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.


17 thoughts on “On the necessity of the negative review

  1. Grammar Merchant

    This is a tough subject. I agree that withholding negative reviews (or constructive criticism) is cowardly. I agree that a writer with a healthy ego should be able to take a bit of flak, even from a colleague. In fact, a gently negative review from a friend is a nice antidote to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the cognitive bias which causes so many people to misbelieve that they are hugely talented (as seen on TV). But we — as reviewers — should also practice a bit of self-purification, just for honesty’s sake. So before we review, we should examine our own motives for reviewing. We should ensure that envy has nothing to do with our review, and that our particular review is responding to the writer’s work in a substantive way, and not just serving as a platform for our pet peeves. Then again, we should try to be sure we’re not pulling any deserved punches due to friendship. Honesty should be the coin of the realm.

  2. Great post, Nathan. I like (well, maybe not LIKE, but appreciate) critical reviews where it’s clear the reviewer has read my piece and given it some thought. The ones that drive me nuts are the ones where the reviewer clearly wasn’t paying attention or simply hates the entire genre I’m writing in.

  3. carmella864

    I always find it interesting how things like this are handled in other creative fields. As an architect people are always – ALWAYS – hypercritical of your work, and almost never have the critical ideas to back up their criticisms, so I have learned to have an incredibly thick skin . I had a great professor in school though who had mastered the art of constructive criticism. When he would give a crit, even if he was really ripping the design to shreds, one was always left with a slightly warm, good feeling. Now, that is quite a skill….

    1. That’s ideally how it should be; constructive criticism. I’m certainly not in favor of bashing for the sake of it, although that happens too. But a measured appraisal of the work seems to me what professionals owe each other.

  4. I appreciate a negative review. Let me explain: if the review is petty and vindictive (never received one, but certainly read them), I am enough of a professional to understand that their unkind and misplaced review has less to do with me as a writer, and more to do with their social inadequacies as a human being. It speaks its own volumes.
    On the other hand, a truly thoughtful, critical, and decisive review is a tool I have used, and will continue to use, on my journey as an author. In fact, negative criticisms, appropriately delivered and placed, only make me a better writer. And in the end, if I get a 4-star review from a critic who rarely awards them, it makes it taste as sweet as summer wine on a hot day and worth more than a string of 5-star ones from a mediocre reviewer who tosses them around haphazardly.

  5. Ted

    I agree that, for a reviewer or critic, taking the genre seriously requires a willingness to write negative reviews. However, my instinctive feeling is that as a writer, you show your respect for the genre by writing the best you can within that genre. It’s been said that a genre is a conversation, and writers participate in that conversation by writing stories or novels; they need not be direct responses to specific novels, but they’re inevitably in dialogue with other work in the field. By participating seriously, you demonstrate that you feel it’s a conversation worth having. (And of course, writers should provide honest feedback when giving critiques, in workshops or privately.)

    Writers should expect to receive bad reviews. But I don’t think it follows that writers also need to write them in order to demonstrate their commitment to the field.

    1. I agree that the chief obligation of the writer is to write, and that is of course how one best demonstrates seriousness and commitment. The only way that ultimately counts. And I agree that writers are not obligated to write critical reviews.

      What I believe, though, is that if a writer is going to discuss a work — and it happens all the time — then there is an obligation to discuss it honestly. If one chooses to write only about what they like, that’s fine. It’s what I’ve done too. But by doing that, a choice is being made not to engage with the work of the genre on a particular level. Furthermore, when that choice is made by a vast majority of writers, it seems to me that it creates an atmosphere of critical stagnation. And when writers receive some less than stellar reviews from a colleague, you get feelings of betrayal mentioned in the post. I think that if we’re going to be intellectually honest, as a community, then we should foster an environment in which an honest critical appraisal of the work is something to be welcomed and encouraged. This is not to say that a review must be bad. This is to say that it should be honest, and that the one writing it should engage what works and — if necessary — what doesn’t work with equal weight.

      1. Ted

        I think the possibility of critical stagnation depends on who bears the primary responsibility for the critical dialogue about the field: critics/reviewers, or the authors themselves? If there were no one writing reviews except other authors, I’d agree with you that there’d be a risk of the field becoming overly self-congratulatory. But I think the blogosphere has made SF criticism a pretty vigorous field. It’s not clear to me that there has been a dearth of negative reviews written by thoughtful people, so I don’t think critical stagnation is a problem.

        When considering whether writing negative reviews is necessary, I think we should specify to whom it’s necessary. It may be that, once an author has decided to also act as a critic/reviewer, s/he feels writing negative reviews is necessary maintain a sense of personal integrity. That’s entirely commendable. But that’s different from saying that his/her writing negative reviews is necessary to the health of the genre. The genre as a whole will be fine, I think; its need for negative reviews can be satisfied by other means.

      2. Ted, you make excellent points. I’m not sure I agree that the blogosphere has made SF criticism (or horror criticism, for that matter — which is, I admit, what I was mostly thinking of when I wrote this post) all that vigorous. There’s certainly a lot of reviewing going on, but most of what I’ve seen engages the work on a fairly cosmetic level. I’m not sure how much achieves the level of criticism. There are some clear exceptions, and it’s possible, too, that I’m just not looking in the right places.

        That being said, I agree that the primary responsibility lies with the critics, and not with the writers. And you’re right, the genre will be fine. It has been for some time now, and I certainly don’t think what I’m complaining about is anything new. Maybe what I’m really troubled by is the expectation that when a writer speaks of another writer’s work, it will be favorably. And that the reaction tends to be aggrieved or even hostile when it’s not. Maybe what I object to is the impulse toward self-censorship that many writers seem to feel. I know I certainly do.

        You’ve given me some thoughts to mull over.

  6. Excellent post. Am very glad to have just discovered your brilliant blog!

    A couple of years ago, I set myself the task of reading and reviewing the entire longlist for a certain literary prize. I found one of the books on the longlist to be utterly dreadful: patronising, offensive, reductive, simplistic and just littered with all the usual tenets of terrible writing. So, accordingly, my review was pretty negative (note: I wasn’t alone in my thinking, a whole host of bloggers and commentators seemed very bemused/confused as to how this book had been nominated – so I was hardly the radical outlier with my negative review).

    Anyway, I was soon subject to the most offensive barrage of profane abuse from this writer’s fans: really, really rude and vitriolic stuff. My Twitter account was hacked, and links to my review were posted all over the place, with invitations suggesting that other people should join in with this horrible pseudo-bullying. I welcome constructive disagreements with my opinion, or even tongue-in-cheek banter, but this just descended into vile name-calling and threats. So much so, in fact, that I eventually took my blog offline for 2 months while the storm died down.

    Suffice to say, I was kinda shocked by this response, and although it hasn’t put me off writing negative reviews, it has made me nervous about doing so (I’ve never had this kind of reaction to any positive review I’ve written). I guess I’ll never understand why people feel the need to comment in that manner online. I could understand, of course, such a reaction if my actual review was in some way abusive itself, or an ad hominem attack on the writer in question – but I was merely pointing out what I personally thought to be flaws in the narrative. Gah! etc. sorry. rant rant rant…

    So.. yeah, I guess I’m pro the negative review, but it’s certainly dangerous territory. Especially when the fans of any given book are pre-disposed to using the internet for abuse, hacking and generally being completely horrible.


    1. Tomcat, thanks so much both for your support and for your own perspective. It’s an open question whether the act of writing a review like this is worth the fallout. I suspect it’s a question that has to be asked each time one sits down to do it.

      I clicked through to your own blog, which is fantastic. I am now eager to seek out “The Dissection” based on your review, and the opening sentence to your review of “A Very Hungry Caterpillar” made my whole day.


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