Thursday, January 9, 2014

Writing Reviews: Negativity

The tag line for The King’s Crier: Book Reviews is “Book Reviews without Snark”. I’ve never been clear on what that means, though. Since the site started in the summer of 2012, I have not written an incendiary, negative review of a book. There have been parts of books I haven’t enjoyed and those are reflected in the reviews. Writing scathing reviews serves no purpose other than to satisfy the reviewer’s superiority complex.

I’ve spent years reading reviews for every entertainment medium. My favorite reviewer was the late Roger Ebert. For decades Ebert wrote effective, biting prose, making the often incomprehensible language of film accessible to the general public. He didn’t love every movie. In fact, Ebert was well-known for publishing disparaging reviews of films he hated sitting through. He even published a book Your Movie Sucks, which compiled many of his negative reviews.
For Ebert and critics of his caliber, a negative review attacked the product, not the producers. For some reviewers though, it is more important to appear superior to the producers of a given product. Insults, snark, or general disrespect are used not to criticize the work but to demean the person or persons behind it. Now this is not to say that performance-based critiques serve no purpose. For writers and actors, a criticism of performance is necessary, but a line is crossed when a reviewer resorts to personal attacks. Hyperbolic, polemic attacks are not criticism; rather, it is simply an excuse for the critic to stroke their ego at someone else’s expense.
Up to this point in my blogging, I’ve avoided writing fully negative reviews. If I don’t like a book, I simply don’t review it. That policy has put me in difficult spots before with my stated schedule. I’ve had reviews due and read a book that I couldn’t bring myself to write a glowing review of. This usually meant having to speed read a new book or push back the review entirely.
That policy changes as of now.
Going forward, unless I’ve made a prior arrangement with the author, if I read a book, I will post a review. Whether I like the book or not doesn’t matter. This doesn’t mean reviews will be entirely negative but I’m sure that’s going to happen sooner or later. The change in policy has been on my mind for months now. Primarily, this is my free time spent on these reviews. I work a regular job to pay my bills. I buy the books I review, even the ones I’ve been asked to review. I do these reviews because I love reading as much as I love writing. Combining the two is a natural fit. The other factor is that doing only positive or complimentary reviews seems dishonest to me. I don’t like every book I read, for any number of reasons. I can forgive missteps if I enjoyed the overall experience. If I find a book unenjoyable I have a personal responsibility to be honest about it.

I’m also aware of the shifting nature of criticism. My words are not gospel and should not be treated as such. I’m just an opinionated man with a keyboard and an internet connection. Criticism should be a guidepost, not a leash. I encourage disagreement because it’s necessary for art. Disagreement breeds contemplation and conversation. Art is subjective and my tastes are not always going to align with others. I enjoyed American Psycho, for instance, which is a book many find irredeemably trashy. I just want to be an honest critic. No snark is required for that. 

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