Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just What Is A Negative Review?

I'd hardly barely begun reading this month's Carnival of Children's Books over at MotherReader when I came upon Anne Boles Levy's excellent Presentation on Advanced Reviewing from Book Buds. Anne's post has so much serious information on reviewing that I made a hard copy to stash away to reread when I have more time.

But Anne said a couple of things that interest me beyond the technical aspects of reviewing. In her blog post, she refers to Steve Wasserman's article published in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year. In it, Wasserman describes the "news of books" as an "ongoing cultural conversation" and says that "reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping" on this conversation. Reading the reviews is a valuable form of eavesdropping on the conversation, but writing the reviews makes you a participant in the conversation.

So that was Interesting Thing Number One. Interesting Thing Number Two? Anne's presentation was given at the Kidlit Blogger's Conference held earlier this year. As part of her presentation, she asked participants to edit "a short, highly critical review" that had been sent to her by a writer looking for editing advice. She says, "I was surprised when many people (authors all) stalled on the idea that the writer would even bother with a negative review.

Many authors simply couldn't emotionally grapple with the reality of negative book reviews, of their being a vital part of that "cultural conversation."

This subject has been discussed in blogs before in the kidlitosphere, so it's something I've thought about and written about. More than once. But after reading Anne's post, I began to wonder just what people mean by a "negative review."

Are "negative reviews" a matter of tone? Are the reviewers showing off their snarky wit at the expense of a novelist, like the blogger I stumbled upon who said his gag reflex was activated at the ending of a particular book? Or are "negative reviews" merely "critical" in the sense of careful evaluation? I'm thinking here of a reviewer stating that an author sacrificed character development for plot, for instance, or a reviewer believing that the writer's pacing was uneven.

I'm with Anne in believing that reviews are part of a conversation about books. As with any conversation, snark gets old fast and doesn't add any depth to the talk. But careful evaluation is what gives the conversation value. Careful evaluation is what makes reviews useful to readers. It makes them useful to anyone who is interested in books.

It's difficult for writers to have to listen to talk of their work being less than brilliant. And, yes, such reviews do have the potential to have an impact on our careers and our pocketbooks. But isn't that true of people working in any art form? What other arts practitioner would even dream of suggesting that there is no place for "negative" or critical, evaluative reviews in their ongoing cultural conversations? Think of movies, theater, TV, art. Does anyone in any of those fields publish only "positive" reviews? And if they do, does anyone take them seriously?


Kelly said...

It's an interesting question, Gail.

The type of negative reviews you describe aren't a problem at all (critical reviews). But, snarky reviews are. (In general I'm getting very tired of snarky. Period.)

The negative reviews I take most issue with are the ones that don't reveal the biases of the reviewer. If a reviewer says, for example, this book is terrible because of focus on plot at the expense of characterization and you don't know the reviewer, and you don't know that this person only likes Alice Munro-type stories, then it isn't a useful review. Whereas if a reviewer is upfront about their biases or well known enough (some NYT reviewers, for example), then you can understand a critical review in context. (If a reviewer professes great love for Munro, I know not to trust them for myself, as a general rule.)

And, the critical reviews that are most offensive to me are those written by well-known writers. A good example of this was A.S. Byatt's trashing of Harry Potter. Basically it was one of those HP-is-"low"-art-and-not-worth-the attention-it's-getting-reviews. That may or may not be true, but if, for example, you considered Byatt's Possession to also be low art, as I did, then that review reads very poorly indeed.

Just some thoughts for a Thurs evening...

Gail Gauthier said...

Oh! Oh! I think we're close to being part of our own cultural conversation here.

I think really experienced review readers know to take reviews with a grain of salt for the very reasons you're talking about. They may even be able to read between the lines and pick up on some of the reviewer's biases. That's one of the reasons I try not to go off the deep end about reviews.

Of course, not everyone is a really experienced review reader.

Imani said...

I don't mind snarky reviews because the because I don't think it's impossible that a reviewer can be snarky and properly critical as well (ie saying exactly what she didn't like and why).

It didn't jump out at me until you highlighted but I find it suspect that review readers cannot be considered a part of the literary discussion unless they're actually writing reviews, or a writer themselves. Even when I didn't have a blog I felt that by reading them and literary magazines I was involved, that if I wished I could write letters in, or bring something up in class, or talk with friends...


Kelly said...

Imani: I agree with you that snarky reviewers can also be good reviewers. I think the problem is that a snarky tone only works when reviewing certain types of books--either snarky books or bad books, generally speaking. Unfortunately, it seems to me that a snarky tone is de rigeur these days for many reviews.

I also agree with you that reading reviews is participating in the conversation. Because, as you say, you then converse about the reviews and books in other places.

Gail: This is becoming a good conversation. I'm going to link to it tomorrow when I post a PF review I have planned.

I will say that most readers of reviews trust writers who review. If they see A.S. Byatt, for example, I think they think--oh, here's not a bitter critic, but a REAL writer. And, they think, then, that this makes for a reliable review. I honestly used to believe this when I was much younger. And, I don't think I was an unsophisticated reader.

Gail Gauthier said...

While I agree that a snarky reviewer has as much chance of having good critical judgment as a nonsnarky reviewer, snarkiness is a kind of voice and using it makes a lot of reviewers sound alike. Choosing to go for true snark means you're going to sound like all the other snarky reviewers out there. Readers are going to think you're just like everyone else who chooses to use snark or that you are writing that way for the joy of being snarky. Snark has become a risk for a reviewer.

Imani makes a good point about readers of reviews being part of the conversation, not just eavesdropping upon it. Anne was quoting an article by Steve Wasserman who was writing about the importance of newspaper book reviewing above all other types. And he quoted film critic Richard Schickel as saying that criticism "is not a democratic activity...It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book."

So I was quoting from an article that I personally found elitist to find support for my point about the cultural conversation. But, personally, I think the conversation is open to all. Otherwise, book reviews become very static things.

If the reader isn't part of the conversation, there isn't a conversation. The reviewer is writing for the sake of writing, of just hearing her own voice. It's a monologue.

PiLibrarian said...

I've been wrestling with this question for a couple of days over a review of a YA novel I'm writing. I didn't like book much, though it got good reviews elsewhere, and after realizing the review was getting very negative (though not snarky :-), I'm waiting for time to reflect before posting it.

How much of my dislike is me (how I would have handled/have handled a similar situation differently) and how much is really intrinsic to the book? And, if a story is drawn from an author's own life experience, how do you critique a book without making a personal critique of the author?

On the question of writing or reading as participation in the conversation, I think it depends on how "the conversation" is defined. If I don't review a particular book in writing, or respond to a review with a letter or blog comment, but I do read several reviews and talk about the book with colleagues and friends based on my own thoughts and others' reviews, am I not participating in a 'global' conversation? Or is the conversation limited just to the folks on the diagram?

Gail Gauthier said...

I think the conversation is the way the book or piece of writing takes on a sort of life--it is read, it is reviewed, it is talked about, it is referred to in other pieces of writing. It becomes part of the culture or part of a culture.

In that way, I think you don't even have to talk about the book to be part of the conversation. You are part of the life of that book by reading it and by reading about it and having opinions on what others have said about it.

I guess in my scheme of things, thinking is part of the conversation.

Bkbuds said...

Wow, I wondered why I was getting so many hits from your blog all of a sudden. Many thanks for linking and for this fascinating discussion.

As for Wasserman, well, he's a gatekeeper, no? And my hope is to make copies of the gate keys for everyone.

Anyone who loves to read reviews can learn to write them. I wouldn't have bothered if I felt otherwise. But a "review" isn't the same as a book report, a plot summary, or a chance to pass some snarky gas in an author's direction.

I attempted to get at the basic forms of reviewing as a genre, its rules and idiosyncrasies and tropes. I expanded on it at ForeWord, by the way:

I knew I'd offend some people who think I'm setting up admissions criteria to the Academy, as one blogger later posted. But it's also sparked this lively, meaty discussion, which I find very gratifying.

As the cultural conversation moves online, I just want to make sure I still have a steady supply of good reads to start my cranial engine each day.

Many thanks for letting me join the fun.

Gail Gauthier said...


Actually, you're the one who got this discussion started because I liked your post on reviewing so much.

I went over to look at your post at Foreward. I was struck by the line "to write at a professional level means understanding that reviewing is a genre." I've only started thinking of reviewing as a genre, but, of course, I should have been before. If a particular type of writing isn't a genre, what is it?

The comment you received about "setting up admissions criteria to the Academy" was fascinating, too. I tend to be supportive of those who want to storm the Academy, myself, but I'm also a believer in the old saying that you have to know the rules in order to break them. Knowing the rules and consciously breaking them is a decision, perhaps even a professional decision. Breaking the rules when you don't know them is a bit like just floundering around.

Bkbuds said...

"Breaking the rules when you don't know them is a bit like just floundering around."

Wonderfully put!

Imani said...

I don't agree that the snarky tone makes everyone sound the same. It really is just a tone, a certain irreverent approach, an attitude, not a template, and if the reviewers sound the same then I'm going to assume that a) they haven't developed a distinctive voice yet (or it crapped out that day, which happens), and/or b) they're doing it wrong.

I read three romance reviewers, all of which have a predominantly snarky tone and blog: Smart Bitches Who Read Trashy Books (two bloggers there) and It's Not Chick Porn. None of them sounds remotely like the other. They have their own biases, different perspectives, writing style...*shrugs* I mean the regular catchy-lede-bit-of-author-bio-plot-
summary-two-lines-of-commentary doesn't offer a reviewer a higher chance of sounding different. I suppose the difference is that snarky reviews tend to get stronger reactions while the former doesn't make a dent.

To me the major risk of writing snarky reviews is not being lost in a crowd but first, actually being funny, and second to successfully execute that barbed, irreverent humour while still conveying a sincere, even earnest interest in whatever sort of book you're reviewing. It's risky because readers can write you off as just being mean and sour.

Kelly said...

Imani: You have an excellent point. Good snark is a worthy thing. I've read the Smart Bitches blog before and they do have talent. My only concern is that it seems that so many reviewers rely only on snark now. So much so, it seems that every other review is now a snarky review. (This is especially true if you move away from books and into film or tv.) It's become the dominant mode of discourse and sometimes I just miss a straightforward take on things.

Still, it doesn't mean I don't love good snark and often.

Gail Gauthier said...

"To me the major risk of writing snarky reviews is not being lost in a crowd but first, actually being funny"

I definitely enjoy humor in any kind of writing. But humor isn't particularly easy to write and having to be funny while reviewing is definitely adding an extra element of difficulty to your work.

"It's risky because readers can write you off as just being mean and sour."

Which brings us back to our original question. Won't mean and sour be perceived as negative? Can you be snarky without being perceived as being negative?

"My only concern is that it seems that so many reviewers rely only on snark now."

I think snark is a kind of voice, and voice has become very important in many kinds of writing now. For instance, I often see references to "the YA voice." Certainly voice can make the difference between a dull piece of writing and one that engages the reader. It is important. But I think it's an element that many kinds of writers are relying on these days, not just snarky reviewers.

Liz B said...

Snark: there is snark "with love" and snark to be snarky. I tend to love snark with love; but I also tend to like snark that is more recap (the recapper, television without pity, the BSC reviews) and I don't see much of that online. Again, with love and respect is an important element of "good" snark and I don't often see it in reviews.

Snark to be snarky ends up in a laugh, but I often find it sacrifices truth for snark; for example, the comment that HP is like highschool with the gryffindors as the jocks, the ravenclaws as the brains, the slytherins the goths (I forget the huffulepuffs) amused me very much; but of course, it fails on even a mildly close examination.

Negative reviews: sometimes I don't like a book or something about a book. A review always tells as much about the reviewer as about the book, but especially in a negative review. Did I dislike the book, or was it something else? See PiLibrarian's comments for part of what I mean. So I like to be careful and sure and accurate when I do bring up these issues, in equal parts to protect myself. I'm not into flamewars.

Kelly mentions a great point: knowing the reviewer helps, and its one of the things I like about blogs. I gravitate towards those who share my likes/dislikes, and so feel I can trust them and "know" what they mean.

I think part of the problems with negative reviews, aside from the snark, is that some I've seen in published journals are reviews that are set up to be bad by assigning a reviewer that the editor knows will hate the book. And will write about it eloquently.

OK, that's all the time I can steal today.

Imani said...

"Which brings us back to our original question. Won't mean and sour be perceived as negative? Can you be snarky without being perceived as being negative?"

I think Liz answered that question with the "snark with love". Because of what snark is some readers will inevitably view it as not being nice or positive enough. But if you're not already biased against it then I think it's easy enough to differentiate between the "tough love" critics and the ones who have no sympathetic inclinations whatsoever. The strength of their arguments would be the clearest sign.