Naomi Frisby is one of the best new bloggers out there and her latest post got me thinking. Segued into her review of a book she clearly wasn’t convinced by, Frisby writes of ‘an on-going discussion in the blogosphere as to whether or not you should write negative reviews of books’ and although she didn’t care for the novel under discussion she concludes that ‘it’s my problem, not the book’s’ and that reviewers should write negative reviews ‘with the proviso that they’re critical discussions within which the reviewer registers their own schema/bias’.
I’ve been reviewing books for more than a little bit, and most of these reviews were positive. On the occasions I’ve felt compelled to absolutely hatchet job something, I did it for various reasons: Jonathan Coe’s Number Eleven because I loved his other books so much and was so disappointed with his new one, it was more sorrow than anger, as they say. With other titles – John Lanchester’s Capital or David Goodhart’s The British Dream – I was dismayed and confused by the reverent reception accorded to what I believe were genuinely bad, lazy books, so wanted to offer a countercritique.
The delicate phrasing of Frisby’s piece and the qualifiers she introduces give an idea of the sensitivity around critical reviewing. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a feeling of ‘don’t rock the boat’. The literary world is small, and you never know who you’re going to share an agent or publisher with, who will be on the panel for that top lectureship, or that grants body, or that prize committee. If you don’t have anything nice to say, try saying nothing, for who knows what social embarrassment or career reversals may occur? (The potential for this kind of mishap is satirised to fine effect in Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, where the novel’s career hatchet-job artist R. Tranter has to undergo a grovelling turnaround when he is up for a major book award.)
Falling literary sales and the workshop boom also mean that literary scenes are prescribed as mutually supportive environments where to criticise is seen as bad form. It is rare these days to see an openly critical review in the books pages, unless the book under consideration is something genuinely ridiculous by a public or political figure. I can’t even remember the last time I read a hatchet job on a lit blog. The Omnivore’s brilliant Hatchet Job award seems to have fallen over in 2014 and the only other prize that highlights bad writing, the Bad Sex Award, is often criticised itself for being too negative and is looking more and more vulnerable.
I can understand why people are reluctant to really go for a bad book. I agree with critics when they ask how they can bring themselves to demolish in 700 words what might have taken the author two or three years of hard work. And then there’s the backlash for the reviewer: on some occasions I have slammed a book I’ve had feedback from the author’s fans that calls into question not only my literary judgement, or my reading comprehension, but my worth as a human being. I don’t want to portray myself as a ‘victim of internet trolls’ – I just want to try and illustrate how sensitive critical reviewing can be sometimes.
Sure, there’s enough negativity in the world. Think of how many times in the workplace you have heard a manager criticise someone for ‘being negative’. Managers do this for good reasons: at work, if everyone is sitting around bitching and moaning, nothing gets done. I want to ask, though – do we want the literary world to be a workplace? Surely, to paraphrase Julian Morrow, what we do should not be work: it should be ‘the most glorious kind of play.’
Presenting a united front at all times may seem like smart politics but it doesn’t make the negativity go away. The negativity just moves out of the public domain and into whispers, texts, emails, messenger and DMs. And not always: have you noticed how the people who insist on that united positivity are so often the same people who become very censorious and negative when told something they don’t want to hear.
All of which is my way of reiterating that it is dissension, disagreement, anger and derision that keep us interested, and keep the blood pounding, in art as well as in life. All of us at some point have committed bad writing to print or screen. Let’s be called out on it, and learn from it, and hunt the next atrocity down. And go for a drink afterwards, because although we may be furious and disagreeable as writers we are most often very nice and well mannered people and this is, of course, England!