dating back to 1880. In other words, in one year alone, more than twice as many books were published than feature films released in the entire history of cinema. The IMDB number could be off by more than 30,000 feature films, and that statement would still be true.
690,000 books is a lot of books. And it’s far, far more than all the literary publications could adequately cover. And without a doubt, this means that a large number of good, maybe even great books are being left undiscussed. And people still want to justify giving valuable page space to things they don’t like?

It’s not immoral to write a scathing piece of an inartful book. It’s not illegal and it’s not offensive. It is, however, irresponsible and indicative of an unfortunate attitude. I get the desire, though. I do. There was a time and a place when the negative review was valid, and I’m not just saying that. Before there was such a gigantic volume of work being published and before there were an almost unlimited number of places for people to say mean and negative things about whatever books they want, a review that smartly and pointedly took down a book of poor quality meant something. That’s changed. The place of the reviewer has changed. Now, negativity is just noise.

Nobody—or at least nobody smart—is saying that reviewers should pen positive essays about bad books. That does not make any sense. Instead, the very, very obvious answer is to not cover the book at all. Cover something else. Write about something that you like. The best that a negative review can do is deter someone from reading a book that they would not enjoy; the best that positive review can do is turn someone on to a book that they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives.

Moreover, the tone taken in the aforementioned Slate piece is such an accurate embodiment of everything that is wrong with the modern literary conversation that it barely escapes fully parodying itself. The presumption that a book being intended for a younger audience makes it embarrassing for an adult to read is like grasping at a straw that’s grasping at a straw. Even the suggestion that books written for adults are inherently more complex or less sentimental than books written for young adults is thin and flimsy at best.

The article also operates on the assumption that any adult would replace The Fault in Our Stars with The Goldfinch or maybe Crime and Punishment, when I think the reality of that situation is not very much like that at all. Someone who is predisposed to read either of those books or one’s like it is more than likely going to already. There’s nothing wrong with them breaking that up with John Green. Someone who is not predisposed to read either of those books is not going to pick them up just because they’ve been told they should feel badly about enjoying Eleanor & Park.

It boils down to a self-conscious piece of clickbait that serves to make some people feel bad and others feel holier-than without making any positive impact on the literary community whatsoever. It may seem tangential to this particular conversation, but in a lot of ways, it epitomizes the problems. This is not a well-thought essay that gives credence to those with whom it disagrees when it is due nor does it attempt to do much other than get a rise of its reader.

That, for me, boils down to the real reason that reviewers feel strongly about their right to bash what they deem not good enough. Negative reviews are often more fun to write than positive ones, and divisiveness makes for a better tweet, too.

But, please. The world of literature is not the Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. It’s a literary community, and it needs to be just that. I’m not saying reviewers have to work in service of anyone. I’m saying they should work in service of their readers and the community at large. There are so many outlets for people to read angry, negative opinions on books they’re considering buying. Goodreads and the reviews section of any bookseller’s websites both operate as quality outlets for that type of thing.

It should be the responsibility of those with power to use it well. Uncle Ben’s quote isn’t repeated ad nauseum because it’s wrong. It should be the responsibility of those with page views and subscription numbers to positively impact the community of which they’re at the center. Anyone that wants to can still write something solely negative, they just shouldn’t.

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