Negging: On the art of negative reviews, and containing two (>2<) lists

I was reading an extremely negative review of my third book the other day, and found it a strangely painless experience. I felt like I was watching a cat chase the red light of a laser pointer around a room: there was something essential about the process that the cat (and the reviewer) just didn’t get.

That’s not necessarily the reviewer’s fault. It’s a writer’s business, especially a writer of genre fiction, to make an impact of a certain type on the audience, and if that fails to happen it’s most likely the writer that’s to blame.

On the other hand, I sort of feel that if someone thinks the last eighty pages of one of my books is genuinely irrelevant to what has gone before, they weren’t reading attentively enough to have their opinions taken seriously.

Shortly after reading that dumb takedown of one of my own books, I read a dumb takedown of Stephen King.

I’m not the biggest King fan in the world: I’ve just read one minor novel (The Eyes of the Dragon ) and some of his short fiction, and maybe one or two of the Bachman books. (The thing is, I’m not really into horror fiction, although I like fiction with horror elements.) But I like everything that I’ve read by King, and I’m wary of self-styled literary people for whom King is a bête noire. The library of civilization ought to have lots of different kinds of books, even books one isn’t necessarily crazy about, and people who don’t understand this are generally not to be trusted.

But I read the damn thing, and it was even worse than I feared. The next day, a response was posted, defending King against the takedown–not a review, exactly, but a meta-review, where the same sorts of rules would apply. And that was pretty bad as well–in some ways worse.

Three things make a trend, and these got me thinking generally about the motives for negativity in reviews. Since I haven’t done a list in a while, I assembled my thoughts in listlike form.

1. Negative reviews provide emotional satisfaction for the reviewer.

There is a real and widely recognized pleasure in writing an absolutely negative review. Who wouldn’t want to be able to craft a verbal knife like the one Mary McCarthy stuck into Lillian Hellman’s ribs? (“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”) Some people might be above it, but most of us can see a little malice on the other side of the looking glass.

2. Negative reviews are entertaining for the review-reader.

In the early 21st century, Dale Peck was the superpredator of the literary scene, always trying bite through someone else’s bones with his bloody smile. His takedown of Rick Moody in particular became famous, or infamous. (Clive James: ”’Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,’ the review began; after that it got rough.”) The general snarkiness of reviewing at the time led to a debate about the value of the negative review. It was a meandering and inconclusive debate, because it was largely conducted by bookish people telling each other what to do–never a good prescription for success.

But one reason for this stuff that rarely seems to be addressed is: people like it. They like the heat of the argument. They like to see Godzilla doing battle with Mothra. They like to see Punch hit Judy.

And the third is like unto this:

3. Negative reviews are a way of seeking fame (or infamy).

Fights can make the fighters famous, and not just in boxing. Controversy drives traffic to a site (like lists of things). (But not this list of things, which is safely below the fold, where it is of no use to man nor beast nor search-engine.)

If no one was watching, would Godzilla even bother to fight Mothra? The literary feud is as old as literary culture. In the 18th century, Alexander Pope wrote, “The life of a wit is a warfare on earth” (using “wit” in the sense of “an intellectual, a bookish person who hangs out in coffee-shops”), and that hasn’t changed much.

4. Negative reviews make positive reviews matter.

If everything is a sweeping epic with ornate impactful detail and heart and acid humor, and is the best thing since Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/the Iliad, and is full of characters that make you cry and weep and laugh and stand up and cheer, and has an ending that takes your breath away as you leap up to scream at everyone else on the bus, “THIS IS GOOD! THIS IS GREAT! THIS IS WHY BOOKS WERE INVENTED”, if everything is like that, then screw it. Reviews are useless if they don’t admit of shades of difference in quality, success, aspirations–all of that.

5. Negative reviews provide a public health service.

Some books, or elements in some books, constitute hazards that the public has a right to be warned about.

6. Negative reviews can be useful autopsies of failure.

Sometimes you can figure out how fiction works by examining a fiction that doesn’t work.

Motives 1-3 are probably the most powerful forces generating storms in the unclean air of the blogosphere. But, in general, I think that stuff is a stupid waste of everybody’s time and energy. Others may disagree. Let’s leave them to their mutual hate-masturbation and pass on.

The others strike me as more laudable pursuits, even when something I’ve written is under review. But even reviews that are intended to hit targets 4-6 often fail. And I think that this failure can be summed up in a single word: evidence. Reviewers in general don’t seem to handle evidence well, but evidence is key to any principled persuasive argument.

Here’s an example from the Stephen-King-is-bad piece I linked above. The writer, Dwight Allen, makes twelve or thirteen comments about King’s style in the course of a longish (4600 word) essay. He does not actually quote King’s fiction in support of his claims. We are merely to take Allen’s word that “the prose [in Christine] was consistently dull” or that “a sentence has a little pop” in 11/22/63 in moments which are “few and far between”, etc. (He does quote a few words from King’s behemoth 11/22/63–not as samples of King’s style but to lend rather nebulous support to an assertion about King’s attitude toward writing: “King’s real purpose here seems to be to suggest that people like him write with a lot of feeling, while so-called literary people don’t.” This verges on literary mind-reading, of which, more below.)

Allen quotes King talking about his fiction. He quotes other people talking about King’s fiction. He uses scare-quotes liberally. But, in an essay which is ostensibly about King’s fiction (especially in reference to style), he doesn’t actually quote a significant amount of King’s fiction.

That’s bad. Effective quotation is the acid-test for good reviewing (by which I do not mean positive reviewing). It allows the reader to form an independent evaluation of the reviewer’s judgement. It’s possible that Allen could have selected a stinking garland of quotes from King’s fiction that would have me nodding in agreement with his verdict. But until he does, that verdict is not proven. And either Allen doesn’t understand this (in which case his judgement is faulty) or he can’t actually substantiate his claims (in which case his argument is not only false but dishonest).

In his response to Allen, Erik Nelson betrays the evidence in another way that’s common in inept reviewing. He makes assertions that run not only beyond the evidence he cites, but beyond any evidence he could cite. He passes from what Allen says (unlike Allen, he does at least quote his target) to what Allen really thinks–what he feels, what he is.

When I think of vengeful wannabes like Allen, I recall that Matt Groening cartoon in his much-missed series Life in Hell. Here, an overeducated loser sits on a couch watching “Jeopardy.” The answer is “Fred Flintstone’s signature phrase” and the contestant answers something like “bibbedy-bobbity-boo.” The guy on the couch says, “It’s yabba-dabba-do! Those prizes are rightfully MINE!!!”

To Allen, Stephen King’s career is rightfully his.

Eh. I’m as fond of Matt Groening’s old cartoons as the next person, but they hardly seem to be license for this type of slanderous mind-reading.

But lazy reviewers often do this, using their assertions about the author’s state of mind as a basis for condemning the author’s work. In this internet age we sometimes don’t have to guess about these things: we know Orson Scott Card’s or John Scalzi’s distinctly different opinions about gay marriage, for instance–or we can know them, if we care to and if we can use Google. But that’s not the lazy reviewer’s game. The lazy reviewer just wants to infer something discreditable about the author so that said author can be conveniently drubbed by said reviewer. You know what sort of person does this? HITLER, THAT’S WHO.

C.S. Lewis talks about this style of reviewing somewhere in An Experiment in Criticism, I think. I would look up his shrewd remarks and relay them to you, because I’m pretty sure that he didn’t violate Godwin’s Law in the course of them. Unfortunately almost all my books are still packed away in boxes, so I don’t have access to his ipsissima verba.

But what I hope he said runs something like this: the style of mind-reading criticism is not only bad, it is irrelevant. What if, for instance, Allen is every bit as envious of King’s career as Nelson claims? So what? Allen could still be correct in his assertions about King. If he is not, that’s the real issue, not what sort of person he is, or what feelings he has that he hasn’t bothered to confide in us.

So, as a bonus for the reader(s) making it this far, I have a second list of things. It’s really a pair of pragmatic principles for good (not positive) reviewing, but principles don’t drive traffic to your site; lists of things do. (I take this internet-traffic thing seriously!)

A. Provide adequate evidence for your assertions.

If you say somebody is a crappy stylist, quote some of their crappy style so we can all enjoy it. If you think somebody’s plot doesn’t make sense, provide (accurate) plot-details to show it. If you’re worried about spoilers, use spoiler-warnings. If you’re worried that some people might not see the spoiler warning and that you might ruin the book for them, this book which you think is no good, then you may not think well enough to be a competent reviewer.

B. Do not make assertions for which you cannot provide adequate evidence.

Especially avoid character-assertions about the person whose work you’re attacking–or, for that matter, irrelevant praise of someone whose work you are praising. Good people can write bad books; bad people can write good books. If you are reviewing the work, concern yourself with that, in all its warty awfulness or wonderfulness.

If you follow these simple rules and few then… then… I guess you didn’t need to read this.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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