In Defense of the Negative Book Review: Can Hatchet Jobs Build Strong Literary Culture?

by Julienne Isaacs

Julienne Isaacs lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Globe & MailThe Winnipeg ReviewHumber Literary Review, PANK, Full Stop, and other publications. She is reviews editor for Rhubarb magazine and staff writer for The Puritan’s blog, the Town Crier.

As American critic Lee Siegel put it, negative reviewers are supposedly all about “the dark art of the takedown.” The negative reviewer increasingly figures in the popular imagination as someone who sharpens her hatchet only to shred others’ creativity. Is the hatchet job a relic of a bygone era of literary criticism, or is it as crucial as ever? More importantly, should negative reviews always be seen as “hatchet jobs,” or is there room for kindly constructed criticism in Canadian literary culture?

Before we consider arguments for and against negative reviewing, it’s helpful to define the primary task of a literary review. As I see it, the aim of a review is to argue whether or not a given book is worth reading by using plenty of evidence to back the claim. A secondary purpose of the literary review is to situate the book under consideration within or outside the canon by comparing it to related titles.

In Jan Zwicky’s essay “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” reprinted in 2012 by Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, the award-winning poet asks readers to reimagine the literary reviewer as:

a kind of literary naturalist, someone with sharp ears and a good memory, who’s willing to tarry alongside both us and the literary world, for whom any item is of potential interest (some less, some more, to be sure), and who, instead of seeing an award culture’s hierarchy of achievement, hears a living chorus of voices, talking, murmuring, singing to themselves and to others.

Zwicky believes literary reviewing should be “appreciative” rather than critical or deconstructive. “The discipline of the appreciative review is, I believe, among the great unsung arts of our culture,” Zwicky writes. “I suspect it remains unsung because, appearances to the contrary, it is not actually a species of speaking, but a species of listening; and our culture tends to regard listening as a passive activity.” Real listening to Zwicky requires “that we give over our attention fully to the other, that we stop worrying about who’s noticing us, that we let the ego go.” Zwicky assumes that negative literary criticism stems from the reviewer’s mistaken attempts to promote or protect a mythic high standard of literature.

The Invisible Hand of the Literary World

In 2013, Buzzfeed’s new books editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, announced that under his guidance, the Buzzfeed books section would not be publishing negative reviews. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” Fitzgerald asked in an interview with Poynter. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip … The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

There are lots of other reasons not to write negative reviews; for example, consider the fact that the most damning criticism in a saturated market is total silence rather than a dramatic “takedown” that gives a disappointing work more attention than it deserves. Also, as Siegel points out, the negative book review has historically assumed authority on the part of the reviewer, and authority “is a slippery thing” nowadays. Writers of online literary criticism often renounce their authority in order to be authoritative:

There are plenty of young, gifted critics writing fiercely and argumentatively in relatively obscure Web publications. But they are keenly aware that, along with the target of their scrutiny, the source of their own authority is also an object of examination.

When it comes to literary criticism, writerly authority must exist on at least one plane—literary critics have spent more time reading than the average reader and thus have a better-than-average grasp of trends in literature and a better-than-average familiarity with a range of literary voices. In “relatively obscure” venues of online publishing, critics have room to make claims typically flattened by the editorial processes of mainline print publications; these claims are stronger when writers are conscious of their smallness relative to the machine of publishing.

Along literacy’s lengthy timeline, online literary publishing is still in its earliest stages, and so it allows writers a considerable degree of anonymity; however, its writers have quickly learned that obscurity offers only fragile—and temporary—protection in the digital universe. All content is cached if not readily available for consumption. Even if a literary venue on the web is still “relatively obscure,” and a literary critic unfairly lacerates some new title in a review in its pages, those ill-chosen words may later float up from the depths of the Internet and haunt the critic’s career. Negative reviewing poses a risk for the reviewer, no matter the obscurity of the venue.

In ‘relatively obscure venues of online publishing, critics have room to make claims typically flattened by the editorial processes of mainline print publications.

The Puritan potentially fits in the camp Siegel delineates: it’s a “relatively obscure”—again, “relative” is key here—web publication whose writers couldn’t be convinced on a Catherine wheel that their views reflect absolute truth. A thoroughly postmodern liberal arts education in criticism and discourse analysis has taught the last two generations of would-be Canadian reviewers that there is no such thing as total objectivity; the best a reviewer can do is lay hold of her subjectivity and use it to beat out some kind of niche.

The Canadian literary variation on live-and-let-live assumes the cream will rise to the top, the good stuff will last, and the bad stuff will inevitably fade away. The “invisible hand” of the literary world will pluck the wheat from the chaff. According to this narrative, reviewers who perceive their work as sharply evaluative are assuming a power they can’t actualize because it has no root in reality; this is potentially embarrassing for them and damaging to everyone else, especially the author whose work is under consideration.

In Defense of Negative Reviews

However much I agree with Zwicky’s call to “active listening,” the language of “appreciation” should be questioned as it applies to literary criticism. Literary publishing is deeply tied to Internet markets. The tone of digital bookselling is quasi-professional, which is perhaps meant to combat the largely asinine quality of user reviews and ratings. (Fitzgerald’s objection that the web is “overwhelmingly” a positive place is laughable for anyone who’s ever scrolled halfway down any news article’s comments section or Reddit feed.) User reviews and ratings could never be considered “critical.” The Internet’s public forums—on Goodreads, for example—can certainly house valuable engagement with books. But the bulk of the professional talk about books in the digital realm stems from marketing and not from genuine criticism. It can be trusted as little as book blurbs to offer honest feedback on any title.

Let’s hearken back to our original assumption that the primary purpose of reviewing is to recommend the reading of some books before others. The reviewer must be allowed to retain the option of proclaiming some books superior to others in the canon; if this right is denied her, then reviewing has become an extension of marketing, and she has lost credibility.

The language of marketing is that of “appreciation,” and if literary critics adopt appreciation as their primary mode, they have not achieved critical distance from market interests. What’s more, they’re forcing an atmosphere of passivity on an industry that has historically existed to stand as an active counterbalance to the status quo—any status quo. In this new paradigm, consumption is a natural extension of being, and reading is a superior mode of consumption regardless of the text; thus highly critical or evaluative reading figures as inherently subversive to the capitalist goal of ever-increasing consumption. Suggesting that some books should not be read and are not worth purchasing amounts to claiming that satisfaction might not lie beyond the next purchase—that perhaps it is entirely unrelated to the next purchase. Negative reviews allow a book’s purchase price to be disconnected from its actual worth; they offer readers the power to make this disconnection, too.

“ … highly critical or evaluative reading figures as inherently subversive to the capitalist goal of ever-increasing consumption.”

However, this debate is not only about markets; it’s about the self—the writer’s self and the reviewer’s self and how each should be positioned with regard to the project of literature. Siegel argues that the well-being of writers, their efforts “to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something,” is more important than aesthetic or intellectual evaluations of their work.

Siegel’s been appropriately taken to task for the overly precious tone of this argument—Zoe Heller rightly points out that authors choose to put their work into the public arena and need not be handled with kid gloves—but I think it has some merit.

In the limited confines of Canadian literary culture, damning reviews matter. To small-press writers who must already work much harder than writers with mainstream presses to promote their books, negative reviews add insult to injury. Only a handful of books—regardless of the many worthy contenders in the mix—will win prizes and gain national, let alone international, attention. Why should reviewers take the time to lambaste a book that likely isn’t going anywhere?

If the task of literary reviewing is necessarily comparative, and we concede that the reviewer is required by virtue of her position to be honest, she will inevitably have to make statements about the merits of some books relative to others, or she is not doing her job. If she limits her comments to “appreciation,” she has transmuted literary criticism into advertorials without informing her readers. If she sets a writer’s imagined feelings before all else, she is doing a disservice both to the writer and to the industry.

Respect as a Foundation for Criticism

But the strongest industry operates according to best practices. Honesty does not preclude sensitivity. Negative criticism should not be a euphemism for cruelty; it is surely possible for negative reviews to be kindly done.

“Kindness” in this sense could be construed as good faith on the part of the reviewer demonstrated through respect for the author and the author’s intentions for the book. A negative review done well might look something like Lisan Jutras’s recent review of Robin Rinaldi’s memoir The Wild Oats Project, which documents Rinaldi’s experiments in extramarital sexuality.

“It goes without saying that respect should form the foundation on which constructive criticism is built.”

Jutras continually nods to the book’s qualities (“Rinaldi … avoids the pitfall of trying to be coy or adventurous with her language … [S]he is an operatic, reckless narrator, which makes, of course, for great reading”) but ultimately questions the memoir’s overall contribution to the canon as well as the general trend in memoir toward over-sharing:

By normalizing the confessional mode, like these books do, like so much of American culture does (reality TV, talk shows, etc.), something is gained (less stigma) but something is lost. And that something is the essence of intimacy, which is, by definition, something private. What we are getting between the covers is a performance of intimacy. You know where else we find a performance of intimacy? Pornography. What we have now, with this relentlessly explicit genre of memoir, is a pornography of feelings.

Key to respectful reviewing is a demonstrable willingness to attend to the book’s positive qualities and a refusal to let it off the hook when it fails to support its basic premise or even contribute something measurably original and valuable to its genre. It goes without saying that respect should form the foundation on which constructive criticism is built.

It’s also possible that our cultural understanding of what constitutes a genuine critique needs refreshing. In a 2012 Salon conversation between American writers Laura Miller and Daniel Mendelsohn, Miller combats the notion that reviewing is done in service to authors versus readers, and argues that the potential impacts on the author should matter little to critics. Mendelsohn agrees; strongly worded negative reviews, he says, are often misconstrued as “ad hominem” attacks against the authors. “I don’t think people even know what ‘ad hominem’ actually means,” he says. “They just sort of think it’s anything harsh. There are certainly things that are off-limits in reviews but not liking something very strongly is not one of them.”

Reviews are not personal; they are business. They are the business of literary critics, who should be held to the same high standards they champion in the books they read.

Should literary critics throw out the hatchet? Very probably, if it means discarding the vitriol that occasionally clogs the valves of otherwise reasonable negative reviews. The balance between incisive critique and damning criticism might be hard to find although it must be sought. But in the final analysis, a thick skin and a sense of humour are essential qualities for both writers and reviewers.


Julienne Isaacs lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Globe & MailThe Winnipeg ReviewHumber Literary Review, PANK, Full Stop, and other publications. She is reviews editor for Rhubarb magazine and staff writer for The Puritan’s blog, the Town Crier.