Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bad Reviews

I like this post on The Millions by Emily St. John Mandel. It brings to mind a few interesting questions: How important should feedback be to a writer? What's the point of a negative review?

We've talked a lot about feedback here recently. As for the point of negative reviews: I guess there are two valid raisons d'etre: as a kind of consumer warning ("Don't waste yer money!") or as a contribution to a larger discussion, both of which are mostly only relevant to big books. There's really no defending a negative review of a small press book by a non-famous writer -- ignoring that book, if you don't like it, is enough. Since so much of reviewing is a matter of taste, you risk sinking a person's nascent career because of your fickle whims. I don't approve.

Of course, the real reason for reviews is publicity... and if all of a publication's reviews are positive, that would undermine the validity of their reviews in general. A reviewing publicity organ needs to distribute a certain number of negative reviews in order to maintain its credibility. Kind of depressingly arbitrary, isn't it.


Jennifer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

Sorry - I'm editing the first paragraph for clarity.

I don't think it's a matter of credibility. Many women's magazines, entertainment magazines, small local papers, etc., use their books page to highlight notable releases and, therefore, do not publish negative reviews. That's what I did when I had a column in a consumer magazine.

But I will say, some of the shoddier releases (by both large and indie houses) deserve to be panned, if the publication is NYT or Publishers Weekly or the like and provides comprehensive reviews. Sometimes the book is filled with stock characters or the ending is a cop out or the language is crammed with cliches and those works make me angry. It's not that the writer isn't talented, it's that they and their editors are sloppy.

A few years ago, I was assigned a book by the woman who writes all of those Knitting Club novels, only this one was about food. It was terrible, with poor writing and a demonstrated lack of knowledge about cooking. And it certainly felt cynical, as if the writer and her rep thought readers would swallow any old bullshit since she already wrote a best-selling novel. (I haven't read the knitting book, so for all I know it's just as bad.)

And sometimes literary fiction, even fiction by first-time novelists, feels just as cynical. And when I'm writing for a magazine that publishes pans, I do not hesitate to say as much.

(Of course, this terrifies me as a writer. I am revising my first novel right now and I try not to think of what people will think of it, should it ever be published. But I am pretty sure that, even if it is a spectacular failure, nobody will accuse me of laziness or contempt for my readers.)

The Review Review said...

Interesting post. I struggle with this often at my site, The Review Review(http://www.thereviewreview.net).

We review literary magazines. Most of the writers getting published are early in their careers, so it's important not to say anything too damaging. On the other hand, I want readers to know if a journal isn't good value for its money. So, yeah, it's tricky. I also think bad reviews make "good TV," so to speak, in that they can be very entertaining for readers of a site.

Overall, I try to be gentle, but fair. The bottom line is that while something doesn't appeal to one reader, it does not mean the story is necessarily flawed.