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Everyone Is Missing The Point About Negative Book Reviews

12/18/2013 09:29 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Scocca and pretty much everyone else on the Internet who has read a book before are still yelling past each other, and in the general direction of BuzzFeed's new Book's editor, about the value of The Negative Book Review, a phrase which I've taken the liberty of capitalizing because its prominence has made it proper-nounable. I'm joining the already noisy conversation because it seems that almost everyone has entirely missed the point, which is, "if you can't say something nice, elaborate."

This summer, I wrote a scathing review of Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, a book about nostalgia and envy and getting older, among other things. It seems that everyone besides me has deemed it "Best of the Year"-able.

I, on the other hand, hate-read it cover-to-cover, thinking it a fractured, too-long echo of George Orwell's lovely essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys." I slapped a cutesy headline on my negative review ("Meg Wolitzer's New Book: Not Good, Just Interesting") and prepared to share my clearly correct and profound opinions with the world.

And then I had a thought: who the hell am I? Besides someone who reads a whole lot, and enjoys thinking critically about literature, that is. More importantly, what was I trying to accomplish with this 800-word piece of writing? Was the goal to deter people from picking up a copy? To engage in a broader cultural conversation about, "What is art?" To tack my name onto a sharable article? These seem to be the reasons people write and defend negative book reviews, and I think there's an argument to be made against each of them.

Maureen Dowd recently wrote for The New York Times that "not to review books negatively is in essence to subsume book reviewing into advertising, public relations and promotion." But is there a significant correlation between critical opinion and successful book promotion? Generally, no. Dan Brown's Inferno topped Amazon's bestseller list for 2013 in spite of mixed reviews. This is because fans of Dan Brown are going to read the new Dan Brown book, regardless of what The Guardian has to say about it. The adage that any publicity is good publicity may take this trend too far, but if you're trying to stop people from reading a book, writing about it isn't likely to help. (Of course, the book reviews that venture so far as to cover a debut or lesser-known writer have the power to influence readers. But these sorts of reviews are sadly few and far between.)

Other defenders of the negative review say (and I'm paraphrasing here): "Because, discourse!" Another New York Times op-ed cites the Margaret Atwood school of thought: "...literary criticism is a genre unto itself, its value residing not in the appraisal of the book so much as the context, scholarship and thematic exploration offered by the critic." Fair point. But attaching society's obvious need for conflicting opinions to an argument about negative book reviews reflects a certain high-mindedness about what they have to offer, at least in their traditional form. Does a 300-word take-down of the latest Eugenides novel really offer "context, scholarship and thematic exploration"? Does calling The Goldfinch "Dickensenian" really say much about the beauty or relevance of the book?

I'm making a distinction here -- one which many outlets make - between reviews and essays, their patient, rambling and slow-talking cousins. Reviews tend to be shorter, and their very structure suggests that they serve the purpose of appraisal. Essays are generally not categorized as either "positive" or "negative," but "critical" or "in support of." If what you have to say can be described as either "mean" or "nice," "positive" or "negative," it's probably not very nuanced. Which is why both positive and negative reviews are often nothing more than hackneyed adjectives and canned, blurbable claims. To wit, a few face-palmable examples from this week:

The fury of a woman scorned is just one of the perils encountered in "Dangerous Women," a splendid cross-genre anthology featuring original stories by a number of writers, male and female.

There's a nicely vicious twist at the end that will send readers riffling back through the pages. At its heart, "Bellman & Black" is a ghost story, not a mystery, and thus is long on atmosphere and short on explanations.

These sentences would be fine if they were followed by other, related sentences. But they aren't. They're clever-sounding, but fall short of significance.

The Washington Post ran a list of famous reviews, edited for a positivity-only policy, leaving little but vapid, exclamatory remarks. One such quote, attributed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.

Is the literary community really missing out on anything, now that the clever punchline of this review has been omitted? Comments like this aren't cultural conversations. They're self-satisfied monologues.

This leaves us with one final, indefensible purpose for penning a negative book review: to hear ourselves talk. If you're not encouraging discourse, and you're not preventing a bad book from being read, then it seems you're that guy at the dinner party: the one blathering about his various opinions, but falling silent when pressed for evidence.

So, yes. Snark matters. And yes, Malcolm Gladwell, there's nothing wrong with being nice. But maybe book reviews aren't the best place for such things.

Instead of finding a home for my review of The Interestings, I set out to write an essay about nostalgia in contemporary literature. I'm still working on that one; it's proved much more difficult to write.