Monday, January 23, 2012

In defence of the favourable (aka "dull") review

You may have heard about the Hatchet Job of the Year Award, a newly instituted prize for “the writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months”. The official manifesto – which I read with much interest – says the aim is to improve the standards of professional criticism and to encourage greater honesty in book reviewing.

That sounds like a good cause: I approve of anything that seeks to raise the profile of reviewing and to remind us that good criticism must aspire towards being good literature in its own right. But I was puzzled by some of the phrasing in the manifesto and in news reports about it. Consider this quote from an editor of the Omnivore website, which instituted the prize: “We are celebrating reviews that are well written, that have a point, that are insightful and also are entertaining. There are too many reviews that are a bit bland.”

Implicit here is the idea that negative reviews are the ones most likely to be “well-written” and “entertaining”, and that positive reviews are dull. There is a sliver of truth in this. Almost anyone who has reviewed professionally for some time knows that writing a snarky negative review is usually more fun – and more satisfying as a writer – than doing a favourable one. The tools of language tend to aid the angry critic more than the benevolent critic: the former has a broader and more exciting range of adjectives and analogies at his disposal; there are more opportunities to write inventive, showy prose. For similar reasons, almost anyone will find a well-written negative review more fun to read – and more impressive – than a well-written favourable review.

More problematic, though, is the widespread tendency to think of unfavourable reviews as automatically more sincere or authoritative. In his seminal essay “Towards a Theory of Film History”, written in the 1960s, Andrew Sarris noted the popular perception that the toughest reviewers were the best reviewers. “A reputation is made and measured by the percentage of movies the reviewer pans. The more movies panned, the more ‘honest’ the reviewer. Everyone knows how assiduously the movie companies seek to corrupt the press. Hence, what better proof of critical integrity than a bad notice?” Things haven’t changed much since then. A phrase commonly used in the reports I’ve read about the Hatchet Job award is “ promote integrity”.

I admit a slight bias when it comes to this subject. My own attitude towards reviewing doesn’t involve a perception of myself as a cultural watchdog or an arbiter of taste, sternly telling people what they should or should not read. (A good reviewer with a breadth of reading experience will inevitably help some readers set standards for themselves over a period of time, but that’s another matter.) My main “responsibility”, as I see it, is to be honest about my feelings and to express them as clearly as possible. And the books that I find it most rewarding to write about are the ones that stimulated me in a largely positive way. (When I don’t care for a book, it feels like an unconscionable waste of time to do a review of it – I’ve already squandered too many precious hours reading it. In any case, if I haven’t already committed to doing a review, I might not bother to finish a book that doesn't hold my interest.)

Just to be clear, I’m not implying that there is anything inherently worthier about a positive review. Good reviews are the ones that are honest, informed and well-written, irrespective of whether they are complimentary or scathing. But I do often get the impression that favourable reviews are underappreciated (by people other than the reviewed author and his publishers, that is!). All power to the Hatchet Award – may their shortlists provide us with much entertainment in the years ahead, and also encourage professional reviewers to look deep into their hearts before getting down to their work. But equally, I hope that the publicity attached to the prize doesn’t tempt some writers to suppress the good things they see in a book, in an overzealous effort to write a hatchet review.

[Did a version of this for my Sunday Guardian column]


  1. Excellent. Enjoyed reading this honest piece.

  2. I take great pains to read only good books.. then my reviews are also bound to be on the positive side. I guess it'll be hard to win that award :(

  3. I take great pains to read only good books

    Riku: didn't get this. How do you know beforehand which books are "good"? Or did you mean that you don't continue reading a book if you don't like it?

    Lakshmi: thanks

  4. A beautiful piece, Jai. I believe it's a pretty complex matter. I could write tomes on this one, going by personal experience and the kinds of reviews (polar-opposites) our own publications have received. :)

    It's true that the world likes conflict; it likes the negative, the terrible, the controversial. And so, sometimes, even when one is impelled to be honest and say good things about a book, one perhaps feels compelled to say otherwise for the fear of sounding dull and spineless. I wonder why sheer nastiness is equated to having a spine.

    And then there is often so much meanness and spite that's allowed to pass off as acceptable under the guise of honesty. It's a real pity that few people care about an honest positive review.

    Quite complicated.

  5. Enjoyed reading this post! I'm a bit like you in that I prefer writing about books that I actually like, rather than pan ones that I hated (although I have done that as well). In fact, I find myself regarding negative reviews with great wariness. I often wonder if the writer is motivated more by a desire to show off his or her writing chops, than to actually give a balanced view. It's something that I have, regrettably, done in professional capacity many times.

  6. I agree, it is rather difficult to write a review of a book which does not inspire you in some way. Being an amateur reviewer (I post on my blog only) I am sometimes at a loss to comment on a book. Should I talk about the plot, the character, the style of writing or my own feelings?
    If it's possible, can you let me know of some books which can help me improve my reviewing skills?

  7. True that the literary tools available are possibly skewed in favour of the critic writing a negative review. ( Though there was nothing in the text you quoted which implied that the award committee encouraged negative reviews.) A lot of people read reviews as others read books - for sheer literary merit as much as for information. It'd be great if you could recommend a few reviewers who fit the bill - maybe people you look up to? Also if we look beyond literary/cinema criticism, the late 60s-mid 80s era spawned many music critics who were fantastic to read (many of them admittedly Lester Bangs-clones). Nick Hornby would be a more contemporary example (of interesting criticism).

  8. Divya: thanks. I think it's worth reiterating though that there always should be space for the honest scathing review. And it's inevitable that such reviews will exist when there are critics who have a very deep level of engagement with literature and whose standards are therefore higher than those of "casual" readers (or less-well-read reviewers). I myself tend to be a little more "critical" when it comes to films, and that's largely because my knowledge of cinema is deeper than my knowledge of literature.

    You're right about it being complicated though. And I can't stop rolling my eyes when someone I know reads a negative review and says, "Now there's a reviewer who tells it like it is" - as if to suggest that anyone who had the temerity to like the book is necessarily corrupt or incompetent.

  9. Interesting. :)