The Point of the Review

A couple of years ago, when writing a review of a rather thin offering by a respectable scholar, I found myself struggling to keep from becoming snide and catty. I had learned that writing a professional review is quite different from tossing off cutting remarks on a blog post; I felt I had a responsibility to give my readers information useful in their own decision-making and had come to understand that a review is not simply an opportunity to preen and attack. After all, no one is going to read a book review I write because of me; they are going to read it because they already have an interest in the subject or the author and want to decide whether or not to pursue the particular volume.

Bob Garfield, whose On the Media NPR show is a favorite of mine, has a snarky piece on the op-ed page of The New York Times today about BuzzFeed‘s decision to ban negative book reviews. He sees this as bringing “us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news; and second, diet bacon.”

He’s got a point. But it really isn’t quite so simple.

The only thing a bad review has ever done for me is give me a chuckle and drive me away. I’ve missed plenty of good shows and have delayed experiencing numerous fine movies and books all because I accepted the opinion in a takedown. These days, I ignore bad reviews as completely as I do raves. Neither tends to provide me useful information for deciding whether or not I want to experience the subject work; they both say more about the writer than about the subject. Few of them are any more useful that the comment on my book on Quentin Tarantino’s movies: “It’s not really a Bio type of book. It’s a writer’s interpretation of Tarantino’s films. Basically a much of babling.”

I review occasionally for the American Library Association’s periodical of short reviews, Choice. It’s an interesting exercise and one I enjoy a great deal: The reviews are limited to 190 words and are expected to be informative, not negative. After all, these are used by librarians in making book-purchase choices and the question is whether or not the book could be useful or of interest to the particular clientele of the library. This has led to a new standard even for my judgment of longer reviews: If I am finding out too much about the reviewer or have to wade through too much of a particular reader’s point-of-view, I will put the review down. Only in the rare case of a review by someone of more interest to me than the book/movie/play under consideration will I keep going when the article turns into attack or effusive praise.

Even when it is the reviewer who is of interest… maybe even more so then, we need to be careful as we read. Sometimes a review can become more famous than the work under question, doing damage to reputations of authors and works without even really addressing those authors and works. Somerset Maugham, though he remains one of the most popular of the 20th century writers in English worldwide, has never had his reputation revive in America since the time Edmund Wilson called him “second-rate” (“Somerset Maugham and an Antidote,” The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, 96-99). And B. F. Skinner’s provocative and useful Verbal Behavior has never recovered from a well-known negative review by Noam Chomsky that, as both Chomsky and Skinner have admitted, had little to do with the book itself.

At the same time, I do understand what Garfield is getting at. Certainly, on a site like BuzzFeed, which says it “powers the social distribution of content, detects what is trending on the web, and connects people in realtime with the hottest content of the moment,” there is room (or should be) for the negative… just as there needs to be on Amazon. What bugs Garfield, it seems, is that new BuzzFeed Book Section editor Isaac Fitzgerald says he “will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.’”

There is certainly a time for cattiness. Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me” has an important place in our popular culture. But we don’t need it everywhere, and the pan isn’t a necessary part of a useful set of reviews. On a site like BuzzFeed, in addition, there is plenty of room for that in the comments.

Though I grant Garfield his point (we don’t need to dumb ourselves down further by relentless pollyannaism), my sympathy remains with Fitzgerald. After all, it is much easier to smack something down than to discuss it reasonably, faults and all, providing enough for the reader to make her or his own decision without intrusion–and a section of reviews in any publication should encourage the difficult, not the facile, something I think both Garfield and Fitzgerald would admit to be true.

That review I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the one that I struggled with? It took a great deal of work, much more than if I had simply gone with my initial negative reaction–and, as I worked, I began to better understand the book I was reviewing, seeing that it did indeed have strengths as well as its obvious weaknesses. The journal editor wrote back, once I submitted my review, telling me that it was “informative, nicely written, and, I suspect, kind to the author.”

That, to me, is what a review should be.

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