In recent months, I’ve heard a great many thoughts on negative reviews. I’ll credit one of the best ideas to both Ryan Oakley, author Technicolour Ultra Mall, and Leah Petersen, author of Fighting Gravity. During a panel on criticism at Ad Astra 2012, a panel moderated by yours truly, both Oakley and Petersen suggested that leaving an inferior novel/film/game/whatever to languish in obscurity can sometimes be a better course of action than constructing a negative, albeit fair, review.

At that same convention I had a quick conversation with Sandra Kasturi, co-editor of ChiZine Publications, on the subject of criticism. Therein, she told me a critic should not be afraid to speak their mind as it is their job to assign value to a given work.

When I began writing reviews I found guidance in the writings of W.H. Auden, who framed criticism as something most useful when it calls attention to things worth attending to.

In an alternate timeline where I’m a “professional” critic, in the sense that I work for a publication and use words which elucidate critical thought for a living, I think it would be easy to craft the above mentioned philosophies into a set of grand critical principles. As an “amateur” critic, the issue is slightly more complicated.

Where “professional” critics are always going to receive gratis review materials, not to mention a fortified buffer zone from the subject under review via their publication, the amateur critic’s inclusion in the great game is dependent upon the good will of the publishers. Thus the “amateur” must broach the thin plaid line of negative reviews. In theory, a well crafted review, either positive or negative, speaks to the talent, experience, and ability of the critic in question. In reality, the publisher-critic relationship is about advertising, and no publisher is going to want to work with an “amateur” who makes one of their authors/game studios/clients look like a douche.

So that’s when you default to something that resembles the aforementioned Petersen-Oakley approach of occasionally leaving bad things to rot without comment, right?

Well, maybe. If a critic receives unsolicited review materials, they have every right to say thanks but no thanks. I did that once when a porn studio asked me to review one of their movies.

However, if said critic opts not to put pen to paper, then they probably aren’t going to see anything in the future from that publisher. To my previous example, nobody from the adult entertainment industry has solicited me since I said no to writing a detailed review of their Spartacus porno. (Come on, what would I say in a porn review? Offer commentary on the grunting and thrusting?)

If a critic asks a publisher for a review copy of a book/game/whatever, there’s an implicit, bordering on explicit, expectation that the work in question is going to get reviewed. A failure to complete the transaction on the part of the critic will likely yield the same result as producing a negative review: the end of the association between critic and publisher.

The equation is further complicated when self-published authors and independent productions enter the fray. Suppose a self-published author sends an “amateur” critic their debut novel. The critic then uses their review to demonstrate the inherent flaws of the text, warning potential readers away from investments in time and money. Under the Kasturi model, the critic has done their job. In theory, this is a good thing. In reality, a person who can write has held a person who can’t write to task for their inability to write. Some people (friends, family, fans of the author in question, and bored internet trolls) might be inclined to label that sort of treatment as a very public bullying.

Scenarios such as these contribute to what I see as a troublesome culture of positivity among the ranks of “amateur” critics. Beyond tiring both body and mind with a perpetual good will truffle-shuffle, this positive culture can cripple an “amateur” critic’s transition into the “professional” realm. Ask yourself this, how long would a New York Times book critic last if they loved everything? Would Ebert still be writing film reviews for the Chicago Sun Times if he praised every movie? Such a perpetually positive critic would quickly forfeit their perceived position as arbiter of taste, instead becoming something of a fanboy/girl, or worse, a paid stooge. Why would any editor want to hire such a writer? Furthermore, and even if people don’t want to admit it, readers love a scathing review.

A good negative review, that is to say one that knows how to challenge art without attacking the artist, is a spectacle in and of itself. It’s the reader-writer equivalent of a trip to the Coliseum. The negative review allows opportunities for revelling in collective contempt; those requiring evidence on that point should check the view count on Gilbert Gottfried’s reading from Fifty Shades of Grey. Similarly, the negative review can turn fans of the lampooned work into the most fervent advocates. At that point, a debate about the quality of the work often becomes a secondary concern. The focus shifts to proving the critic wrong and in the process mobilizing/recruiting others to that end. Go ahead and call out Stephenie Meyer and see just how quickly the Twihards assemble and more importantly proselytize. The same could be said for Community fans – myself among them. Say something bad about Dan Harmon within earshot of me and I’ll spend the next twenty minutes explaining why he is a visionary.

 

Thus we return to the Petersen-Oakley model where the bad review still promotes the work in question. Despite that reality, and the truism that any press is good press, there exists a limiting structure that shifts dominion over negative reviews to “professional” critics. The internet may have mobilized an army of well trained and highly skilled “amateurs”, but those critics risk biting the hand that feeds them should they dare to do their jobs and write like “professionals”.