Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad Reviews
The new editor of Buzzfeed has just announced that they will do no negative book reviews.
I don’t actually care what Buzzfeed does, I’m just puzzled by this approach. The editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, says it’s based on the Bambi rule, first articulated by Thumper: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” (I know it’s a double negative; Disney rabbit children have NO grammar skills.) That’s a good rule in a specific situation: if you’re chatting socially, be kind or at least polite. What the hell that has to do with book reviews is a puzzle.
A book review, as I understand it, is a report from a reader evaluating the book. The quality of the review depends not only on the quality of the reviewer–understanding of craft, writing ability, etc.–but also on the mindset of the reviewer. A reviewer who takes her work seriously can produce a review that says a book is bad and then back it up with concrete, specific, intelligent reasons why that is so; that bad review is a good review. I think the kind of bad review Fitzgerald is talking about is the bad bad review, the reviews motivated by spite, the ones dripping with self-satisfied bile, the ones based on ignorance (like the PW reviewer who reviewed our collaborative novel, The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, and said, “This would have been better if it had been a novel”). There are too many reviews out there written because the reviewer wanted to show off how cool he was, sneering down at the fiction in order to elevate himself (or herself). Those reviews are toxic, no good for anyone including the reviewer who is spitting acid on his karma. I can see why an editor wouldn’t want that kind of thing on a site he was proud of.
But the “let’s be nice” approach is death to real understanding, I think. All reviews are subjective, but the ones that carefully examine a book and explain the basis for reviewer’s bad opinion can be informative, even educational. (I like reading the one star reviews on Amazon because they not only reveal things about the books, they reveal things about the reviewers; the woman who writes, “This is a terrible book; the author uses bad language and the heroine is a slut,” makes me not only visualize the reviewer as the Church Lady, it makes me want to read the book.) I’ve learned a lot from reviewers who didn’t like my books and told me why; they’ve pointed out weaknesses in my writing and blind spots in my world view. I don’t want those reviewers hobbled; I need them to get better.
But mostly readers need bad reviews, or more to the point, honest reviews. So I think this is a big mistake on Fitzgerald’s part. I think it’s entirely within an editor’s right to say, “Your reviews must be cogent, civil, and well-argued,” but not to say, “Your review must be positive.” Huge difference there.
So now I’m curious. How do you use reviews? Would this approach work for you? That is, do you use reviews to decide what books to read, so an all-good review system would just focus in on the stuff to buy? Or do you need more than a thumbs up when it comes to reviews?