On Writing Negative Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative book reviews recently. I often feel a twinge of guilt when I have mostly negative things to say about a book. Granted, I’m no Michiko Kakutani and my opinions aren’t important enough to impact an author’s career. However should I, as someone who has never even tried to write a book, be able to criticize others’ attempts?

There was an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “Banning the Negative Book Review” which argues that with so much negativity out there, do we really need to go out of the way to contribute to the “petty sniping” in the name of literary criticism?

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible (which I reviewed here), recently spoke on how she deals with negative reviews in an interview with the New York Times: “Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews.” In it, she has a helpful matrix that she uses to categorize reviews.

I think of reviews being mapped on a graph with four quadrants, and I’ll read the ones that are smart and positive, smart and negative, or dumb and positive (hey, all our egos need a little sustenance!). But there’s no point in reading a dumb, negative review.

Curtis Graph

In Case You Need a Graph

So this leads to the question, what makes a smart negative review? Luckily, there are many articles out there on writing negative reviews. I especially liked J. Robert Lennon’s article, which lists the following thought-provoking suggestions.

  • Provide Context: “If you have space, try to characterize the shape of the writer’s career and show how the new book fits in it.”
  • Have Humility: “In your review, let your reader know what it is other people like about this writer. If you disagree, say so, in a non-condescending manner.”
  • Provide a Path Forward: “Acknowledge what kind of excellence the writer might someday achieve, even if she didn’t this time out.”

I also came across art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s approach on works that he says aren’t “immediately congenial.” I thought that was a nice way to phrase this — something that may become congenial to you, with a little work.

I’ve got certain rules of thumb for work that isn’t immediately congenial. One is, what would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree, but it enables me to write, I think, intelligently, and if that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively.

Schjeldahl acknowledges a book could be good but still not to your tastes. You don’t have to like every book that’s technically perfect or widely acclaimed. Part of the joy of reviewing a book is picking apart what works and why or imagining what kind of person would read or write this book. I think criticism is an art form in itself. I, for one, take a lot of pleasure in reading all sorts of reviews and spend  a lot of time thinking about what makes a review work. I don’t think books can really be rated on a scale of one to five, books generally aren’t all good or all bad. To me, reviews are a way to figure out what works and what can be better, both as a way to digest the work and to hold literary works to a higher standard. I’m still an absolute novice in constructing a good review, but it’s been a real pleasure to practice.

What are your thoughts on negative reviews? Does it make a difference whether the author is living or dead? Does it matter if you’re writing for a book blog or for the New Yorker? Is criticism a dying art? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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