On the necessity of the negative review

A few days ago I saw a post on a writer’s Facebook page that brought me up short. A writer was venting some steam about having received a bad review from another writer. Though this is never fun, he seemed to take particular umbrage at the fact that the writer of the review shared a publisher with him. The implication being that there is an obligation among writers in the same stable not to speak negatively of one another’s work. It’s a variation of Ronald Reagan’s “speak no evil” directive to Republicans on the campaign trail.

In the comments to this post, another writer made the following remark, referring to the bad feelings the review inspired: ” … this is a good example why it’s better to say nothing than post a negative review. Negative reviews do nobody any favours.” He went on to clarify his point: “What I mean is a bad review will only cause heartache to your subject, and headaches to you from your subject’s fans. It’s a no-win situation. Better to keep quiet instead. Speaking as an author, I’d far prefer people who didn’t like my work to not talk about it.”

There’s a certain degree of the tongue-in-cheek on display here, and it would be wrong to take everything said in this exchange too seriously. Furthermore, I have a friendly relationship with both of these writers online, and I respect them both enough to believe that their feelings on this matter are probably much more nuanced than these offhand statements would indicate. As writers, it’s safe to say that most of us would prefer people who don’t like our work to not talk about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the original poster was careful to say he was just letting off steam. Which is all well and good. Facebook tends to be ephemeral, and most of what we say there vanishes without so much as a ripple.

But the ideas that negative reviews are best left unwritten and that authors sharing a publisher owe an allegiance to one another were presented seriously. This mindset is nothing new, but it’s achieved a fresh virulence with the advent of the online culture. We’re all friends now. Or “friends,” according to Facebook and Google+ parlance. As writers tilling the same soil, we interact with each other almost daily. We see each other at conventions.  And because most of us are decent people who display good will and wish one another success, speaking publicly of our dissatisfaction with a colleague’s work seems a kind of betrayal.

While this approach may keep us from having awkward conversations with friends, it harms us as writers and undermines the seriousness of the genre. If we cannot speak to our failures as well as to our successes, then frankly we don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Praise is good when warranted of course. It is also necessary: many of us have notoriously fragile egos. But to be silent when criticism is what’s warranted is at once a tacit endorsement of mediocrity and a disservice to a writer who might benefit from an honest and frank appraisal of the work. It is also a disservice to readers. Without a vigorous critical aesthetic, standards erode over time. The work is degraded.

Furthermore, honest criticism is an indication of respect for the work and the author. We have to deliver that respect, and receive it in good faith when it’s delivered to us. If we really believe in our own work, in its worth and viability, then we should not be afraid of criticism. If we want to become better writers, then we should welcome it. If we want our genre to be taken more seriously by the literary establishment, then we have to take it more seriously ourselves.

A real friendship can withstand a negative review. A good writer can absorb its lessons. A healthy literary community will foster the exchange of frank appraisal.

There are, of course, critics in the genre who do bring a rigorous standard to their criticism; it’s primarily the writers themselves who should raise their game in this regard.

I’m guilty here, no question. I’ve purposely steered away from writing about my colleagues’ work on this blog — good or bad — because I didn’t want to start down a path that could eventually ruffle feathers. It’s safer, and more pleasant, to be silent.

But it’s also weak and cowardly.   (Upon reflection, this sentence strikes me as unfair, and a bit harsh. Redacted.)

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the genre — horror in particular. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past year; it’s a friction that informs all of my work to date and will probably continue to do so for some time. At its worst, it’s adolescent hate fantasy or gore-lust, written without the slightest care or awareness of language or the actual measure of the human heart. When it’s at its best, though; what I love about it — its uncompromising nature, its emotional integrity, its astonishing capacity for beauty — I love absolutely, and can get in no equal measure from any other branch of literature.

It deserves to be taken seriously.