In defense of criticism
It happens with regularity. A newly published book will receive a negative or even a mixed review in a major newspaper or magazine (the New York Times is the usual culprit). Soon enough, there is outrage among authors — on Twitter, on Facebook, in letters to the editor. How does the outlet choose their reviewers, how dare they have given the assignment to such a terrible person, how could they run such a review?
The most recent case I got to watch in real time involved Becca Rothfeld’s review of Rebecca Mead’s Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return for, you guessed it, the New York Times.
Rothfeld begins her review with a standard move, the gesture towards the Zeitgeist, in this case, the Zeitgeist consisting of people knocking memoirs simply because they think it is self-indulgent to tell the story of one’s own life. After describing the dismissive way other people treat memoir as a genre, Rothfeld argues, in contrast, that “a book is justified by its quality, not its subject.”
Her review of Mead’s memoir is mixed. It is clear that she considers Mead a fine observer and writer, but she doesn’t think the book holds together. It’s possible to argue that Rothfeld still falls prey to some bias against life writing in her review; her issue ultimately seems to be that the tenuous thread holding Home/Land together is Mead’s own point of view. Maybe that’s an unfair criticism, to call a memoir to task for being too personal. On the other hand, surely it is fair to ask that a book have some kind of structure that’s coherent to an intelligent reader.
But I don’t think that’s really why writers reacted so badly to this review. Quite plainly, many seem to have misread the rhetorical introduction. Luckily, I don’t have to refer to social media posts here, because someone wrote a letter to the editor complaining about Rothfeld’s review. The letter quotes some bits from the review that are — I should think obviously — not Rothfeld’s opinion, but part of the trend she is describing. It concludes, “don’t invite these bullies to play on our part of the literary playground.”
Y’all, I have so many thoughts.
Let me begin by showing my hand. I have been reviewing books for general interest publications pretty regularly since 2018 — about thirty-five reviews in that time, ranging from 450-word mini-reviews for the back of a publication to nearly 4000-word essays dedicated to a single book. I have, in this time, never accepted a review thinking I was likely to hate the book. Not once. Not one single time. I have a day job, I have a deep desire to please people that I’m working out in expensive weekly conversations, and I love books. It just wouldn’t make sense to me to take on extra work that would put me in the — for me extremely uncomfortable — position of writing something negative about someone else’s work in public.
Add to that a few more factors: I know how difficult it is to write. I know how painful it is to receive criticism, just or not. (The first time I sent an article to a scholarly journal the journal sat on it for a year and then sent me a dismissive and unhelpful report — the experience crushed my confidence so much it took me ages to send the work out again. The reverberations continued for years. I get it.) I think everyone should write as much as they like, in whichever genres they like. I believe a civilized society supports its artists and its artistic institutions financially. And I really think the knee-jerk bias against memoir is sexist and racist and has more to do with silencing certain voices than with literary quality.
Also, sometimes there is the occasional review that’s a clear mismatch between reviewer and topic, or where the reviewer’s prejudice shows in telling ways. I am thinking right now of the justly infamous reviewer of the movie Turning Red who couldn’t imagine that many people would find a story about Chinese-Canadians interesting — never questioning how much of the world finds stories about white, non-immigrant Americans “relatable” or even particularly interesting. I hope we can agree that this kind of review is not only unfair to the creators, but of zero value to the potential audience of a work. It adds nothing to the public conversation. There is also no point in having someone review a genre which they fundamentally dislike.
But beyond obviously flawed cases such as this one, I have to ask: can we still have criticism that is honest and nuanced? What I am seeing now in some reactions to negative or mixed reviews is an inability to tolerate anything that is not 100%, unabashed, unwavering cheerleading. (Hence: “playground,” with its unwitting suggestion that authors are a group of toddlers who have to play nice or else someone will have a tantrum.)
One could say: “look, the business is so difficult, authors have put so much of their blood and sweat and tears and passion into the work, maybe only positive reviews should be published.” But here is the thing. Reviews are not for authors. They do not exist to earn the author money, or plaudits, or to keep them from waking up at 3 am and staring at the ceiling, wondering what their life has amounted to and if they should see a doctor about that itch. Reviews are primarily for readers to decide if they want to invest their time and money into reading the book. Authors are entitled to write, but we are not necessarily entitled to anyone’s money or attention. We have to earn it, just like anyone else.
If authors want to read only glowing praise of their books — well, that’s what endorsements are for. If criticism can’t criticize, it might as well not exist at all.
This is a pretty standard defense of honest criticism, but there are a few more elements I think are missing from the conversation. First, I have never seen these kinds of discussions take into account length or type of review. A review that clocks in at 350 or even 600 words is more of a service piece. It’s also hard (at least for me) to do a responsible mixed review at this length. If I am reviewing a book in this many words, and I generally think it’s strong, I will focus on what’s good about it. Otherwise the negatives would be given disproportionate weight. I have to really, really dislike a book to give it a negative review at that length — and even then, I will probably do it merely by stating the facts in a way that makes my point of view clear.
The longer a review, however, the more space there is for a detailed discussion of the work’s strengths and weaknesses. And I would say at the longer end — above 3000 words — it is very difficult to write a review that is uninterrupted encomium. For that length I will read the book a few times, try to read into the author’s previous body of work, try to get a sense both of the form and the argument or ethos of the book. Almost invariably this means I will notice cracks, structural issues that don’t make sense even after multiple readings, places where the author maybe even seems to be fighting against their own intention.
When I point this out, it doesn’t mean I think the book was terrible and should never have been written. It also doesn’t mean I think other people shouldn’t buy the book or read it. Pointing out that a work of art is imperfect does not mean I think it shouldn’t exist in the world. It may well delight others for very good reasons. If anything, I often find imperfect works more interesting to think about, more exciting to discuss than flawless ones.
If I truly found a book worthless upon reading it the first time, I would not write almost four thousand words about it. When I spend that much time on a book, it is an act of love: an attempt to understand what the author was trying to achieve on their own terms, and how I as a reader received that gift. It is also a strange sort of intimacy. Sometimes I wonder if the author knows some of the secrets they have revealed between the lines.
But I think when people get angry about an insufficiently enthusiastic review, they imagine the most extreme possible position: that the reviewer wants that book to be deleted, cancelled, pffft, gone. And maybe there are jaded full-time critics who just can’t stand wading through the latest variation on a tired trend, and would like that trend to stop. But I have to believe that most people who write about books love books, and want authors and the book industry as a whole to thrive. I also have to believe that most critics understand that theirs is one judgement among many. This is why we have many people writing criticism, after all.
This letter has already been longer than I expected, but I have two more things to say. Mixed — or yes, even negative — reviews teach us more. They teach me, as a writer, more. When a critic — a fair, careful critic — wants to say something bad about a book, they need to find more precise language to explain what went wrong. Sometimes it’s really not so easy to articulate why a book felt flat despite, say, having brilliant prose or a stunning concept.
Raves, on the other hand, are often written in a kind of formless lyrical prose that promises ecstasies without getting much into the how and why. You know this rhetoric: it’s the same one you find in the endorsements, and its defining characteristic is that it can be written by someone who hasn’t even read the book.
And the final note, since I promised we were getting to the end. The much-maligned New York Times? They are the only publication I’ve reviewed for that asked me if I had a relationship with the author or publishing house before allowing me to take on an assignment. Think about that for a moment: they try, at least, to prevent a conflict of interest in their reviewing. A lot of writers know each other and a lot of writers share publishers. Now think about what an unqualified rave might mean in every publication where that isn’t the case.
I usually ask a question at the end of each newsletter, but I think it would be most in the spirit of this letter to invite criticism! So have at it — what did I get wrong? What did I miss?
Speaking of imperfection, Times Higher Education invited me and others to share some of our worst teaching moments.
Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Len Gutkin and I had a chat about some of the reasons scholars find it hard to break away from the herd.