Monday, February 17, 2014

On Writing Negative Reviews of Books

Writers Francine Prose and Zoe Heller, in yesterday's New York Times Book Review (2/16/14, p. 31), discuss an important topic about book criticism/reviews: should negative book reviews be published? Prose writes that when she was a young reviewer, she sometimes gleefully skewered books she was reviewing; she then resolved not to review books she considered bad, and continued that policy for 30 years. Recently she has rethought that stance; she has decided that if a book is bad, “life is too short not to say so.” She goes on to say that “It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can just phone it in, and that no one will know the difference.” (Note that an example of Prose’s new practice is her recent takedown of Donna Tartt’s new novel, “Goldfinch”; I wrote on 2/7/14 about that review, and how I felt vindicated by it because of my similar reservations about the book.) Heller concurs with Prose’s stance on negative reviews, stating that although negative reviews can be distressing, writers need and even want to receive rigorous criticism. They are, after all, “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 agree with these two writers. And although I do not claim to be a “critic” or even a “reviewer,” even in my much humbler role as a reader sharing her reading experiences and her responses to what she reads, I soon came to realize that I should not write only about the books I thought were excellent, but about the others I read that were perhaps good in some ways but lacking in others, and about the occasional truly bad book. (Here I want to give credit to my friend Mary V., who soon after I began the blog, encouraged me to write about the bad as well as the good.)


  1. You do a wonderful job of respectfully discussing the good and the not-so-good, Steph. But I still think about how devastating it might be for a serious writer--especially a newly-published writer--to have her work torn apart by a critic in, say, the New York Times.

  2. I know, that must be so hard. I don't know what the answer is. I guess just some sense of balance.


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