I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like “His eyes were as black as night” should feel like an insult, but it does.
In this particular line from this week’s Bookends column written alongside Zoe Heller, Francine Prose encapsulates the value of negative book reviews.
The debate as to whether we need negative book reviews has been raging (as much as any debate about book reviews “rages”) for a few weeks now. Prose and Heller agree that bad book reviews can be a good thing. They’re right, though Heller is a little rough on Isaac Fitzgerald, who has publicly refused to run negative reviews in his new role as books editor for Buzzfeed. Fitzgerald’s decision, and the justification he has given for it, do reek of the earnest positivism in which everything we read online these days should be worthy of upping, but it is not out of range for Buzzfeed. That, and it has a concurrent justification in terms of sheer utility: When someone is choosing between a Buzzfeed book review or one of the 87 other things you can read on any given Buzzfeed page — including, presumably, a post titled 87 Things You Can Read Instead of a Negative Book Review — why ask them to endure a downer?
All that said, I stand firmly with Prose and Heller. I enjoy reading authors who can deliver a deserving takedown, and on occasion I like writing one myself. Granted, the fun pales in comparison to the impatient joy I get when hearing that I absolutely must read a certain book. But having been through an MFA writing program, I recognize bad book reviews as one of the last defenses against novels that are simply recognized for having “strong dialogue” or “an opening line that really hooks readers.”
At any rate, it is refreshing to hear a full-throated defense of high standards. In a world where we accept that The Learning Channel can run “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” the right amount of negativity and rejection can be deeply affirming.
– Michael Moats