3/7/14 – IS THERE STILL A ROLE FOR THE NEGATIVE BOOK REVIEW?
The world of the book review is getting mighty hard to navigate. With more and more publications tightening their belts, eliminating book supplements, and pink slipping reviewers, serious literary criticism (think James Wood in the New Yorker or Dwight Garner in The New York Times) has become a very rare commodity. At the same time, online book review sites of widely varying quality are proliferating, with new ones popping up every day.
The Internet sites are clearly moving into the gap left by the traditional media, but the Web’s strength–its unpoliced democracy–is also its weakness. Because anyone who feels like spouting off can become a reviewer, more books get attention, but readers struggle to figure out whom they can trust. Concern is also growing over reviews-for-pay that push way beyond ethical borders. Even those that promise an “honest” review are suspect once money changes hands.
As if this chaos isn’t bad enough, now we must grapple with a new trend. Buzzfeed recently became the biggest, though by no means the only, website to announce that it will only publish positive reviews; no naysayers allowed. Reviewers can mention flaws but only reviews that ultimately recommend the book will be published. As Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald put it, “Why waste breath talking smack about something?”
Here at Late Last Night Books, we have a similar policy, but with some exceptions. One of our primary goals is to find good new authors who’ve written books we can enthusiastically recommend. We want to help you discover new talent and help unknown authors reach their audience, not eviscerate books we don’t like. That’s not to say we won’t write a critical review if a book has already generated a lot of hype and we disagree with the prevailing view.
I think the trend to publish only positive reviews stems from good intentions. Taste in literature is to a great extent subjective and it takes a fair amount of hubris to trash someone else’s work just because you don’t like it. Far better to use the time and space to recommend and call attention to a good book that deserves it, especially if the author and the book are undiscovered.
But the positive-only approach has plenty of angry dissenters. They want authors called to task for sloppy work before unsuspecting readers plunk down their cash. They want to know what to avoid as well as what to look for. And they wonder how they’ll be able to trust a reviewer if everything written is positive. They ask, for example, whether a reviewer who has put the time into reading a book might be tempted to reach too far to find something good to say rather than start all over with another novel.
And if the trend really takes hold, the lack of reviews will have the same effect as a rash of bad reviews. That’s patently unfair. With hundreds of thousands of new titles being published every year, many good novels are simply overlooked by reviewers. So no reviews should count as a neutral, not a negative.
The question is complicated even for major publications that still write negative reviews. Imagine for a moment that I’m a regular reviewer for The Los Angeles Times and I’ve just read the latest book by James Patterson, who’s sold a zillion books to a million people. I think the new book is a dud, nowhere near up to his standards. I may feel obliged to write a negative review to warn his fans, but let’s face it, few will pay attention. Most are going to buy, read, and probably like it, in part because they’re primed to.
Given the limits on my time and especially on my allotted space, wouldn’t I be doing a far greater service to a greater number of people if I found an undiscovered gem by an unknown author and brought it to readers’ attention? I’d probably be helping a lot more people if I did that, including (especially) the two authors?
I think the answer is yes, but a part of me would still want to pan the bad Patterson book because he deserves to be called on it. Maybe he’ll try harder and do better next time, and that ultimately will make a lot of people happy. So I don’t think it’s a black and white situation. It’s hard and each case has to be decided on the circumstances.
Until we work this out, we’ll just have to do the best we can. My own view is that reviewers must do more than just offer up plot summaries and a bunch of stars; the goal should be to equip readers with the knowledge they need to decide whether they want to read the book at hand. That means telling what the book is about and what the characters are like; describing the style, voice, and structure; and offering a critical appraisal of what works and what doesn’t. When either praise or criticism is offered, there ought to be enough supporting evidence for the reader to understand why the reviewer feels that way so they can decide for themselves whether they agree or disagree.
When I interviewed Ron Charles, The Washington Post’s fiction editor, in this space last year, he said one function of the book reviewer is “to help people find books that they’ll enjoy reading….Another function is to help people understand how books work, to try and help them develop their own critical tastes, ultimately to help them make better choices of what they want to read.”
That’s worth keeping in mind, both by reviewers and by those who read reviews.