Article: Talking Shit (Why Negative Reviews Matter)
By Cody Sexton
I have a rather fortuitous confession to make, but one I suspect most people share, the ones that read anyway: I love to read negative book reviews. The snarkier the better. I don’t particularly care if a book receives 5 stars, I’m only interested in the 1 stars. (I especially enjoy the reviews which veer into the realm of meanness).
The reason for this predilection is a simple one really; they’re just more entertaining. That and I realize that there are just too few 5 star reads in the world, which to me, automatically makes any book rated as such suspect.
But what is there to gain from this negativity, this mockery, this snark? My claim: Everything. Most professional critics do not choose the books they are assigned to review. But they do have control over the tone of those reviews. Being independent of any editor, I on the other hand have complete control over what I choose to read and review. Unfortunately this is still no guarantee that what I end up reading isn’t going to be absolute dog shit. And so I suppose writing a negative review comes to resemble a form of poetic justice directed at someone who has wasted my time. (I take that shit very personally. I feel tricked, even conned. My time is sacrosanct).
Neither do I earn any money from any of the work I do on this site. And I spend almost every night reading, reviewing, and posing questions, excessively. Why? Because my words are all I have to differentiate myself from other reviewers. And I take pride in the belief that my reviews are of a higher standard and quality than most others. Maybe other reviewers are content with being mediocre (that actually seems to be the biggest selling point for most of them) I on the other hand am not. (Am I being too snarky?)
I don’t care. Snark, as Adam Sternbergh has written, is “a form of public conversation” which can also be “useful and utterly necessary.” (For reasons other reviewers seem to ignore or simply fail to comprehend). “Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage. When no one—from politicians to pundits—says what he actually means. Similarly, snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere.” (In other words snark acts as a defense against inheriting, to borrow a term from Holden Caulfield, a “phony” world).
And, as Zoë Heller has claimed: “Refusing to be “negative” is not just bad for the culture; it is unfair to authors.” Why? Because in order to be taken seriously, one must be willing to be judged. (The only group of people we exempt from judgement is children). A writer must, Heller writes, “accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. I know of no self-respecting authors who would ask to be given points for “effort” or for the fact that they are going to die one day.” (Lauren Oyler even said in a recent interview: “If you’re somebody that nobody’s criticizing, nobody’s taking you very seriously.”)
Nevertheless, there exists a whole cottage industry of reviewers who are nothing if not positive, praising the authors they review because they are all part of the same community. (And give each other little heart emojis and shoutouts on social media every goddamn chance they get. They are a very cliquey bunch. But, who isn’t on Twitter).
These reviewers see themselves as trend setters or influencers (yuck!) and attempt to be gate keepers who build moronic platforms as shrines to mediocrity. Yet, in spite of all their supposed virtue signaling, sometimes they’re passive aggression does manage to shine through with a few emblematic 3 star ratings. Rarely will they ever go lower. (How valuable can their opinions be if they are unable or unwilling to criticize someone seriously?)
“For me, writing a negative review feels like being the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Writes Francine Prose. “Few of us remember how the tale ends: The child cries out that the emperor is naked, which the emperor knows, but the procession continues anyway, “stiffer than ever.” This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.”
Therefore, my advice to any would be reviewer, or seasoned reviewers for that matter, is two fold: 1) Do not join any community. And 2) Stay independent. If you respect your readers, if you respect yourself, and especially if you respect the work itself, you cannot do otherwise. (I don’t care what your friend who only ever reads one goddamn genre and spends most of his time sucking off the few YouTube subscribers he has, says about it either. They’re obviously not that well rounded of a reader, and until they are, will never have a valid view of anything save some commonplace babble. The likes of which will most likely revolve around: Fantasy, horror, or Harry fucking Potter).
Understand: The critics who engage in snark are smart, informed, demanding, and passionate people. (I enjoy and practice it myself). And I hope to at least have halfway defended it’s use here. Because, for me, snark can never not be compelling. Nor can it ever not be important.
Cody Sexton is the managing editor for A Thin Slice of Anxiety. His work has been featured at The Indie View, Writer Shed Stories, The Diverse Perspective, Detritus, Revolution John, Due Dissidence, and As It Ought To Be Magazine where he is a regular contributor. In addition he is also a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee for his pioneering essay The Body of Shirley Ann Sexton.