Fuse Book Commentary: A Case for Negative Book Reviews

Why does Laura Miller feel, given her belief that negative reviews are often useless, that she has to kick criticism while it is down? Why argue against the efforts of a small number of delusional reviewers in major publications who continue to speak bootless negativity to the indifferent masses?

By Bill Marx.

Salon Book Critic Laura Miller — cut out the negativity, it’s bad for web traffic.

Those who argue for the virtues of writing positive book reviews often characterize their approach as an act of heroism, a defense of an embattled literary culture. Novelist and reviewer Joyce Carol Oates, for example, pledges that “my governing principle as a critic is to call attention solely to books and writers that merit attention, and to avoid whenever possible reviewing books ‘negatively,’ except for those instances in which the ‘negative’ is countered by an admiring consideration of earlier books by the same author . . . How small-minded we seem to ourselves in retrospect, chiding others!” Why is rah-rah and only rah-rah somehow broadminded? Because it is dedicated to putting books into the hands of readers. Since literature is on the verge of extinction, discouraging sales is an act of betrayal.

I guess we should thank Laura Miller, a literary critic for Salon, for putting a deliciously ironic twist on the reasons why reviewers for large circulation publications should stick to happy talk. Readers are not paying attention, so let’s just can the negative judgments, leave them to the small fry. Nobody cares about highbrow books anymore, she argues, and ambitious writers are no longer at the center of American culture. So why should non-specialty newspapers and magazines publish dismissive reviews of the unknown and the relatively un-bought? TV programs draw big numbers, so the former deserve devout discrimination from the media big boys (this week New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum praises the “sleazy wisdom” of of Big Brother). But critical book reviews are of interest to only a cadre. Readers want notices that tell them what to consume, what to put on their coffee tables. The minimal online ‘hits’ garnered by bad critiques prove the absurdity of taking books seriously enough to evaluate them. When the culture gets tough, the once tough retreat.

Of course, critics are not alone among the marginalized. Given the minimal respect for serious literature in America, writers, novelists, and translators are pouring an enormous amount of imagination and skill into perfecting the marginal. Compared to huge TV audiences, there aren’t all that many readers paying attention. Maybe non-specialty authors should turn tail, give up and write for or about TV, go where the popular action is? Not everybody has a tenured academic gig in a university Humanities department, where, for Miller, serious criticism will be making its last stand before it vaporizes.

But somehow these benighted writing creatures, including Miller, go on. It isn’t often that such a visible book critic confesses to such a low estimation of reviewing. Perhaps the tidal flood of Twitter and blogs have claimed another victim—Miller is beaten down, ashamed of doing anything but pushing quality product because it just doesn’t matter anymore! At least to her. The question is why Miller feels, given her belief in the death dive of book reviewing, that she has to kick criticism while it is down? Why argue against a small number of delusional reviewers for major publications who continue to speak bootless negativity to the indifferent masses? Just keep your head down and the recommendations coming: let the zeitgeist grind the nay-sayers into dust. (Web traffic suggestion: review books about pets that play musical instruments.)

I suspect that it may be because she is defensive about having to be a partisan for dumbing down. Every few decades, someone demands that reviewers get a backbone, that they analyze their verdicts and let the chips fall where they may. But Miller’s kill-the-negative response to the guilt-inducing challenge is not so new either. Film and music critics elbowed aside grumpy book critics in major publications during the ’40s and ’50s. Pumping up the volume of blurbs (see my piece on Fire the Bastards!) didn’t protect literary culture from further erosion. It fact, it could be argued that the praise inflation accelerated the marginalization of reviewers because it undercut public perceptions of critical independence and credibility. Truth is, critics have complained about how serious books have been pushed aside in America since the rise of mass culture. Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Wilson, etc, bitterly lamented that literary culture and criticism made no or little impact on taste and sales, that reviews only reached a small audience. But that discouragement did not stop these reviewers from pursuing their craft with vigor and severity, negative criticism included.

Ironically, the only bestselling book critic (qua critic) I can think of is H. L. Mencken and his Prejudices volumes throughout the ’20s. In these assemblages, he combined his notices about literature (mostly pitiless demolition jobs) with savagely funny political and cultural diatribes. Mencken was influential not only because the tomes he panned mattered (in truth, the books he hammered were often sitting ducks) but because the incisiveness of his ideas and the energy of his style won over readers. Perhaps the neglect of negative book reviews stems not only from cultural marginalization but from a lack of power in the writing of Miller and others, an inability to use the judgment of books to grapple with issues that reach into the wider culture. If your idea of a review is limited to the expanse of a consumer guide, why should readers continue to read on once they figure out which way the thumb wags? Mencken, as well as other past critics, stretched the form of criticism in ways that would be helpful to reexamine today.

H.L. Mencken — a book critic who became a bestseller savaging contemporary tomes.

At heart, Miller’s piece reflects the contemporary lack of understanding of the mission of criticism. It is not just about selling books, supporting the neglected, or attracting web traffic, but living up to a demanding standard for articulating judgment that has a history worth knowing, if only as a source of inspiration when times get tough. The best book critics believed that criticism, when done well, asserts standards and values, that it plays a vital part in the cultural dialogue, like novels, poetry, etc. It had a role to play, regardless of its ratings or whether a large number of readers are reading the books under discussion.

We now have the rise of the cult of the noncritical, and it may be generational. Along with Miller’s keep-it-positive attitude and Dave Eggers’ disdain for faultfinders, recent essay collections from Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Frazen contain only yeas when books come up for discussion, even though the former goes on and on about his fascination with Norman Mailer and his combative Advertisements for Myself. What would happen if Miller and company got their wish—feed the book beast with nothing but winners? Negative reviews would be ghettoized in a few benighted places just read by authors and professors.

Émile Zola memorably satirized that state of affairs in his 1866 sketch “Death by Advertising” (The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories, Oxford University Press). The story deals with a poor wretch who believes every marketing claim he reads in the newspapers, every magazine sales pitch for the latest miracle medicine or get-rich real estate deal. He dies worshiping the “Great God Advertising.” His mind is completely deranged by following the glad gospel of book reviews: “He had bought an extendable bookcase into which he crammed all the books recommended in newspaper reviews . . . His shelves groaned under the weight of his collection of rubbish recording all the stupidity and corruption of the age. . . . The outcome of all this was to turn him into a moron, although, having become more selective and difficult to please, in the end he bought only those books described as ‘outstanding masterpieces,’ thereby reducing his purchases to some twenty books a week.” I love that last detail—a little discernment creeps in . . . too late.

Zola’s point is clear: banishing negative book reviews disconnects mainstream literary culture from credibility and plain old reality, encouraging a commercialized “insanity” that patronizes readers, lowers standards by discouraging meaningful dialogue (Do you love the book that you love as much as I love the book I love?), and corrupts criticism. Critics for non-specialty publications should be helping to develop the public’s powers of judgment, and that means pointing out what falls short (and why), not just hawking the greatest hits.

Throughout the decades, from Poe until now, standing up for substantial literary criticism has been about fighting the good fight, particularly when the culture seems to be going off the deep end. For some, the relative silence that greets critics doing the unpopular thing—daring to say the emperor has no clothes—can be deafening, even depressing. The pressures to get along by providing only good news is overwhelming. But the internet provides a great opportunity to create communities that care about judging books, in depth and with scrutiny. Those who want to carry on the craft of criticism—to be provocative in their literary loves and hates, to generate intellectual dialogue about literature, ideas, and language—have nothing but the fear of not being heard (or recording sufficient online “hits”) to hold them back. Perhaps Miller’s Salon is closed to discouraging words—but other doors are open to those who want to think about books.


  1. Tony Wallace on August 24, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    And don’t forget about Mark Twain’s famous and hilarious beat-down of James Fenimore Cooper: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/indians/offense.html

    It seems to me that this terrible state of affairs is part and parcel of the “everybody’s great” culture. Parents should not criticize their children, teachers should not criticize their students, etc. Everything must be “supportive.”


  2. Marcia Karp on August 25, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    I am reading with interest your posts on criticism.

    I wonder if there isn’t another way to talk about it. “Negative criticism” implies that “(unmodified) criticism” is positive. George Watson’s categories of descriptive, evaluative, and legislative criticism (The Literary Critics, 1962) make things more interesting, I think.

    I have no love for legislative, proscriptive, criticism. Samuel Daniel’s reply to Thomas Campion’s rules of 1602 includes this about poetry: poets ” ∫hall ∫hape it into a thou∫and figures.” Campion himself did make beautiful shapes, but not, in fact, following his own legislation calling for meter based on quantity. Perhaps it is poems, which know more than their poets know they know, that shape poetry (here standing in for all the arts to which critics respond).

    Descriptive criticism seems to me the place to put energies and can provide all a review has to say. But, if evaluations must be made, it is not where on the -+ axis a work falls — or parts of works fall — that is important. What the critic has demonstrated by description and analysis (and discussion of standards) provides the value of the evaluation.

    In any event, it doesn’t seem helpful to call robust criticism negative, though it show where a work falls short. I’m not squeamish about negative, it’s just that it posits a weakened (unmodified) criticism that is limited in what it might say before encountering its subjects. Unthinking praise fails, just as unthinking blame does.

  3. Shelley on August 28, 2012 at 10:28 am

    “Praise inflation” is a great phrase. My ideal critic is Randall Jarrell, whose criticisms, even when pitiless, were so egoless and clearly rooted in a love for literature that even those he panned, loved him.

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