Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Francine Prose and Zoë Heller discuss whether bad books should be written about or ignored.
By Francine Prose
I found myself again writing negative reviews — as if I’d suddenly resumed smoking, or something else I’d forsworn.
The publishing industry, we hear, is in trouble. So why would a sensible writer tell people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin? And lately there seems to be a cultural moratorium on saying something “bad” about anyone or anything, unless you’re a politician, in which case that’s your job.
I used to confess that there was a time when I wrote negative reviews. Don’t blame me — I was young! I admit that it provided a wicked sort of fun, especially when I was writing for an editor-friend who delighted in sending me books that weren’t exactly “serious” but got under my skin. Sadly, it’s easier to be witty when one is being unkind. Friends would say, “Oh, I just adored your hilarious essay on that celebrity’s memoir about her fabulous million-dollar face-lift.” And what would they say when I praised a book? Nothing.
Even so, I stopped. I began returning books I didn’t like to editors. I thought, Life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn’t seem like a crime deserving the sort of punitive public humiliation (witch-dunking, pillorying) that our Puritan forefathers so spiritedly administered.
But in the last year or so, I’ve found myself again writing negative reviews — as if, after quitting for three decades, I’d suddenly resumed smoking, or something else I’d forsworn. Once more, it’s a question of what gets under my skin, and of trying to understand why. I’ve begun to think, If something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so.
It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can phone it in, and that no one will know the difference. I’m annoyed by gossip masquerading as biography, by egomaniacal boasting and name-dropping passing as memoir. It irks me to see characters who are compendiums of clichés. I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like “His eyes were as black as night” should feel like an insult, but it does. It’s almost like being lied to. And it troubles me when a critic quotes “His eyes were as black as night” as an example of the author’s lyrical gifts! Needless to say, criticism is a matter of opinion. If, in someone else’s opinion, “His eyes were as black as night” is a lyrical sentence, that person is obviously entitled to enjoy a whole book of sentences like that.
I also tend to react when something about a book strikes me as indicative of an unfortunate trend. Let’s imagine that a book is analogous to a breakfast cereal, and suddenly everyone is claiming that the best breakfast cereal is the sweetest, the most brilliantly colored by toxic dyes. I’d feel obligated to disagree, even if it meant questioning a popular cereal brand or reducing its sales — even (or especially) if I had a personal interest in the future of the cereal industry.
For me, writing a negative review feels like being the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Few of us remember how the tale ends: The child cries out that the emperor is naked, which the emperor knows, but the procession continues anyway, “stiffer than ever.” This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.
Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel “Blue Angel,” a National Book Award nominee, and the guide “Reading Like a Writer,” a New York Times best seller. A new novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” will be published next year. Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harper’s, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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By Zoë Heller
Writers are not kindergartners making potato prints for their parents; they’re grown-ups who present their work to the public.
Zoë Heller Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson
Last fall, the critic Lee Siegel wrote a long blog post for The New Yorker in which he explained his resolve “never to write a negative book review again.” Not long afterward, Isaac Fitzgerald, the newly appointed books editor at BuzzFeed, announced in an interview that he would be instituting a positive-only book review policy at the website. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old-media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.”
A few common themes emerged from the two men’s remarks. Both contended that the bad review was an anachronism, no longer relevant, or even viable, in the Internet era. Both maintained that the signature critical style of our times was compassionate and “generous.” Both felt it was more important to respect and protect an author’s feelings than to pass judgment on an inferior book. “Nowadays,” Siegel observed, “the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something.”
Several writers have since taken issue with these pronouncements. They have questioned the value of criticism that is unable or unwilling to criticize. They have defended the importance of wearisome “abstractions,” and refuted the virtue of putting manners before beliefs. Of course, had these writers followed the compassionate credo that Fitzgerald and Siegel espouse, they would have kept their objections to themselves. They would have considered the possibility that Fitzgerald had worked very hard on formulating his editorial policy; they would have pictured Siegel alone at his desk, shoring up fragments against his ruin. Thus chastened, they would have remained respectfully silent.
Happily, the world is not yet quite so soppy. Because critics were callous enough to disregard the tender psyches of Siegel and Fitzgerald, there has been a public discussion about the nature and purpose of literary judgments. Fitzgerald and Siegel may have been hurt or angered by some of what has been written. But by and large, I would hazard, they are pleased to have had their ideas noticed, to have started a conversation.
This, I would ask them to consider, is how authors feel about being reviewed. Pace Siegel, most writers do not write merely, or even principally, to escape from or console themselves. They write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction. That is why they scrap and struggle, often for years, to have their work published. Being sentient creatures, they are often distressed by what critics have to say about their work. Yet they accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. I know of no self-respecting authors who would ask to be given points for “effort” or for the fact that they are going to die one day.
It is a mistake, then, to characterize the debate about bad reviews as a contest between humane impulses and coldhearted snark. Banning “negativity” is not just bad for the culture; it is unfair to authors. A review, however aggressively unfavorable, is generally obliged to provide supporting evidence for its judgments. It is also published under a byline, signaling to all that it is the work of one fallible human being. This seems an altogether fairer and more accountable way of dealing with a book one deems “bad” than banishing it, without explanation, from public notice. As I understand it, one of the putative virtues of the Internet age is that it has removed power from the elitist gatekeepers of yore and allowed a freer, more democratic range of voices to be heard. Odd therefore that Fitzgerald, a self-styled representative of new-media generosity, should take it upon himself to erase from view that which he does not care for.
Zoë Heller is the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.